In the conservation community, sometimes close losses are chalked up as victories. On July 18, the House of Representatives narrowly voted down an amendment that would have banned the use of federal dollars to kill bison. But the 199-220 loss demonstrates to conservationists that they’re gaining ground.
“There was actually debate on the House floor of the Yellowstone bison issues, so that’s encouraging,” says Dan Brister of the Buffalo Field Campaign. “I think this is just the first step of many.”
Executive Director of the Bozeman, Mont.-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition Michael Scott agrees that the debate and the 199 votes amount to unprecedented momentum.
“It was a remarkable showing and outpouring of support for a new issue in Yellowstone,” he says. “Many in the Congress didn’t know what they were voting for, other than they were voting for the park, and they were voting for the park’s wildlife.”
Sponsored by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the bison-protection amendment would have halted for one year the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service’s killing of buffalo within Yellowstone National Park and surrounding federal lands. Rahall, who spent time in February touring the park with other representatives, has been credited with championing what Brister calls “a national, not just Western issue.”
“This is the last free-roaming herd of buffalo on the continent,” he says. “That’s of importance to everyone.”
Neither Brister nor Scott has found much support within Montana’s congressional delegation for halting the bison kill. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) led the charge against the amendment, which was largely supported by Eastern Democrats. Rehberg’s worry is that bison infected with brucellosis will transmit the disease to Montana cattle, though there has yet to be documented an instance of such transmission. He’s also suggested that brucellosis could pose a threat to humans.
Scott says he doesn’t find it strange that his organization finds so much support in the East.
“Recall the history of the establishment of Yellowstone National Park,” he says. “Had it been up to the people here, we would have never had the park.”
The next step for Brister is to parlay the momentum into a greater awareness of the issue in both the East and West. Scott, meanwhile, wants to educate Montanans on Wyoming’s method of letting bison that come out of the park mingle with cattle.
“As long as Montana maintains that position of intolerance toward bison, we will work to find alternative allotments for cattle, to lease private lands so there won’t be cattle and bison together,” he says.