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The Privatization of Wildlife: How Ted Turner Scored Yellowstone's Bison Herd

Yellowstone buffalo, despite being on the verge of extinction, have virtually no protections in the West. And media mogul Ted Turner's going to cash in on it.

It is just one more battle in the century-and-a-half-old range wars, where land and wildlife have come into direct conflict with selfish, private interests. It's also a story of privileged ethnocentrism, where a once proud indigenous culture and the wild species it depended on have been all but eviscerated.

Welcome to the Interior West, the land of selective freedom and prosperity.

"I love this land and the buffalo and will not part with it," wrote the great Kiowa Chief Santana, who later killed himself while imprisoned in Texas after being tricked by General William Sherman into believing a peaceful council meeting was in his tribe's future. " ... A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting."

The betrayal continues. American bison once roamed these Great Plains in such large numbers that Lewis and Clark noted seeing 10,000 head in a single glance. Their observation no doubt sealed the species' fate. As anyone who has driven down Interstate 90 through Wyoming from Montana today can surely attest, these awe-inspiring creatures no longer dominate the Plains.

Instead hormone-infested cattle and genetically engineered crops occupy this lonely, dry landscape. Water has been stolen for profit. Impoverished Native Americans have been quarantined while oilmen keep drilling for more cash. The only remaining wild buffalo inhabiting these parts roam in places like Yellowstone National Park. But it is certainly no safe haven. When the buffalo migrate past the park's invisible boundaries (perhaps in an attempt to escape fanatical summer tourists sporting binoculars and high-powered cameras), they are killed under the pretext of "disease control." More than 3,000 have been killed since the 1980s by state agents and hunters who have purchased buffalo tags.

The illness that has prompted the State of Montana and Yellowstone Park to embrace such a vicious policy is called brucellosis. Management officials declare that most of Yellowstone's buffalo test positive for brucellosis, a disease where intracellular parasites cause chronic ailments. What these wildlife professionals won't tell you, however, is their field-testing only demonstrates that the buffalo possess antibodies to the disease, and not full-blown brucellosis. This means they've been exposed (like humans who were exposed to polio as kids) but are not necessarily able to transmit the disease.

Even more alarming is the fact that spreading of the brucellosis rarely occurs among free roaming herds. Transmission only happens in very specific, unusual cases, where a domesticated animal like a cow comes into contact with living brucellosis bacteria. One such instance where this might happen is when an infected fetus is miscarried (or aborted, as scientists term it) in the open range by a buffalo and then licked clean by a cow shortly thereafter. The likelihood of such an encounter is minimal at best, as a cow would have to discover the fetus well before scavengers consumed it. The solution is simple: Keep cattle and buffalo separate.

"[N]early all bison abortions -- and abortion in wild bison is an extremely rare event -- occurs in the late winter. In most of the habitat used by bison at this time of year, cattle are not present. They are back at the home ranch being fed hay," says Montana-based ecologist and author George Wuerthner. "That is why simply keeping cattle and bison separated is a fairly easy solution to conflicts -- if a solution were something that the ag boys were interested in creating."

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