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Back from the Brink: Montana Gov. Pardons Bison on Eve of Slaughter

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They were on the brink of slaughter, then the Montana governor brought them back—by ostracizing them.

Ironically they were spared by fears that a type of bacteria they’re infected with, brucellosis, would spread to cattle, Reuters reported—even though no case of transmission between bison and livestock has ever been recorded. The disease causes cows to miscarry.

Bison routinely migrate from the park during winter in search of food, where they are either brought to slaughterhouses or hunted by tribes with treaty rights.

The move capped the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict that environmental journalist Deborah Bassett has called a “war on bison,” in which the animals are slaughtered when their numbers grow too great—larger than 3,000—and they stray into Montana. They are among the last 4,000 descendants that remain from the original 23 that escaped the original slaughter by European settlers.

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer “pardoned” the bison, also known as American buffalo, by barring them from his state, Reuters said. Of 525 bison corralled by the government, 217 have tested positive for exposure to brucellosis and were slated to be killed, the wire service said. He signed an executive order to prohibit the importation of park bison into Montana for 90 days, effectively blocking “all potential routes out of the park to slaughter plants in Montana and neighboring states,” the Associated Press reported.

Bison advocate Dan Brister, head of the Buffalo Field Campaign, called it a “stay of execution,” the AP said.

Yellowstone Park officials were caught short given that the slaughter plan had already been in place for a month, according to the AP. Considering that no incidences of transmission have been recorded between bison and cattle, "I don't know what the governor was trying to address," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash told the wire service.