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

This Winter's Bison Plan

Air Date: Week of

The bison of Yellowstone Park suffered huge losses last winter between starvation and being shot by Montana Department of Livestock agents out of fear of brucellosis -- a disease that affects some bison and could potentially spread to local cattle. Todd Wilkinson is the western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He says despite protests against the bison policy last year, the plan remains largely the same for this winter.


KNOY: The bison of Yellowstone Park suffered huge losses last winter. Hundreds of the animals, unable to find food beneath the deep snow, died of starvation. More than 1,000 bison approached the park's boundaries in search of food. There, Montana Department of Livestock agents shot hundreds of them. Yellowstone rangers rounded up the rest and sent many to slaughter. The reason: Montana ranchers fear of brucellosis, a disease which affects some bison and could spread to local cattle. Todd Wilkinson is the Western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He says despite protests against the bison policy last year, the plan remains largely the same for this winter.

WILKINSON: We're still in a holding pattern and many environmentalists have claimed that should winter conditions turn harsh, we could have a repeat of what happened last year. For the long term there are a couple of things that are being considered besides the land acquisition and the quarantine. One is the development of a vaccine to protect livestock which co-mingle with wildlife. And another one, which is sure to create some more controversy, is that in 1999, when the Montana legislature reconvenes, it will consider authorizing another sport hunt of bison outside the park.

KNOY: There's an effort to keep bison within the park by scaring them away from the boundaries. How do you do that?

WILKINSON: Well, it's called hazing, and the Park Service, in cooperation with the Forest Service and the Department of Livestock, this year plans to have rangers and other staff members on horseback and using cracker shells and other sorts of things that once bison move beyond the boundary, that they would be driven back inside the park. Another part of this is that those animals which insist upon going to lowlands beyond the park will then be captured and tested for brucellosis. Those which test positive will be shipped off to slaughter, while those which test negative will be corralled and then turned loose in the spring.

KNOY: Does it work, this tactic of trying to scare them?

WILKINSON: Well, it can, as long as the numbers are low. Last year it was like a tide of bison that swelled along the border and then poured over, and it proved not to be very successful. But this year, after 1,100 were shot or shipped to slaughter, we have about 2,400 in the park. And so far, at least on the northern side, where many of the animals died, there hasn't been that great exodus.

KNOY: Describe the concern that local ranchers have about bison going out of the park.

WILKINSON: The concern is based on an assumption that cows will come down with brucellosis, that a quarantine will be imposed upon individual ranchers, and that will have economic implications for the livestock industry in Montana, which is about a $1 billion a year industry.

KNOY: And has this happened?

WILKINSON: No, it hasn't. Despite claims and a little bit of hysteria, there has not been one documented case of brucellosis being transmitted from bison to domestic livestock in the wild. In fact, the primary suspected means of transmission is when a beef cow comes in contact with an aborted bison fetus and actually licks the placenta. While the possibility for that occurring exists, it is extremely remote and is one of the reasons for this controversy. The State of Montana's been criticized for embarking upon a policy of killing bison when the actual risk to livestock doesn't appear to support such extreme measures. Now an interesting note is that this past week the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, released a report that had been prepared over the last 6 months assessing the actual risk of brucellosis transmission. The findings have certainly disarmed those who have created an environment of hysteria, and basically debunk those who say that the risk of transmission is high.

KNOY: Todd Wilkinson is the western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Thanks for joining us.

WILKINSON: It's been a pleasure.



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