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Yellowstone National Park Bison Agreement: How Big A Step Forward Is It?


If 1,200 Yellowstone National Park bison are led off to slaughter next winter, will it matter that 25 were saved? Kurt Repanshek photo.

If the winter of 2008-09 is as severe as this slowly retreating winter, will it matter that 25 Yellowstone National Park bison have been saved from slaughter while another 1,200 or so are trucked to their death? Those paying $2.8 million to gain grazing rights to a ranch just north of Yellowstone think so.

"We see this as a huge, significant step to build off of," Tim Stevens, who runs the Yellowstone field office for the National Parks Conservation Association, told me Thursday after the deal was announced. "This opens the door to bison moving onto thousands of acres of public and private land that they haven't had access to for many, many years."

Twenty-five bison get to pass through that door next year, and perhaps 100, maybe more, in each of the succeeding years under the 30-year deal that pays the Church Universal and Triumphant nearly $100,000 a year to watch grass grow on land that fed roughly 200 cattle this past year. At the same time, during winters as long, cold, and snowy as this past one, 1,200 or more bison could be loaded onto trucks at Yellowstone's Stephens Creek bison capture facility and shipped to slaughter because of unsubstantiated fears.

The fears that Yellowstone bison might spread brucellosis, an infectious disease that can cause livestock to abort their fetuses, are unsubstantiated because there has yet to be a documented case of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle in the wild. Scientists disagree on whether it's even possible, as the following from Yellowstone's background materials on brucellosis points out.

Scientists and researchers disagree on even some of the most basic factors influencing the risk of transmission. These include whether studies on cattle are applicable to bison, whether controlled studies are applicable in the field, and the best ways to conduct additional research to determine the risk of transmission.

These disagreements and a paucity of information on brucellosis in bison make it impossible to quantify the risk of B. abortus transmission from bison (and elk, although the environmental impact statement does not analyze brucellosis in elk) in the Yellowstone area to domestic livestock.

Despite those uncertainties, the transmission concern in part was deemed significant enough to write the church a check for nearly $3 million with hopes it would buy bison, sometime during the not-too-distant future, the ability to resume their traditional, genetically instilled, migratory habits.

"This is a significant step forward for Yellowstone bison," Amy McNamara, the national parks program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, told me. "It doesn't solve everything at once, but it moves us forward."

Twenty-five bison will pass through that door next year... once their blood has been tested to ensure they're not carrying brucellosis, and once the cows have been fitted with "vaginal telemetry devices," whatever those might be. Doesn't sound comfortable.

At Yellowstone, spokesman Al Nash too called the deal with the church "a step forward."

"It's an important step forward, but this is not the end game," Mr. Nash added. "And we're not going to suggest that it's the end game. But frankly, we've been stalled for eight years moving this plan forward, and we've been asked when we're going to move the plan forward, and that day is today."

But is it? It comes roughly eight years after the Interagency Bison Management Plan was agreed upon by the National Park Service, the state of Montana, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service as the preferred management tool for ensuring that the park's bison don't transmit brucellosis to Montana's cattle.

Negotiated by the state of Montana, (which had a decidedly vested interest in the matter and yet is not digging terribly deep into its own pockets to help make this deal happen), the deal announced Thursday costs the cash-strapped National Park Service $1.5 million while the Forest Service and APHIS contribute ... nothing. A coalition of non-governmental organizations -- the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the NPCA, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Montana Wildlife Federation -- has agreed to somehow pony up another million by fall. The state of Montana presumably will toss in the difference.

As for other components of Thursday's announcement that brought Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis to Bozeman -- requirements for bison-proof fencing to separate bison from cattle, allowances for bison heading west out of the park, a requirement that the three states surrounding Yellowstone work collaboratively to develop a brucellosis immunization for livestock -- well, there are none. It's simply cash on the barrel head.

"It's important to point out it's 25 bison the first year, the second year it could be up to 100," said NPCA's Stevens. "And in ensuing years we're hopeful that it will be significant numbers more than that."

The same message was voiced by Ms. McNamara at Greater Yellowstone.

"We aren't claiming this will bring the slaughter to an end," she said. "With this deal, we will begin with a small number and move up."

Among those not sharing the optimism is the Buffalo Field Campaign, which believes the deal is atrocious. This group, which long has argued against the way Yellowstone's bison are managed, believes, among other things, that the Montana Department of Livestock should "develop brucellosis-proof management plans for all domestic cattle that continue to graze in the (Greater Yellowstone Area) including the provision of wildlife proof fencing if necessary" and that "Governor Schweitzer, together with the governors of Idaho and Wyoming, must petition USDA-APHIS to modify the federal brucellosis classification system to allow more flexible management of wildlife and cattle in the GYA."

In the long run, the organization wants to see an effective brucellosis vaccine developed for cattle and mandated for use within greater Yellowstone, and that "public lands currently designated for livestock grazing should be reclassified to give priority to native wildlife species, including wild buffalo."

"The current property tax structure in Montana encourages livestock production by providing tax breaks for agricultural use. Landowners who allow wild buffalo to access their land should be provided with similar incentives through the Habitat Montana program," the group adds.

Twenty-five bison.

Those endorsing the deal say it will open the door to a wild, free-roaming Yellowstone bison herd. Perhaps in the years down the road, but not in the near-term. While bison will continue to freely roam Yellowstone, only a lucky few will get their ears punched -- literally, for tagging purposes -- to move north out of the park when winter's deep snows tell them it's time to head to the low country. That vast, vast majority of others will be shipped to slaughter, as were 1,276 from Stevens Creek this past winter.

The agreement also does nothing to address the matter of elk transmitting brucellosis to livestock, instances of which some suspect have already occurred. Of course, it must be remembered that this deal was negotiated under the auspices of the "Interagency Bison Management Plan," not a "brucellosis management plan." And that's a crucial flaw with this whole process.

Thursday's deal will be criticized. One has to question its prudence, particularly in light of the low number of bison that will be allowed onto the Royal Teton Ranch next winter while hundreds and hundreds more very possibly, if not almost certainly, will be trucked off to the slaughterhouse. And let's not forget what the Government Accountability Office said earlier this month in picking apart progress, or lack thereof, on the bison management plan these past eight years:

Even if the agencies improve their management and fully implement the current plan through step three, we believe the controversies will continue, in part because critical underlying differences among agency mandates, management philosophies, and political interests have not been resolved," the GAO says. "In addition, the plan lacks clearly defined, measurable objectives to guide the agencies bison management actions, and the agencies are not adequately applying an adaptive management approach in implementing the plan.

Moreover, the agencies’ implementation of the plan has remained fragmented, because no single entity is accountable for coordinating and steering the management, research, and resolution of these bison-related issues. In addition, the agencies’ management lacks the accountability and transparency expected by the public and Congress. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to spend millions of dollars on uncoordinated management and research efforts, with no means to ensure that these efforts are focused on a common outcome that could help resolve the controversies.

Because the plan is not a brucellosis eradication plan, concerns about brucellosis transmission will still require the agencies to actively manage bison moving from the park into Montana, even if they fully implement all steps of the plan. Given these realities, improvements in the partner agencies’ implementation of the plan, including more systematic application of an adaptive management approach, could contribute greatly to helping address the larger brucellosis issue in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Multiple recent suspected transmissions of brucellosis from elk to cattle in the area have highlighted the importance of addressing this disease in its broader wildlife and ecological context, and doing so could have significant implications for the future management of Yellowstone bison.

Let's hope that those who signed off on that $2.8 million check to the Church Universal and Triumphant didn't do so largely because they so badly wanted some tangible evidence, no matter how small, of progress, and that once the slaughtering resumes next winter criticisms of the deal won't be deafening.

"I think we've been honest about what this deal does and what it doesn't do," said Ms. McNamara. "It's a step forward, and there are more steps to be taken. I think that we can sit here and say no to everything or we can say yes to progress. This is a positive step forward. There will be critics. Every deal has its critics. It's just the way it is. This is a good step."

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What a sad day for the buffalo. As someone else pointed out on a forum, there's no calling those 25 bison wild and free. What happens if those bison want to return into Yellowstone? How free are you when you are constantly tested and monitored? And, how many winters must we endure like this winter where we have lost over half the bison and perhaps more than two-thirds. There's a harsh winter storm supposedly on the way. The buffalo may yet recover again but for what? For this?

What a profoundly sad day, and those calling it a "good step" must ask themselves how in good conscience they can believe that. Bureaucracies use deals like this to insulate themselves from controversy. People who are calling themselves advocates for buffalo are giving these people credibility. But, all the buffalo, even the 25 lottery winners won't be winners. Not only will those 25 not be free, they are merely a number. Where will their herd be?

This year most of them are dead. And, all we are left with is the scat outside of Stephens Creek to remind us of what once was.

Again, for those who haven't seen the previous post, the NPS is reporting 1,436 buffalo alive (though saying to those asking that the number is actually 2,300). For more on that, see .

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

By the way, there has been independent confirmation on the NPS claims of 2,300 bison alive (that is, 2,400 dead). The biggest came out today in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. Now, according to Darrell Geist of Buffalo Field Campaign on Ralph Maughan's site, the NPS has counted 1,950, many close to death. However, the usual modeling for counting assumes an undercount and adds a couple hundred more (in this case 350 more). 2,300 is an important number in bison management because it's the point where the agencies are encouraged to use more non-lethal measures of control. At, 2,100 (a number we may be at), they are to do even more.

Given we expect a winter storm this weekend that could dump a lot of snow in Yellowstone and given that many of the animals calving now cannot get food (Yellowstone has more snow than it's seen in a long time, which would in normal conditions be good news), given that they are weak from the winter and face predation, and given that they face the stress of hazing (as well as the stress in the case of bison still captured at Stephens Creek - where many are giving birth and face increased risk of abortion), that number seems likely to drop.

This is enormous, enormous stress on these herds. They may recover again as they have in the past, but what kind of herds will they be? A lot has been coming out recently about the familial nature of herds and how they become increasingly dysfunctional the more stress they are under. The numbers may go up - because there is a survival instinct - but what kind of bison will be in Yellowstone? Ones that are lost, perhaps. I hope not.

No matter how you slice it, this is a raw deal.

And, as for the CUT deal, that deal would have saved 25 of these bison, who would have been tested and mistreated and then returned to the park after April 15 just so that next year's bunch would have the same mistreatment. Wildlife corridor? Ha! A rancher on a couple sites posted that per animal unit, the government will be spending approximately $800 per animal for the right to graze only part of the year. What is the average for cattle on public lands? $2 per animal! What is the highest this rancher had heard of - $60. And, this is $800 per animal unit for 30 years for six months of the year! This rancher was angry. For those of us strongly opposed to this, it was further evidence of the extortion money paid to CUT in service of the useless IBMP. Unfortunately, groups like GYC have invested a lot in this horrible deal, and they are willing to sell the bison out for it.

If those of you reading this are upset, you should be. Are there groups to support? Yes. You should consider supporting either Buffalo Field Campaign or local groups like the Gallatin Wildlife Association. There are others; we're working on one in Bozeman that I've been involved with - it has strong support from both groups (and direct involvement by members of the Gallatin Wildlife Association). However, we are not likely to become a 501(c)3; you are better off sending your checks to these organizations. But, more importantly, your time might be even more precious. A lot of people across the country are going to hear from the large organizations that this is good for the buffalo; it's important for people to speak the truth and contradict it whenever they see it. While buffalo numbers will be so depressed next year that the slaughter won't likely ramp up next season, they will be sooner than we know. We have to be better prepared next time. Unfortunately, these groups celebrating the CUT deal as a "good step" will dampen public interest in the issue and think that government is being a good partner.

That point of view needs to be exposed for what it is; it is a misstatement that only will send more buffalo to slaughter.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I know I seem to be the only one commenting here, but I wanted to point you to an essay I just wrote, which is in part a criticism of the CUT deal and the rationale cited here by those mainstream environmental groups who support it. It's also in part an answer to critics who wonder why people like me work on this issue when there are so many other "more serious issues." Both answers I see in the same root philosophical inconsistency.

In any event, for those with time to read through my passionate verbosity, check it out:

Why buffalo and why not the CUT deal? Against utilitarianism

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I love the bison and want them protected but this is the most ridiculous waste of taxpayers money ever. $2.8 million to save only 25 bison !! Do these people expect the bison to stand inside Yellowstone and starve to death ? Is that nonsense how they have managed to survive all these years ? Rubish, they are wild animals who must migrate to find food during all seasons. They do not know political boundaries. We have killed enough innocent animals and wasted enough money.........they need an area outside of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton area where they can find food to survive the winter. And by the way, the bison are not the only wildlife that need this ! Solve the problem NOW !!!

You make it sound as if they are trying to kill all the bison. Would you rather they starved to death? Why is there not a hunting season to help keep the herd to a sustainable level? As for this notion of a "wild and free roaming bison herd," it is not the old west anymore, it is 2008 and we are not leaving. So why don't you leave the management of bison to the local people who have to deal with them everyday and deal with more important things.

There is a hunting season in Montana for buffalo, but there is no wild buffalo population in Montana. One step toward there being a viable hunting season is expanding the range of the buffalo so that they have a permanent presence in Montana. Right now, for a large licensing fee, people can line up at the border and wait for them to cross over. So, counting Nez Perce and Salish Kootenai hunts (don't ask me to get into the political complexities of that), 191 buffalo were killed along the boundary this winter; the rest of the 1601 (not counting those who died in captivity) were killed by the National Park Service and the Montana Department of Livestock. More buffalo have been killed this winter than at any time since the 19th century.

Hunters are more and more involved with the bison cause because they are beginning to realize that there really is no hunt. What's more, for years, elk - the favored target of hunters (it's not very hard to kill a buffalo when hunting - I've seen videos; the buffalo stands there, their friends often don't even move when shots are fired) - have not had to face the livestock industry's wrath over brucellosis. However, this year, in Wyoming, elk have been trapped, rounded up, and tested in similar ways. There is a lot of thinking that when hunters see that elk are next that they will come around further.

As for your remark about the "old west"; we are not actually removed from the rationale that killed the buffalo in the first place. While there's never any way or desire to turn back the clock, there should be a desire to change ways of making decisions that were wrong in the first place but are still applied today. Buffalo were slaughtered en masse in the 19th century to force indigenous tribes to reservations by starving them to death (think I'm being paranoid? Look at the public record, especially Phil Sheridan - they openly and outspokenly talked about it in terms of the total war strategy they applied in the Civil War). The herds were decimated in the course of 10 years, with market hunting openly encouraged by the military. Why? To encourage more farming; livestock raising (considered a lesser way of life than farming, but better than hunting and gathering, took sway in the West over time, encouraged by the same land ethics). Now, we still live in that world where people think it's proper to parcel off land for this and that purpose and deal with the consequences later. The buffalo are still caught in that process, and if we are going to stop the craziness in the future, allowing them more land to roam has to be part of the process.

And, hey, who are the local people? Kurt may be in Utah, but there are a lot of us here in Montana who are very local and very upset. In Horse Butte, west of Yellowstone, there are no cattle, but buffalo are still being killed by the Montana government. The landowners want there to be buffalo; the government won't let it happen, even though it's on a peninsula without cattle. The families there have organized at times to allow buffalo; the government fights them. It's not the "local people" who have mattered on this issue, rather a certain kind of local person - the livestock owner (somewhere else) in Montana. If you are not that kind of local person, apparently you don't matter. Do you realize how few ranches there actually are? Who are the local people? And, some of them have lived there for many generations.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

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