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Will the buffalo roam?

Putting an end to Yellowstone's killing fields

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Yellowstone’s bison-killing season has become routine and expected, like spring floods or fire season. But this year might be different; this year could be the last year that bison are killed when they leave the park.

Since Feb. 21, 300 bison have been captured at a facility near Stephens Creek on the northern boundary of the park. Of those, 145 have tested positive for exposure to brucellosis and been sent to slaughter, according to the Park Service. On the western border of the park, near West Yellowstone, another 11 have been killed by the Montana Department of Livestock.

The numbers are tame compared to 1996, when 1,083 buffalo were killed, but winter isn’t over yet.

From turnouts along Highway 89 just north of Gardiner, there’s a full view of what Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) member George Nell calls “the stage,” a sweeping valley where bison congregate at the base of white-capped peaks to escape the snows of higher elevations. Last Saturday business continued as usual: The Park Service harassed a lone bull while BFC members kept a close watch.

The bull didn’t look like he’d done anything egregious. The untrained eye would assume he’d simply crossed a cottonwood-lined draw. But in the world of human boundaries, the bison had just left Yellowstone. Park rangers on horseback responded and herded the animal amiably back toward the park. The spectacle ended when the bison turned up a draw and wandered out of sight around a mountainside, with rangers following close behind. Word of that particular bull resurfaced again on Monday. This time his sentence for roaming was death. He was shot by rangers and left in the field.

This management technique could become obsolete via several routes. One is the Yellowstone Buffalo Preservation Act, H.R. 3446, a bi-partisan piece of legislation introduced by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Rep. Charles Bass (R-NH) that proposes a three-year moratorium on the hazing, capturing, or killing of buffalo on federal lands outside of Yellowstone’s borders. The bill also calls for bison to be allowed to roam freely on federal lands immediately to the west and north of the park, and for sole jurisdiction of buffalo management to be transferred to the Park Service, instead of the current partial control residing with the Montana Department of Livestock.

Since its introduction on Nov. 5, 2003, H.R. 3446 has rounded up 66 co-sponsors. Currently the bill is sitting in the House Committee on Natural Resources, which has requested executive comment from the Department of Interior.

“The current policy of hazing and slaughtering these animals is unnecessary,” Sen. Hinchey’s Press Secretary Kevin O’Connell said. “Yellowstone buffalo herds should have the freedom to roam federal lands like other wild animals. This legislation would put an end to the current policy.”

Last July, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) introduced an amendment to the House Interior Appropriations bill that would have stopped the killing of bison in Yellowstone. The amendment was barely defeated on a vote of 220–199.

“That’s an indication that there’s quite a bit of support for this,” O’Connell said. “I don’t know how harsh the winter is out there, but the more bison that are killed, the more pressure there is to hold a hearing and get the ball rolling. There’s no justification for the current management. There has never been a documented case of the transmission of brucellosis from buffalo to cattle in the wild.”

The current policy is dictated by the Bison Interagency Management Plan, a process that aims to eradicate brucellosis from bison in the ecosystem through the capture, testing and vaccination of calves and yearlings. If animals test positive for the disease they are sent to slaughter, and in rare cases shot in the field.

Critics of the plan think that rounding up wild animals and injecting them with vaccinations is inherently against the notion of wildness.

But Cheryl Matthews, with Yellowstone public relations, says that the actions are designed to maintain a healthy herd in the long run.

“The purpose of this plan is to preserve a wild herd of Yellowstone bison,” Matthews said. “And we’re working to maintain Montana’s brucellosis-free status.”

Another opportunity to halt the killing will present itself in November, when a new administration takes a seat in the governor’s chair in Helena.

“It only takes one word from the governor to make it stop,” BFC spokesperson Josh Osher said. “So that’s something we’re looking forward to.”

BFC founder Mike Mease is also excited about the prospect of political change.

“This is [the current administration’s] last year to have their ducks in a row politically,” Mease said. “They won’t have Martz. They won’t have Bush. They won’t have [former Gov.] Racicot, who started this whole thing. With the removal of the imbedded power structures we might get a chance to look at things scientifically, instead of providing another subsidy for the cattle industry.”

Democratic gubernatorial contender Brian Schweitzer says that the power isn’t necessarily in the hands of the governor, but acknowledges that the governor can provide leadership to solve the problem.

“The governor can’t do anything without APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services],” Schweitzer said. “We need for APHIS to step up and be realistic. But I think the governor can provide good leadership to direct APHIS in the right way, and if elected I intend to do that. I want to protect the financial interests of the livestock industry. But if, in fact, the transmission is a low chance, they need to recognize that. We need APHIS to have a coherent policy to reflect the world.”

Contact the reporter: jmahan@ missoulanews.com

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