Killing bison’s migratory instinct

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Great opinion piece on management of our last wild bison in the Great Falls Tribune:

It is summer in Yellowstone National Park. Some visitors are busy photographing bison and elk grazing together near a multi-colored thermal pool. But their cameras do not record these two ungulates’ radically divergent lives.

Many of the bison have gone through a hazing operation this spring. In the middle of calving season they have been forced back into the park, driven from their historic birthing grounds just outside the park by a coalition of government agents. Every year they converge on horseback and in pick-ups, squad cars and helicopters. Calves are often injured. Uncooperative bison are shot.

Elk on the other hand are left alone to calve and migrate where they please.

These annual operations are conducted by agents from the Montana Department of Livestock, National Park Service, Forest Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

It is worse for bison in winter. Much worse. As snow deepens high in the park, bison often descend to find forage and protection from sub-zero temperatures. Waiting for them in ambush is this same coalition of government agents stationed along their migratory routes.

But instead of hazing them back onto park land, agents herd them into a stockyard in the park and ship them to a slaughterhouse. Hundreds are destroyed annually. In 2008, a total of 1,600 were killed.

Following the harsh winter of 1996-97 when more than 1,000 bison were slaughtered trying to leave the park, Mike Finley, the park’s superintendent, expressed shock at what he witnessed:

“When people describe what’s happening here as a national tragedy, I don’t disagree with them. … We are participating in something that is totally unpalatable to the American people, and it’s something we are not convinced that science justifies,” he said.

Why is this being done to wild bison, the animal Congress is considering as America’s “national mammal”? It is a story of bad law, bad science, bad economics and bad wildlife management.

During the seven years spanning 2002 to 2007, the government spent $16 million, $2.7 million annually, to keep wild bison separate from a few cattle — a mere 2,000 trucked each spring onto grasslands outside the park near Gardiner and West Yellowstone. These grasslands where bison calve are public, divided into allotments. Cattlemen prize them because the grazing fees are much lower than those charged for private land.

This means government is spending $1,350 a head to keep bison away from a few cattle so a few cattlemen can make a profit of $50 a head in a good year and use as a tax write-off in a bad year.

Yellowstone’s wild bison are the descendants of 23 bison that hid out in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley at the end of the 1800s, escaping the slaughter that wiped from their original habitat all other wild bison in the United States, which once numbered 30 million.

Now numbering about 3,500 animals, this is the only herd in America that has not been extirpated — the only herd that has remained continuously wild and unfenced — coming here from the Old World 10,000 years ago across the Bering Land Bridge.

Now, like animals in a zoo, they are captives of the park.

The ostensible reason for this discrimination is the claim that some wild bison have brucellosis and might transmit it to cattle. But an equal percentage of elk have the disease and pose an identical transmission risk.

Brucellosis causes a heifer to abort. Under federal rules, if a cow contracts brucellosis it must be slaughtered and the herd temporarily quarantined.

However, there is no record of bison ever infecting cattle in the wild. Transmission has only occurred in the laboratory. Researchers at Texas A&M penned several disease-free pregnant heifers with several artificially-infected pregnant bison. Half the heifers contracted brucellosis.

Based on this experiment, Montana, on behalf of the cattlemen, sued two federal agencies, resulting in a settlement outlawing wild bison from their state and subjecting trespassers to “lethal removal” and what might be called species profiling.

Thousands objected to the settlement terms, but the government responded in its environmental impact study that while “evidence indicates the risk of transmission under natural field conditions is extremely low,” they must persist because the risk is “not zero.”

Never mind that risk of transmission between elk and cattle is also “not zero.” Never mind that a similar experiment with elk demonstrated that in crowded facilities, elk can also infect cattle with the disease.

Never mind that the experiments actually demonstrate crowding species together promotes disease transmission.

Never mind that because only bison having the migratory instinct are killed, virtually the only bison that now survive are those that stay behind.

The government has been doing this for 20 years. Someday, no bison may be left that know how to migrate, the pool of genes prompting migration rotting on the floor of the slaughterhouse. When a severe winter comes, the remaining bison may not migrate and die together inside the very park established to protect them.

Research suggests that allowing bison to go beyond the park is the only way to avoid large-scale lethal reductions.

How can this be done? Since Montana insists on zero risk of transmission, create cattle-free zones where bison can migrate and calve just outside the park. This would save millions of dollars as well as the nation’s only continuously wild bison from extinction.

James Horsley is the author of a petition submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Feb. 11, 1999, to list the Yellowstone National Park bison herd as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Horsley, an opinion poll researcher and a former speechwriter and college English instructor, is the publisher of the webzine “The Buffalo People” at


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