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Brucellosis in Yellowstone National Park’s bison herds long has been an issue that has prevented their ability to roam freely into Montana because they theoretically could spread the disease to cattle, and people. In a collaborative effort, National Parks Traveler and WyoFile have produced a robust package of multimedia stories that examines not just the brucellosis issue in Yellowstone, but efforts to repopulate areas of the American West with bison. These stories, beginning today, can be found at National Parks Traveler and WyoFile/Marcelle Shoop photo

Yellowstone Bison, America's National Mammal, Stigmatized In Montana

By Kurt Repanshek

Once staring into the oblivion that is extinction, bison have rebounded in number and prestige to be called the United States’ national mammal. Yet those in Yellowstone National Park don’t fully carry the prestige that distinction bestows.

Though believed to have descended from pocket herds in the upper headwaters of the Yellowstone River that escaped the great slaughter of the late 19th century that veritably annihilated the species, and prized for their unsullied genetics, half or more of the park’s bison carry a cattle-introduced disease that, frankly, scares the hell out of ranchers.

Brucella abortus, a bacterium thought to have reached the country from European livestock, can cause spontaneous abortions or stillbirths in bison and cattle. Until 2010, if two or more herds in a state contracted the disease, or if a single herd detected to carry the disease was not sent to slaughter, all herds in that state were blacklisted from markets. Today that blacklisting applies only to the affected herd. Nevertheless, the risks of the disease infecting cattle have stigmatized Yellowstone bison and impacted their instincts to head outside the park for calving and prevented the spread of their genes to other bison herds in the West.

Though by 1991 most cattle in U.S. herds were free of the disease, brucellosis was confirmed “in more than 20 cattle or domestic bison herds in the (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) during 2002 to 2015,” according to the U.S. Animal Health Association.

The possibility that more livestock herds could be exposed to the disease is one of the leading stumbling blocks standing in the way of Yellowstone bison being treated as wildlife allowed to roam freely into Montana, said Mike Honeycutt, executive director of the Montana Board of Livestock.

“I try to put myself in other people’s shoes as much as I can, but I would say that from our standpoint, one of the things is just an admission that the brucellosis situation is real, that the brucellosis situation has impact outside of the borders of the state of Montana, has impacts outside of the U.S. borders, that the industry that would be affected is still an economic player and still needs to have some protection.”

Yet the fact of the matter, according to the National Academy of Sciences, is that elk, not Yellowstone bison, are the culprit when it comes to spreading brucellosis. But, as Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s senior wildlife biologist, points out, “elk are really gods around here.”

“Here” being Montana.

Brucella abortus

It was a century ago, in 1917, that brucellosis was first detected in Yellowstone’s wildlife. Though exactly how the non-native disease reached the park is unclear, it’s been largely accepted that either infected cattle, or elk that picked it up from cattle, introduced it.

According to Mary Meagher, whose long National Park Service career was built around her role as a wildlife biologist in the park, the disease spreads from bison to bison or, theoretically, bison to cattle, bison to elk, or elk to cattle, through oral contact with aborted fetuses, contaminated placentas, and related birth discharges. 

Interestingly, while more than 90 percent of infected cow bison abort their first pregnancy, the percentages quickly drop to about 20 percent after the second pregnancy, and to nearly zero after the third, a phenomenon associated with naturally acquired immunity, according to a 2010 paper by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Male bison can contract the disease, too, and it can lead to sterility, the paper said. Both cows and bulls also can develop arthritis and/or bursitis from a concentration of the bacteria in their joints, leading to lameness and increasing the risk of being preyed upon.

It wasn’t until 1947 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture started a brucellosis eradication program in concert with state officials and the livestock industry. In the Greater Yellowstone Area, each state is represented and can put in place control programs “for brucellosis-infected or exposed animals” within their states.

Brucellosis is an economically ravaging disease, one that justifies the battle to wipe it out, or at least greatly contain it. It’s estimated to have cost the livestock industry and the state and federal governments “billions of dollars in direct losses and the cost of efforts to eliminate the disease,” according to Texas A&M researchers.

It also, though rarely, can spread to humans in the form of undulant fever, also known as Bang’s disease. This disease is physically debilitating, causing deep pain and exhaustion that can come and go for years. (See Terry Jones sidebar below)

A facility on the northern end of Yellowstone has been used to test bison for brucellosis/NPS, Jim Peaco

In Yellowstone, upwards of 60 percent of bison are thought to have been exposed to brucellosis; the park’s herds are judged to be “chronically infested” with the disease. But while bison long have been viewed as the key players in carrying the disease to livestock, that’s not the case at all.

“In tracing the genetic lineage of Brucella across the ecosystem and among species, elk are now recognized as a primary host for brucellosis and have been the major transmitter of B. abortus to cattle,” the National Academy of Sciences concluded in a paper published early this year.

“All recent cases of brucellosis in GYA cattle are traceable genetically and epidemiologically to transmission from elk, not bison.”

The scientists found that while there has been no conclusive transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem since 1998, “(D)irect contact of elk with cattle is more prevalent than contact of cattle with bison. As a result, the risk of transmission from elk to cattle may be increasing.”

Part of the increase could be linked to the return of wolves to the ecosystem and increases in the grizzly population. Combined, those two developments have altered wildlife dynamics, in part by forcing elk outside of the park into the surrounding forests and countryside. Development of some private lands outside the park also has benefited elk by essentially creating hunt-free zones.

A Quick Primer On Bison History

It’s been written that when Columbus first reached the New World bison herds possibly counting 60 million individuals ranged across North America. They were a mix of Plains bison and Wood bison, the differences largely being that Wood bison are a bit taller, a bit blockier, and without the feathery “chaps” of hair draping their forelegs that their Plains cousins carry.

The downfall of Plains bison began in the 1830s as the young United States of America expanded westward. It greatly accelerated in the 1860s as bison were killed not only to feed railroad workers and U.S. Cavalry, but also as a military strategy to, as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman put it, destroy “the Indian’s commissary; and it is a well-known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage.”

In 1870, it’s been estimated, 2 million bison from the “southern herd,” found south of the main east-west railroad line that crossed the Great Plains, were killed. Two years later an average of 5,000 bison a day were being killed. While Yellowstone National Park was established that year, 1872, and its enabling legislation outlawed the wanton destruction of wildlife, there was no one to enforce that regulation until the U.S. Army arrived in 1886 to patrol the park.

By 1876, for all practical purposes, the southern herd was judged to be wiped out, and six years later the northern herd faced the same fate. Extinction for the species loomed in 1902, when, aside from some private herds such as the one Charles Goodnight had established on his Texas ranch, free roaming bison numbers were thought to be as few as 100, with maybe two dozen in Yellowstone.

Managing wildlife was new to the U.S. Army, which patroled Yellowstone until the National Park Service came into being in 1916. In 1902, concerned that bison were heading toward extinction, the Army began to manage the animals like livestock through a program “that included roundups, winter feeding, and culling of aged animals,” Richard West Sellars wrote in his seminal book, Preserving Nature in National Parks, A History. “To prevent starvation when heavy snows made foraging difficult, winter feeding was extended in 1904 to elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and other ungulates.”

It was a practice that at the time carried many unforeseen ramifications, from the competition between wildlife and livestock for range on public lands to unnaturally high populations and the spread of disease.

By the late 1920s, roughly 600 acres of hay “ranches” were established within Yellowstone to grow forage for the wildlife.

Up through the mid-1960s the park’s herds were actively managed. By 1966, efforts to rid the Yellowstone herds of brucellosis led to a great slaughter that saw the bison numbers plummet from about 1,500 to perhaps 200.

“At this time, park managers decided to cease these management tactics after it became apparent that eradication of brucellosis could well entail elimination of wild and free-ranging bison,” Dr. Glenn Plumb, at the time the park’s wildlife program manager, wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in 2006.

Today there are an estimated 400,000-500,000 bison nationwide, either in commercial herds, raised on Indian reservations in part for cultural reasons, and in “conservation” herds, which were “established to promote wildness, genetic integrity, and ecosystem processes…” 

Yellowstone’s bison herds are generally regarded as “one of the only populations whose ancestors continuously occupied portions of their current distribution. Yellowstone bison move across a vast landscape where they are exposed to natural selection through competition for food and breeding opportunities, predation, and survival under challenging environmental conditions,” according to Yellowstone staff.

The species’ overview was contained in an environmental assessment the staff prepared in 2016 to address the need for a quarantine process to identify brucellosis-free bison that could be shipped for use by tribes and to help establish herds elsewhere on public lands.

“As a result, they have adaptive capabilities that are potentially reduced in bison managed like livestock in fenced pastures, with no predators and the removal of older bulls to simplify management,” the staff added. “Many scientists consider Yellowstone bison to be the only ecologically and genetically viable population of Plains bison within their original range.”

An Interagency Bison Plan

In December 2000, after 10 years of talks, the state of Montana, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, adopted the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

The goal, with the park’s migratory bison herds engrained to head to calving grounds north and west of Yellowstone, was to guide “the management of bison and brucellosis in and around Yellowstone National Park” and maintain an end-of-winter population of 3,000 animals.

But the plan was shaky from the start, and there were years of distrust, disagreement, and death as park bison were gunned down literally at the park’s northern border and roughly hazed through the runoff-roiling Madison River back into Yellowstone on its western border.

Acceptance to bison roaming out of the park when it comes time to calve early in spring has come in bits, and currently they are allowed to head a handful of miles north of the park and another handful of miles to the west. But the allowance is nothing like that afforded elk, which have no limits.

The inability to arrive at a solution acceptable to all parties frustrates Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk. Key to reaching a solution, he believes, is developing and agreeing on quarantine protocols used to assess possibly infected bison.

It’s a seemingly simple solution, but one that has evaded consensus acceptance.

Montana officials, working with APHIS, tested a quarantine protocol at Corwin Springs, Montana, from 2006-2010 with 214 bison calves from Yellowstone to see if they would “remain free of brucellosis through at least their first pregnancy and calving,” Yellowstone staff note in their environmental assessment on quarantine protocols published in 2016. The testing largely was considered a success.

“Thirty-six of the 214 bison converted from test-negative to test-positive for brucellosis exposure during quarantine. Eighty-five percent of these conversions occurred within 120 days and none occurred after 205 days. About one-half of the remaining test-negative bison were killed and their tissues were cultured for Brucella bacteria to confirm there was no latent infection. Brucella abortus was not cultured from tissue samples taken from these 88 bison. The remaining bison were bred and their blood was tested at least twice per year during pregnancy. Also, these females and their 67 calves (solitary births; no twins) were tested immediately after calving and 6 months later for evidence of Brucella antibodies and bacteria. None of these females or their calves tested positive for brucellosis exposure or latent infection.”

The bison eventually deemed free of the disease were transferred to private or tribal operations.

While that test facility ceased operations, Yellowstone now is seeking approval for developing a similar quarantine operation. Under a draft environmental assessment prepared on the proposal, the facility would be on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, where some of the bison from the previous test facility were sent (See Fort Peck sidebar).

“This alternative would benefit the restoration of Plains bison by augmenting a new population recently established on the reservation using Yellowstone bison,” the Yellowstone EA said. “It would also enhance the culture, nutrition, and self-sufficiency of the tribes. The risk of brucellosis transmission from bison in quarantine to livestock, people, or other wildlife would be negligible…”

Approval from Montana is needed, though, since the state currently prevents Yellowstone bison that haven’t gone through quarantine from being transported through Montana. As a result, the Park Service can’t ship Yellowstone bison to tribes that want to start, or increase, their own herds, or to other areas to create or supplement existing herds. That’s a Catch 22 that prevents the Fort Peck Reservation from putting its quarantine facility to use and which prevents the genes from Yellowstone’s bison from bolstering other herds.

Fort Peck officials, in anticipation of their facility being approved for quarantine use, have developed a plan for managing it. Part of the plan states that, “(T)he tribes have developed a memorandum of understanding with the State of Montana and the Animal, Plant, Health, Inspection Service on testing buffalo that came from Yellowstone National Park and have developed a written procedure for capturing, and/or removing any Yellowstone buffalo that escape their range units. The tribes will be responsible for capturing escaped buffalo immediately and repairing fence where they got out.”

The two tribes on the reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux, both “have around 25,000 acres each in their bison program. And they’re continuing to expand when possible,” said Jonathan Proctor, the Rockies and Plains program director for Defenders of Wildlife.

Unfortunately, according to Fort Peck Fish and Game Director Robbie Magnan, the state is not interested in seeing Yellowstone bison shipped elsewhere in Montana. As a result, the tribe’s quarantine facility sits empty.

“I blame the majority of the problem on the state of Montana,” he said. “For being basically anti-buffalo. It’s controlled by the cattle industry, they don’t want to see buffalo on the landscape. And they use brucellosis as a scapegoat. They make it sound like it’s so contagious it’s almost like yellow fever.”

Support for Mr. Magnan’s contention that Yellowstone bison are a scapegoat can be found in the National Academies of Science report, he said.

“Montana makes me laugh because they make (bison brucellosis) sound so bad. If it was really that bad you would prohibit the movement of elk. But they don’t,” he said. “It’s (elk hunting) such a big industry, they leave it alone.”

The maligning of Yellowstone bison goes further when you consider that Montana does a poor job monitoring cattle in the greater Yellowstone area for brucellosis, said Mr. Magnan, pointing to an audit conducted into how the state Livestock and Fish, Wildlife and Parks departments oversees the disease.

“The Montana Department of Livestock failed tremendously, to where they found out in the audit that over 38 percent of the cattle that was in the greater Yellowstone area left without being tested,” he said. “It shows where the livestock owners were allowed to move their cattle without being tested. And if brucellosis was really that bad, why did they allow that but not buffalo?

“The state really failed bad on it, but yet they can predict to us that it’s not safe for us to bring buffalo up here.”

Yellowstone Superintendent Wenk is optimistic a solution is closer than ever before to allow the quarantine program to move forward.

“I think we have a lot more tolerance outside of Yellowstone National Park today than we had even when I arrived in 2011,” he said. “The governor has made some very positive decisions in terms of habitat for bison outside of the park.”

And yet, no one is predicting how soon that solution might arrive.

“One of the things that’s been a challenge is, from our state law standpoint, requiring a brucellosis-free status for bison to be moved out of the Yellowstone, the adjacent Yellowstone area, beyond the tolerance areas that have been given,” said Mr. Honeycutt of the Livestock Board. “We also want to prevent the appearance to other trading partners, whether they’re domestic within the United States, other states around us, or our international trading partners, that we’re taking risks that eventually would put them at risk.”

Another issue, said Mike Volesky, chief of operations for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is the fact that bison are the largest mammal in North America, sizeable beasts that can cause property damage and pose a threat to human life.

“I think most everyone pretty well admits or agrees that, yeah, as far as brucellosis transmission, elk, because of how widely they range, represent a greater risk than bison,” he said. “I think that most folks who used to be so concerned about that disease issue don’t beat that drum nearly as much anymore.

“But what they do, what they are worried about, is public safety and how widely bison range and that sort of thing, because they’re not the same animal in that respect,” he went on. “They go along highways, they don’t care if you’re driving there or not. Elk typically do. (Bison) don’t get out of the way, elk do, and other wildlife do.”

Defenders, along with some other conservation groups, has created a compensation program for property owners who can prove bison did damage to their land.

“Some people have landscaping or gardens, or a mailbox or a tree or shrub in their yard and a bison will come up and rub against them or maybe push it over,” said Mr. Proctor. “The conservation groups are helping landowners pay for half the costs, up to $1,000 for each landowner, for fencing around gardens or landscaping to prevent bison damage. It’s worked incredibly well. We’ve had several dozen, I think over 30 takers so far. We’ve even worked with some ranchers on larger projects, fencing of small pastures to keep bison out of their livestock pastures.

“It’s helped increase the tolerance and acceptance of roaming bison in those areas that are now open to bison outside the park. So I think that’s a big success as well, that the state of Montana has even cited in a lot of their meetings as a great way to coexist with bison.”

As much as Mr. Volesky says the department would like to treat Yellowstone bison as wildlife, and not livestock that face management requirements, he stresses that Montana state law does not allow that at this point.

“We have made some great progress through the years. Not enough, not fast enough. Be the first to admit that,” he said. “But we’ve made some progress through the years about how we manage bison now through many years of adaptive management with those IBMP partners. So, again, we haven’t made progress quickly enough and haven’t solved everything yet, but we have moved a ways from my beginning in this, which was back in 2005.”

But there’s also a rub, as might be expected when you consider the number of parties that signed onto the IBMP, and that’s who picks up the tab, who provides the personnel, and who oversees the plan’s implementation.

“The state’s put a number of resources into all of this over the years, and I would say that the federal government — as much as some folks within federal government are trying at a big level, where a difference can really be made — there’s certainly been a lack of committed resources from the places where that needs to come from,” Mr. Volesky said.

There’s been a lack of attention and resources considering the concern out there and considering in the past especially the politics that folk have made of this, the commitment of resources, given that level of concern, hasn’t followed from the federal government,” he added. “The wide consensus is that brucella abortus doesn’t belong on the federal select agents and toxins list, and that it needs to be removed to allow for better research and vaccine development.  To this point, at the federal level it has been mostly talk and no action.  Actual federal research, or research dollars for development of a more effective vaccine, has been a request from the states for many years.”     

At Yellowstone, Superintendent Wenk maintained the federal government has been the lead on dealing with brucellosis in the park herd.

“We have a bison staff right now. We basically manage the herd when it’s in Yellowstone National Park, we do all the science on the herd, we run and operate the Stephens Creek capture facility,” he said. “We do all the testing for bison that happens in the ecosystem. I’m trying to figure out what resources they would like us to bring, what more we could do?

“If you look at the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a lot of what we’re doing is supposed to be a much more shared responsibility. I would tell you we feel like we are bearing the brunt of the cost and the operation for this. … . I’d say we’ve taken up most of the cost and most of the responsibility, and we think it should be a much greater shared responsibility.”

Indeed, an audit prepared for the 2017 Montana Legislature on that state’s brucellosis management noted that since fiscal year 2011 the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has spent roughly $2 million on “brucellosis-related management of elk,” and that the bulk of that money came through “federal cooperative agreement dollars transferred by the Department of Livestock.”

Are Bison Scapegoats for Elk?

The National Academy of Sciences report raises an interesting question, which is whether Yellowstone bison haven’t been made a costly scapegoat for a problem created by elk.

Due to the threat elk pose to cattle herds, Montana wildlife biologists not only track elk herds — the state in January 2010 began outlining Designated Surveillance Areas so ranchers know where the greatest transmission threat exists — but also measure their infection rate. Too, ranchers are required to vaccinate their cattle against the disease. (Idaho and Wyoming also created DSAs, and combined these districts cover nearly 31,000 square miles in eastern Idaho, southwest Montana, and western Wyoming.)

But the years of focus on bison as brucellosis carriers perhaps blinded Montana officials and ranchers to the risk from elk.

“The elk issue I think spread further, faster than people were really maybe paying attention to it, and now it’s, according to the National Academy of Sciences study, it’s a real issue and it’s the No. 1 issue in terms of disease transmission,” Mr. Honeycutt said.

“And I know our Fish, Wildlife and Parks and others are trying to monitor that, and that’s the whole point of our Designated Surveillance Areas, that we operate where we do intense surveillance of cattle and require producers to do intense surveillance to make sure we don’t ship brucellosis positive cattle out into the supply chain.”

The problem didn’t arise overnight. It likely dates to 1912, when the Bureau of Biological Survey, the precursor to today’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, started feeding elk on the National Elk Refuge at Jackson, Wyoming. This and other feedlot operations in Wyoming congregated hundreds and thousands of elk through the winters, making it easier not only to transmit disease through the herds but also leading to unnaturally high populations.

“I guess what’s honestly frustrating is that we wouldn’t be in this situation today if we weren’t still feeding elk in Wyoming,” Mr. Volesky said. “That’s not a popular thing to say, and especially in Wyoming that’s not a popular thing. Damage was done, I don’t know how long ago. Decades ago. I’ve seen the genetic studies on brucellosis that determine where strains came from, and where they originated and where they’ve gone, pretty good research out there, and a lot of it stems from the National Elk Refuge and the feeding grounds in Wyoming.

"And since then it has spread up through lots of places. They can trace the genetic strains. We see the fruits of that today, and that damage was done a long time ago, even when folks were saying, ‘Hey, it’s probably not a good idea to be concentrating these animals and feeding them, especially at critical times,’” he added. “So that damage was done and that’s how you get to half of the bison in Yellowstone and even somewhere toward half the elk in Yellowstone (being infected).”

Back at Yellowstone, Superintendent Wenk felt the focus on bison over elk was in large part because with elk, brucellosis “is almost an unmanageable problem.”

“They can get their arms around Yellowstone bison because it is a population that has a very limited habitat, relatively, than the habitat compared to elk, which basically are throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem, and maybe even in some cases beyond, they carry the disease,” the superintendent said. “I think that whether it be the state of Montana, or APHIS, or anybody else, I think they look at the Yellowstone population of bison and say, ‘This is a problem we can deal with,’ without ever thinking that you can’t just deal with this issue in one population.

“Because if you don’t deal with it in elk, bison are just going to be re-infected, even if you weren’t successful in ridding brucellosis from bison.”

Dr. Plumb, the Park Service’s chief wildlife biologist until he retired on September 15, said the fact of the matter is that bison are large animals that demand a lot of space. And not everyone in today’s society is OK with that.

“If there’s no brucella, anthrax, or Johne’s disease, or any other disease situation, then what are you left with? You’re left with the challenging notion that the largest four-legged animal in North America as wildlife would be prioritized for conservation at scale,” he said. “It’s a big animal, and its life history and its ecology, its evolutionary path that brings it to this point, it’s big. And so big things require discussion of big resources: Big lands, big water, big movements. Or they’re just behind a fence as a relic, at an evolutionary dead end.

“And so, if you take brucella out of the equation, you’re still left with a very important social discussion: Is there room in this century for large-scale wildlife conservation?” he said.

Fair Chase

Yellowstone’s northern border in Montana long has been a firing line when it comes to hunting.

“Even though (Stephen) Mather and (Horace) Albright promoted national parks as a source of game for hunting on adjacent lands, they frequently objected to the slaughter that took place outside the parks during fall migration,’” Mr. Sellars wrote in Preserving Nature in the National Parks. “Basically, they wanted well-controlled hunting, not wanton killing of the animals.

“Despite the Service’s protests to the appropriate state governments, excessive hunting often occurred on adjoining lands,” he went on. “Yellowstone chief ranger Sam Woodring reported in January 1929 that he had seen hunters north of the park so thick that they looked like a ‘skirmish line of troops.’ Woodring recalled that several years earlier the had watched while Montana hunters just outside Yellowstone surrounded a herd of elk at 7:00 a.m. and held them for an hour, at which time state laws permitted hunting. Then half the herd was ‘shot down in less than thirty minutes.’”

Much the same occurred with bison migrating out of Yellowstone in the 1990s, when the concern over bison and brucellosis in Montana perhaps reached its zenith. The Jackson Hole News at the time kept a running tally on its front page of the numbers of bison killed each winter.

More recently, arrangements with Native American tribes to harvest bison that roam into Montana have somewhat lessened the visual visceral impact. But a better solution, if Montana officials ever view Yellowstone bison as wildlife and not livestock, would be to let the animals “learn the landscape,” said Superintendent Wenk.

“Unless you allow bison to pioneer and to learn the landscape, and the only time they’re out of the park is when they migrate out, it doesn’t look a lot like a traditional hunt,” he said. “A traditional hunt in our lexicon would involve fair chase. There’s very little fair chase to be seen in the hunt outside of Yellowstone National Park.”

“The Gardiner Basin (north of the park) is not small, but the bison basically all go back into the park, and some ways, there are very few bison, if any, that stay outside of the park on a year-round basis,” the superintendent said. “And therefore it’s hard for them to learn the landscape. If you’re a hunter, and you have an opportunity to hunt a bison, there’s a reliable way to hunt them that you have a high probability of success. And that’s basically waiting outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. It’s less reliable and less successful if you have what we would call a typical hunt that would involve fair chase.”

A solution, Superintendent Wenk said, would be to work with the tribes, the state of Montana, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all which have some role in overseeing bison hunts outside Yellowstone, to move hunt zones away from the park boundary.

At Defenders, Mr. Proctor believes the stalemate over bison needs to end, that it really is unnecessary and is the result of prejudice on the part of Montana. Many of the cattle grazing allotments surrounding Yellowstone have been retired, and so there’s little if any interaction between cattle and bison during calving season, he said.

“So to kill bison for the supposed threat of brucellosis just simply doesn’t make sense. The real reason, of course, is to reduce the population and keep them out of most of Montana, the remainder of Montana, where some in the livestock industry just simply do not want bison competing with cattle,” he said. “That’s the real reason. Now, of course, there is a carrying capacity at some level in the area they’re allowed in. So we do look for a future where bison are allowed to roam in a much larger area than they currently are. But we can take the steps to protect livestock from the remote chance of brucellosis from bison, and still allow our wildlife to flourish on our public lands. That’s the future we want, in addition, of course, to diverting some disease-free bison to other restoration opportunities.

"There are so many places coming on line that want to restore bison now, that we could use Yellowstone bison for restoration elsewhere for decades to come, rebuilding populations elsewhere.”

Bison Timeline

DateEstimated Bison PopulationPressures on BisonActions Affecting BisonRecovery Efforts
1500s30-60 million in North America
1700s-1800sColonization affected bison habitat, cattle diseases introduced, competition with feral horses
1820Native American tribes pushed West, bringing horses and guns to Great Plains, increasing pressures on bison
1830Mass destruction of bison herds began
1840sWest of the Rocky Mountains, bison disappeared.
1860sRailroads cross the Great Plains, countless bison killed to feed U.S. Cavalry, railroad workers, Buffalo Bill Cody gains fame. Great Plains herds divided into northern and southern herds, separated by railroad line.1866, Charles Goodnight began captive bison herd on his Texas ranch.
1870Estimated 2 million bison killed on southern plains.
1871Beginning of end of southern herd of bison. One St. Louis company traded 250,000 hides this year alone.Wyoming passed law prohibiting the waste of bison meat.
1872Average of 5,000 bison killed a day, every day of the year. Bison hunting became popular sport with the wealthyLegislation creating Yellowstone National Park outlawed wanton destruction of fish and game in the park, but no staff or funding was provided to police this.
1876Southern herd for all intents and purposes was done
1882Northern herd largely decimated
1884Thought to be 325 wild bison left in the United States, with just 25 in Yellowstone National ParkCongress tasked Army with policing Yellowstone National Park, in part to protect wildlife
1889William Hornaday estimated wild bison population was just more than 1,000, with 200 in Yellowstone National Park
1902Government bison herds totaled about 100 individuals, with some (about 24) in Yellowstone, others in National Zoological Park in Washington, D.CArmy brought 21 bison from two private herds to Yellowstone National Park to bolster few remaining wild bison in the park. First managed at Mammoth Hot Springs, then in the Lamar Valley at the Buffalo Ranch
1913Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota received 14 bison from the New York Zoological Society
1917Brucellosis detected in Yellowstone National Park bison
1919Estimated North American bison census totals 12,521
1952Bison ranch in Lamar Valley phased out.
1985Montana declared brucellosis free
1985-1996State and federal agents, and licensed hunters, kill 1,899 bison outside of Yellowstone National Park’s northern border in state-sanctioned hunts
1996State and federal agencies adopt Interim Bison Management Plan, which calls for bison with the disease that leave the park are to be killed; 1996-97 winter sees 1,049 Yellowstone bison killed
1990sEstimated 20,000-25,000 bison in public herds in North America, at least 250,000 in private herds by end of decade
December 2000After a decade of negotiations, Interagency Bison Management Plan adopted by state of Montana, National Park Service, U.s. Forest Service, and U.S.D.A. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
November 2015Montana adopts plan that allows Yellowstone bison year-round access to Horse Butte and north along U.S. 191 on western park border up to and including Taylor Fork Drainage, as as Cabin Creek Wildlife Management Area and Monument Mountain Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. Bull bison have year-round access within Gardiner Basin from Yellowstone’s northern boundary to southern entrance of Yankee Jim Canyon
March 2012About 60 Yellowstone National Park bison relocated from quarantine facility outside the park to Fort Peck Indian Reservation in eastern Montana
2016Yellowstone National Park’s bison population estimated at 5,500 individuals
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This is an awesome article, from it's layout to the content!

Montana is a state that not only relies upon hunting and ranching, but also tourism.  Would visitors to Montana be as interested as I am to see herds of wild roaming bison as part of the landscape so famous in that state?


Fantastic coverage of this issue. I lived in Montana, in the GYE, for most of my life and the state of Montana is without a doubt to blame for this atrocity. Every year economic reports come out showing tourism is the number one income to Montana's economy (largely to visit YNP and see bison) and agricture, including ranching provides a measly 2%. Yet the cattle ranchers run this state living in a delusionsal cowboy myth. They run the Montana legislature and are at all levels of state government. This article touched on it but the truth is ranchers don't want bison competing for grass and water. I wish the article had mentioned that most ranchers in Montana are 'welfare" ranchers. They would not exist without the endless subsidies they receive from the federal government - the same government they profess to hate. And Montana isn't even a leader in cattle production. The hypocrisy is astonishing. Cattle are not native to this continent. They brought diseases with them and infected our native wildlife. I don't eat beef, but I do eat bison. Montana would be far better off to get rid of cattle and allow bison to roam freely throughout all public lands. The American Prairie Fdn. is working on this cocnept and I hope they succeed. Montana needs a major boycott from tourists and they should let the Governor of the State know why they aren't coming to visit next year. With enough participation we could end this madness. The ranchers might think they have control but the power lies with the people - outside of Montana. Again, great coverage and my sincere thanks.


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Fort Peck Tribes Blame Montana For Halting Successful Bison Program

By Kurt Repanshek

Located in extreme northeastern Montana, nearly 425 miles from Yellowstone National Park, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation could be an incubator of sorts for bison that many groups are seeking. If only the state of Montana would allow it, says Robbie Magnan.

The director of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation’s Fish and Game Department, Mr. Magnan has a list of organizations and governments that are seeking bison carrying the genes of those in Yellowstone. And while the tribe has spent nearly $1 million on its own quarantine facility to ensure bison it oversees don’t carry brucellosis, Montana officials won’t allow a transfer of Yellowstone bison to the reservation, even though a test of the program proved “highly successful,” he said.

“The Department of Interior, Yellowstone National Park, and the state of Montana spent millions and millions and millions of dollars on experiments to see if it’s possible to get buffalo out of Yellowstone brucellosis-free,” Mr. Magnan said during a phone call. “They’ve proven that. We’re living proof. We got 356 adults that came out of there through the quarantine process. And they’re on the Fort Peck Reservation.

“They (Montana) found it a highly successful project, and yet they stopped doing it.”

The trial of Fort Peck’s bison quarantine program started in 2012, when a group of bison that had been quarantined for five years at Yellowstone and declared brucellosis-free was shipped to the reservation. At the reservation, the bison spent another five years in a pasture setting. At the end of that period, the tribal official said, the bison were still free of the disease.

“We want to be able to keep them for cultural purposes and conservation purposes,” he said. “And our carrying capacity is to be able to grow them to 300 animals, and then we’ll cull them out for cultural purposes. Such as given to our ceremonies, our summer pow-wows, and for using for our elderly program and our diabetic people, to start eating healthier.

“And in that proposal, I wanted to be given five years to build our carrying capacity. Well, this is only our third year and I’m already at my carrying capacity. I got to cull out 56 animals this year because they got to the carrying capacity already.”

If state and federal authorities approve a quarantine protocol that Yellowstone officials have developed, the Fort Peck facility could once again be holding bison to complete the quarantine period. While there are other sources of brucellosis-free bison, such as Elk Island National Park in Canada and, according to National Park Service officials, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, the genetic purity of Yellowstone bison make them highly sought, said Mr. Magnan.

“Everyone else we talked to is on the same page, with the exception of Montana,” he said when asked if he was optimistic the quarantine protocol would be approved. “We jumped through every hoop they wanted us to go through, and yet they create more and more.”

Brucellosis-Infected Farmer Felt Indescribable Pain

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr. 

Terry Jones didn’t know what hit him when the first attack of undulant fever came.

Despite significant symptoms, doctors couldn’t immediately diagnose that Jones, a Wheatland, Wyoming, farmer, had been infected with the human form of the animal disease brucellosis. Perhaps that’s because it is rare in people and its various symptoms don’t point to an obvious cause.

Undulant fever, also called Bang's disease, is marked by an irregular pattern of joint pain, fatigue, headaches, high fever, chills, drenching sweats, backache, loss of weight, and loss of appetite. Jones experienced a lot of that. Lasting effects include arthritis, depression, and the swelling of organs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

While few people die from undulant fever, it can be chronic, and hence “is too serious to be dealt with lightly,” the federal agency says. Jones’ tale of infection and suffering underscores one reason why federal and state officials targeted the disease for eradication more than 60 years ago.

For Terry Jones, the recovery from contracting brucellosis has been long and painful/Kurt Repanshek

“I just knew I was sick,” Jones said. “I had pain like no other — indescribable pain between my hips. I had it in my back. It really hurt — an area as big as cantaloupe or watermelon.”

He spent nine days in a hospital as doctors poked, prodded and tested. “They did a CAT scan or X-ray to figure out whether I had kidney stones,” he said. “Doctors didn’t know what was going on.”

Almost three months later — still undiagnosed and out of the hospital — Jones fell on an icy walk and broke a rib. The pain from that injury did something funny — in time it migrated to the opposite side of his body from the fracture.  Jones went back to the hospital.

The infection “landed in my spine,” he said. “It’s a real sharp pain. It’s not directed to any one spot.”

“They did another CAT scan and sent me straight to the neurosurgeons,” Jones said. An infectious-disease specialist made the diagnosis. “The doctor called me and said ‘You’ve got brucellosis. They finally got the culture and finally got it right.”

Undulant fever used to be far more widespread – 6,400 cases were reported in 1947. A federal and state eradication program that began in 1947 has cut those to about 100 reported cases a year. Most cases, Jones said, probably involve large-animal veterinarians.

To prevent infection, farmers and ranchers should wear sturdy rubber gloves when aiding stock during birthing; hunters should do the same when field-dressing game. Raw milk and unpasteurized milk products also can spread the disease.

“It’s not certain where I got it,” Jones said. “It’s untraceable.” Connecting the dots that lead to in infection can be difficult, even impossible, with this quirky disease.

Two years ago, during a trip to India, it is possible Jones had butter or cheese made from unpasteurized milk. He doesn’t think he got it from his farm. He has only horses — no cattle, bison, pigs or goats that more commonly carry the disease.

But last November during the hunting season he helped a friend field-dress and pack out an elk. During the excursion, he cut a finger. “A rough bone piece got me on the hand,” he said. “It bled.”

Even that theory of infection doesn’t fit neatly with what’s known about brucellosis and the Brucella bacteria that causes the disease. The bacteria is less virulent in elk during hunting season compared to the spring, when animals are giving birth.

“That elk would not have been in the prime time of her life to spread brucellosis,” Jones said, casting doubt on his own leading theory of infection.

Jones first noticed his undulant fever symptoms 10 weeks after retrieving the elk carcass, longer than the typical six-week incubation period. But undulant fever also can lie dormant for a while before exhibiting itself. Nevertheless, Jones suspects the elk.

Today Jones believes he is slowly healing, though he's weak and tires easily. “My doctor is very attentive, since this is such a rare disease,” he said. “It’s everybody’s first try.”

He received intravenous doses of antibiotics over a 28- day period. “That pretty much drove that pain away from me.”

Now he’s taking oral antibiotics — five pills a day — and Ibuprofen. “They are very powerful,” he said of the medications. “[The doctor] has told me, more than likely, we’re going to wipe it out.”

Bison on the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone are "ecological engineers" that impact everything from songbird habitat to plant growth/Danielle Fagre

 Bison: The Original Ecosystem Engineers

By Kurt Repanshek 

Bison, says Danielle Fagre, are ecosystem engineers.

“They make changes to habitat that would be more or less beneficial for other species,” she explained.

“And so they’re a big presence on the landscape. Not only are they a large animal, but they come in large herds,” Ms. Fagre went on. “The accumulation of their impacts, or their effect, makes changes that other species might take advantage of or might not be good for other species.”

With the popularity of bison growing in parts of the West, and efforts to establish bison herds on landscapes that historically were home to these shaggy herbivores, more and more attention is being given to their effect on the land.

Studies have shown that while bison and cattle might be considered similar when it comes to grazing, that’s not the case at all.  Bison move across landscapes more quickly than cattle, and spend less time at water holes.

“Bison and cattle share a common ancestry; however, evolutionary changes that have occurred over the past 600,000 years lead to questions of whether the two species are, or can, serve as ecological synonyms of one another,” wrote the authors of Bison Versus Cattle: Are They Ecologically Synonymous?, a 2013 paper published by Rangeland Ecology and Management.

Though the authors point out “(B) Bison are effectively extinct at what are thought to be ecologically relevant scales,” there remain places in the West where small herds roam much as they did 200 years ago.

At Yellowstone National Park, upward of 5,500 bison range across the park’s 2.2 million acres, with most congregating on the northern end of the park on or around the Lamar Valley. It’s there where Ms. Fagre has been studying the impacts on songbird habitat of bison grazing and wallowing, where they roll on the ground to deal with insects or shed their coats.

Not only does the grazing stimulate new growth, but bison also impact the growth and spread of woody vegetation by rubbing their horns on shrubs and trees, a behavior that can kill the vegetation, said Ms. Fagre.

“It’s pretty safe to say that they would increase the variability in all kinds of conditions on the landscape,” she replied when asked about the overall impact of bison herds. “So what that does, because there’s a broader spectrum of habitat conditions, that means that more species can find what they need in that spectrum.”

From her time in the Lamar Valley earlier this year studying 50 plots not quite three football fields long and three football fields across, the researcher hopes to demonstrate how bison grazing helps, or hinders, grassland- and sagebrush-dependent bird species such as Western meadowlarks, Vesper sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, Green-tailed toehee, Savannah sparrow, Sage thrashers (sagebrush species), and Horned larks.

Ms. Fagre’s preliminary results suggest that bird species have unique associations with bison grazing, and vary in the strength of that association.

Somehow, despite the bison movements across the Lamar Valley, eggs laid by ground-nesting birds survive/Danielle Fagre

At the American Prairie Reserve, a sprawling landscape in central Montana that a nonprofit organization is working to transform into a 3.5-million-acre parkland with a bison herd of 10,000, research is been conducted into how bison grazing affects plant communities.  With the results of that study, biologists will be able to apply them to other areas where bison are being considered for restoration.

“This research is informing what the potential is for everywhere else,” said Nic McMillan, a graduate research from Clemson University, in a video for the reserve. “So in Colorado, where you’ve got small patches of bison, if you were to expand those patches and make those patches bigger, we can sort of extrapolate and so, ‘OK, on the American Prairie Reserve, we have found this at 40,000 acres of bison.’ And that’s huge.”