Slaughtering the American Bison ... Again

The gusts of breath blow quickly away from the snorting bison traveling north through the Yellowstone River Valley, near the Black Cow Ponds and the Boiling River. All around the snow is cratered where the huge, shaggy beasts have plowed to get at the vegetation underneath.This year, however, record snowfall throughout the West, unseasonable Chinook winds and heavy rains have created a stiff crust that even the stoutest bulls can't break through. So the bison, in an effort to stave off starvation, are heading to better pastures up the valley.They don't know it, but these majestic creatures are marching toward another form of death, waiting just beyond the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.Bison leaving the park near the tiny town of Gardiner, Mont. are being rounded up in pens and carted off to slaughterhouses in the nearby Montana towns of Livingston, Sheridan and Columbus. They are being eliminated to protect grazing allotments on public lands for privately-owned cattle herds. At the Park's west entrance, the bison are being allowed to graze on adjoining National Forest Land, but if they attempt to move onto private land they are also being killed.According to a park spokesperson, 178 bison had been killed as of January 14th; more than 200 more were being held in a large pasture awaiting processing. Several animals have been severely injured as well. Eye-witnesses say they have seen young bison with horns broken off, splattering blood in the chutes.Ranchers who keep their livestock near the park have been worried about the disease brucellosis for more than a decade. The disease, which causes cows to abort their first pregnancies, arrived in this country 100 years ago with European cattle, and was transmitted to elk, bison and other wild animals.In most states, brucellosis is controlled through vaccination, but Montana is listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "brucellosis free." Ranchers who are not currently required to vaccinate fear that the disease's potential spread from bison to cattle continues to threaten livestock values.The USDA has played a role in causing this controversy by insisting that Montana keep bison out -- something the state seems more than willing to do. Montana's chief veterinary officer, Clarence Siroki, calls bison "a species in need of management."But the Interim Bison Management Plan, as its formally called, has prompted an avalanche of criticism. Even members of the Park Service have their doubts about the effort, which has already cost the financially strapped Yellowstone Park more than $100,000 this winter alone. "If we had a different solution we would be using it," says a spokesperson for Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley. "What we're doing right now is based on a lack of information."A loose conglomerate of environmentalists and animal rights activists are fighting the current plan, saying that the bison are being robbed their natural dignity. They further charge that Yellowstone officials have broken the law by adopting a plan that calls for the destruction of these animals rather than their protection.Members of a number of Native American tribes-known altogether as the Buffalo Nation-have joined the battle, pointing out the sacred role the bison has played in their shared histories, and demanding the animals be treated with respect.These critics say cows have never caught brucellosis from bison in the wild. Foes of the Interim Plan insist-and scientists throughout the West concur-that the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle is slim to none, especially during the winter months when the two species have no contact. According to a 1995 report by Mary Meagher, one of the leading bison researchers in the country, "the risk of transmission from free-ranging bison to cattle herds is very low."An essential element of indigenous lifestyles and a linchpin of the plains ecosystem from Nebraska to Montana and beyond, bison numbered in the tens of millions through the mid-1800s. Indians followed them on their seasonal migrations, respecting them as sacred and feeding on them. The buffalo cleared massive swaths of snow in winter, exposing forage for elk, deer and other ungulates. Wolves and bears hunted them and scavenged along with coyotes, eagles and ravens on their dead carcasses.Beginning in the 1850s, horses and rifles made quick work of the estimated 60 million bison spread across the American West. By 1901, there were 25 free-ranging bison left alive on the continent -- the ancestors of today's herds. They were to be found in Yellowstone's Pelican Valley on the east side of the park.The establishment of the park in 1872 and ensuing management strategies allowed the bison to re-establish themselves at the heart of the American wilderness. In 1966, following a period of interbreeding with captive plains bison and subsequent reduction efforts, the government adopted a regime of "no active manipulation" within park boundaries; yet, within two years, a boundary control program was instituted to limit the spread of brucellosis outside the park. It may seem hyperbolic to compare today's conflict over bison to the slaughter of yesteryear. But 1,000 of the park's current population of about 3,500 bison could be killed this winter. Nobody knows how many more will fall prey to the heavy snows, to the newly reintroduced wolves or the occasional grizzly come spring.Jim Angel of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed a suit last September on behalf of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the American Buffalo Foundation and others. Angel says the park's current bison policy goes directly against the rules intended to guide park actions. The lawsuit, initially rejected in US District Court in Helena by Judge Charles C. Lovell, aims to stop the killing. Angel is currently in the process of appealing Lovell's decision. The park has been sued numerous times over bison treatment, but has only lost one minor case in the past. According to Angel, the substance of this latest lawsuit-which targets Yellowstone administrators, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior-focuses on federal stipulations that the park must first and foremost protect wildlife within its boundaries."Wildlife in Yellowstone cannot by caught or killed inside the park unless they pose a threat to humans," Angel says. "That's a bedrock principle that they have in place: Don't slaughter animals inside the park. Lots of species spend time in and out of the park-black bears, grizzlies, elk- that could be said to pose a 'threat' in the same way. We're not saying the bison should be allowed to go everywhere, but they should be treated how other wildlife are treated."Dan Huff, the National Park Service's representative on the Greater Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee, defends his agency's record. He acknowledges that his legal attackers may have a point, but quickly adds that a court decision in their favor could hamstring the park in managing other issues. He says it's imperative that the Park Service participate actively in bison management, just as it advocated for wolf reintroduction and against the proposed New World Mine."We have to consider impacts outside the park," Huff says. "If the state looses its brucellosis-free status, it could cost a lot of money, and lock producers out of certain markets."Huff says that the Park Service must be willing to work with its neighbors, and must be willing to take a stand on issues that affect the National Parks on both sides of their borders. As public servants, he says, administrators must recognize that just as actions outside Yellowstone effect the park's denizens, creatures that call the park home can have external impacts."Like we objected to the gold mine, we have the state objecting to brucellosis. I would say the Park Service needs to be concerned about both."Huff goes on to say that the Interim Plan, in his opinion, does not conflict with the Park Service's mission: "As herds migrate out of the park in larger numbers, and as the population grows, more move out. We had to come up with a plan, and the plan we have will not hurt the bison herd; individuals will be killed, but we are not in danger of eliminating the herd.""As it is, we are still well within our objectives."Ravens indicate a dead animal by the roadside. Grizzly expert, wildlife filmmaker and author Doug Peacock, who has spent many seasons among the Yellowstone bison, stops to examine the corpse. He points out wolf tracks, not new, and a few coyote prints that mark the bloodied, streamside snow.There's not much left of the young bison which has drawn the scavenging birds-including a pair of magpies-to this spot. Peacock, concerned over the fate of the last wild bison, is outraged with the tone the current debate over bison management has taken. He complains that bureaucrats have replaced the rightful administrators of the park."Their mandate is to protect these animals, not aid in their fucking slaughter," Peacock says. His profanity belies his anxiety over what's in store for the bison; he calls the dead calf an omen. For Peacock, the goal is to awaken an ancient sense of natural wonderment and awe, something that was lost when the Indians were subdued all but two dozen wild bison were captured or killed."No people on the face of the earth ever had an impact on the planet's biomass as we had on the bison in the 19th century," Peacock says. Time has come, according to Peacock, to reckon with this bloody heritage -- and it clearly infuriates him that the Park Service, for whom he once worked, is not taking its fundamental mission more seriously.As the winter drags on, Huff admits, it may become harder for the Park Service to stay within its objectives. The bison plan doesn't name a maximum number of bison to be killed, but Yellowstone administrators have said they don't want to have to kill any more animals this year than have been killed in the past.In the winter of 1988-89, the state of Montana remained in charge of bison control measures, including a then-controversial hunt (an idea which has been revived in the 1997 state legislature by Livingston's Rep. Bob Raney). That year, more than 900 bison left the park, and 569 were killed.Park Service employees in Yellowstone are clearly feeling worse about the situation than their federal counterparts in Denver. "We're not in a happy place," park spokeswoman Marsha Karle says.By the end of this week, about 400 bison will have been killed. (Their mantles, hides and meat will be auctioned to help defray expenses.) And with several months of rough weather left in the season, many more are sure to leave the park. In an effort to come up with a contingency plan, Park Superintendent Mike Finley has decided to enlist the help of the state of Montana.In a Jan. 10 letter addressed to Gov. Marc Racicot, Finley writes: "I am concerned about the number of bison that have been killed so early in the winter due to both our bison management actions. At the current rate of removal. we soon will reach or exceed the 1988-89 benchmark.Further, based on data from past winters, significant winter mortality of bison can be expected this year. I believe it is appropriate, therefore to begin the consultation process that was agreed to in the present Bison Management Plan without any delay."The State of Montana, meanwhile, continues to focus on the perceived need to keep the bison away from cattle. State Veterinarian Siroki acknowledges that the winter looks to be harsher than anyone expected, but says that instead of looking for handouts from his office, or the Department of Livestock-which is already administrating, for all intents and purposes, the Gardiner slaughter operation-Yellowstone should be looking at ways to keep the animals in bounds."There's nothing to stop the Park Service from getting into more vigorous hazing," Siroki says. "There are many things they can do to try and keep the bison in the park. I'm not going to speak for the governor, but the one thing I'm going to tell you is exposure to livestock is not a negotiating point."Meanwhile, Mark Heckert, Executive Director of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, has stepped forward with an alternative that could appease almost everyone-that is, he says, if he could get anybody to listen.Heckert, who works with the 41 tribes of the Buffalo Nation -- including in Montana the Crow, Blackfeet, and Confederated Salish-Kootenai -- says that the current program of shipping bison to slaughterhouses is entirely unacceptable from a traditional standpoint. He calls for testing and quarantining the bison that leave the park, and then releasing them onto tribal lands."We find the current system abhorrent," he says flatly. "The government needs to recognize that there are irrevocable ties and a strong cultural connection which continues to this day. We're here to ensure that the animals get protected as the largest biomass on the continent." Heckert says the high level of politicization surrounding the issue has distracted most of the players from the fact that for generations, the bison were part of tribal subsistence, both spiritually and physically. It's time, he says, for the tribes to get back out in front of the issue."Brucellosis is a political disease. It always has been, and now the buffalo is in the vice," Heckert says. "It's not the state livestock and animal control people's job to care about wildlife. It's their job to care about cattle. These misguided efforts show a lack of respect. The tribes now have to stand for the buffalo."

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