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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In Yellowstone National Park, bison are grazing anew as they migrate to their summer ranges in the park's interior. One of the worst winters on record took a heavy toll on Yellowstone's wildlife in which more than half of the bison population, around 2000 all tolled, was lost. But, nature wasn't the main reaper. Nearly 1,100 bison were shot by park rangers as they wandered near or beyond Yellowstone's boundaries in search of food. The official reason for the slaughter was to control a disease some bison may carry. But as Jane Fritz reports, it was only the latest chapter in one of the oldest stories in the west: how to enclose open range for private use; and control wildlife that once roamed free.


RUDOLPH: In Yellowstone National Park, bison are grazing the new grasses that have replaced the deep snows and thick ice of winter. The animals are migrating to their summer ranges in the park's interior. One of the worst winters on record took a heavy toll on Yellowstone's wildlife: more than half of the bison population, or about 2000 animals, died. But Nature wasn't the only reaper. Nearly 1100 bison were shot by park rangers as they wandered near or beyond Yellowstone's boundaries in search of food. The official reason for the slaughter was to control a disease carried by some bison, but as Jane Fritz reports this was only the latest version in one of the oldest questions facing the West: how to enclose open range land for private use and control wildlife that once roamed free.

(A gate opens)

FRITZ: Just inside the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park stands a temporary plywood structure of steel gates.

(Rusty hinges)

FRITZ: It was here this past winter that National Park Service rangers herded nearly 500 wild bison into horse trailers and cattle trucks destined for Montana slaughterhouses.

(Metal latch on metal)

BREWSTER: This is the alleyway that the animals come out of the shoot processing, and if they're being sorted or turned back they go down this way. And if they're being loaded and shipped to slaughter they go up this way.

FRITZ: Wayne Brewster is a wildlife biologist and National Park Service administrator. He says the bison were captured and slaughtered to keep them from moving out of the park onto range land in the state of Montana, and possibly exposing cattle to an exotic disease that some bison carry, called brucellosis. Animals that eluded capture and crossed over anyway were shot by Montana agents. All told, 1100 wild bison, nearly the entire northern herd, were killed. It's given Wayne Brewster a feeling of deja vu.

BREWSTER: I don't know if it's history repeating itself, but bison were at very low numbers at the turn of the century, and it was America's first attempt at saving a species and it happened here in Yellowstone.

FRITZ: By the late 1800s, hide hunters had nearly wiped out the wild bison, also known as American buffalo. By 1902, only 2 dozen remained, protected here within Yellowstone National Park. This remnant wild herd was eventually augmented by captive animals and by mid-century bison were back from the edge of extinction. But Wayne Brewster says the science of the times called for maintaining less than 500 animals.

BREWSTER: Bison were captured, were handled, shipped to slaughter, butchered in the 50s and the 60s. And the policy at that time was that you had to reduce these numbers to very low levels because of the belief that the range was overgrazed. We shot hundreds of bison every winter. As good as it was then, we know different now.

FRITZ: Ultimately, biologists proved that Yellowstone's range land could support many more buffalo. So in 1968, the park began letting nature take its course. America's largest wild and free-roaming herd would be controlled only by the elements. Since then, the herd has grown into the thousands. But all that changed last winter. Here on their winter range, severe weather put forage under thick ice and deep snow. Wayne Brewster says the bison's search for food brought them to Yellowstone's borders for the first time in large numbers, and into trouble with the park's neighbors.

FRITZ: They hadn't found their country; I mean it's as simple as that. This is the first time in recent history that bison have been captured here at the boundary and shipped to slaughter.

FRITZ: Like it or not, the Park Service abandoned its natural regulation policies under a court settlement with Montana. The state had claimed allowing bison to cross into Montana put local cattle at risk of brucellosis.

(An opening gate?)

FRITZ: Bison once represented Montana's wild and free past, symbolized by the state's taxidermy treasure, a white buffalo bull named Big Medicine, which resides in the State Historical Museum across the street from the Capitol Building in Helena.

PETERSON: I remember as a young boy having seen him alive, and it was quite a thrill to see this animal.

FRITZ: But today, Larry Peterson, director of the Montana Department of Livestock, says Montana has a multi-million dollar cattle industry to protect.

PETERSON: Now, we look at it from a disease control perspective. We need to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis to domestic livestock.

FRITZ: Mr. Peterson says the state wants to completely eradicate brucellosis, and is supported by an agency of the US Department of Agriculture known as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.

PETERSON: APHIS tells us if the bison coming out of Yellowstone Park, which come from an infected herd, if they commingle with cattle we run the risk of losing our brucellosis-free status. Which economically would have a tremendous impact on the cattle industry in the state of Montana.

FRITZ: APHIS was once celebrated for combating ungulent fever in humans, a disease caused by the brucella bacteria that was contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk. Such cases are rare today. But the Federal Agency still spends around $60 million a year to eradicate the organism, since it can cause cows to abort their fetuses and diminish the value of breeding stock. Ironically, Yellowstone bison contracted brucellosis from dairy cows brought into the park in 1917. Today, nearby ranchers all vaccinate their herds against it, and there isn't a single documented case of bison in the field ever transmitting the disease back to cattle. But Montana and APHIS officials say the benefits of ensuring that it never happens are worth the cost of keeping the bison under strict control. Patrick Collins is an APHIS spokesman.

COLLINS: We reduce the need for a lot of testing, a lot of quarantining, a lot of vaccination of domestic cattle. This improves our ability to export beef and beef products. This helps our ag exports. This helps create jobs in the United States. This helps out the domestic economy. There are clear benefits.

FRITZ: Since APHIS wants complete eradication of brucellosis, the Agency is now seeking to expand its jurisdiction to include wildlife in the entire greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Elk also carry brusillosis, and other species do, too. That's left many wondering what the future holds for the park's other wild inhabitants.

TORBETT: Where do you draw the line? Short of total annihilation of the Yellowstone ecosystem? Can you truly eradicate the disease?

FRITZ: Steve Torbett is a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. In concert with 42 Indian tribes, the Federation has offered a plan to settle the grazing and brucellosis conflict, by changing the way both wildlife and livestock are managed. But neither the state of Montana nor APHIS has responded. Steve Torbett says the bison slaughter is part of an effort by fading bureaucracies to re-establish their control.

TORBETT: They have to subdue the West all over again. If they can get management authority over bison in Yellowstone National Park, what is next? You better believe it'll be the wolves. You better believe it'll be grizzly bears. Pretty soon, the elk, the deer, the moose, everything will exist at the whim of a very narrow special interest group of livestock bureaucrats. We think we can work with the ranchers, the people that are actually trying to make money off the ground. But the bureaucrats have no interest in solving the problem.

FRITZ: Livestock officials say they are interested in solving the problem. But Patrick Collins of APHIS says there are no quick answers.

COLLINS: It's going to take some years, it's probably, you know, a 10- or 15- year process, probably. It's going to require all the parties here to bend, to give a little. And we recognize that; we're prepared to do that. But again, we don't have the magic answer; we don't have the magic bullet.

(Latches click)

FRITZ: Thank you.

Back out on the Yellowstone bison's winter range, a chilly fierce wind buffets Wayne Brewster and my microphone as he surveys a heavily-grazed meadow that by next fall will rebound in new growth.

BREWSTER: It looks pretty, pretty used. This year more than ever. I mean, we've been marching bison back and forth, trying to keep them away from the boundary area here for 3 months now, so it's -- it's heavily used.

FRITZ: But even with adequate winter forage, it'll be tough for the bison population to recover. It's questionable whether they'll ever reach such high numbers again. But if they do, Wayne Brewster says they'll need additional winter range outside the park.

(High winds)

BREWSTER: You want me to get that door for you...

FRITZ: Thank you.

(More winds; fade to shutting car door and rolling on dirt)

FRITZ: As we drive along the Yellowstone River Valley into Montana, it's easy to see why during a hard winter buffalo might follow this natural corridor out of the park, ignoring Yellowstone's artificial, political boundary.

(Rolling continues. Metal clanking on metal. Footfalls)

FRITZ: Stopping at the border, we look down the road where hundreds of buffalo were killed. Just up the valley cattle are grazing. Wayne Brewster wonders aloud how the American people will ultimately strike the balance between wildlife conservation and livestock commerce.

BREWSTER: Yellowstone was this country's first national park. Buffalo were the first effort by a conservation agency, the American people, to save a species. And that effort was successful. And people associate a lot of importance and value with that. This is the only bison population that has been free-ranging throughout history in North America. There are limits beyond which they won't be tolerated. But that doesn't mean they can't be wild. They can be wherever we'll tolerate them.

FRITZ: For now, any buffalo leaving Yellowstone may continued to be captured while state and Federal agencies debate a range of management options. A draft environmental impact statement on these options is due out in late July. The public will then have a chance to share its views. For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz in Yellowstone National Park.



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