The slaughter of bison in Yellowstone National Park has been declared finished for the year, but the controversy is far from over.
A season that saw acrimony erupt between two tribes, as well as the arrest and arraignment of a young activist, was topped off by a U.S. government study that said bison don’t have to be slaughtered to prevent the spread of brucellosis.
It has become something of an annual tradition: Bison seeking sustenance in deepest winter edge out of Yellowstone National Park’s northern border to forage in Montana where, ranchers say, the animals’ potential contamination with brucellosis threatens livestock. This year, at any rate, tribes got to take the buffalo and use the meat, hearkening back to traditions that pre-date the park or the presence of any ranchers. But many conservationists objected to one of the methods, which entailed the trucking of hundreds of bison to slaughterhouses, rather than hunting them.
“The problem isn’t with killing buffalo, it’s with indiscriminate killing of buffalo,” said Jim Stone, chairman of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, to the Billings Gazette. “The tribes have been opposed to a lot of what the park has done.”
What tribes would like to see, Stone said, is for disease-free calves to be transplanted to tribes that already have bison herds, with slaughter reserved for older bulls and cows only. Fifty-eight tribes in 19 states belong to the Tribal Buffalo Council, and 50 of those tribes maintain herds, the Billings Gazette said.
Earlier this month 20-year-old Comfrey Jacobs of Grand Junction, Colorado, was arrested after chaining himself for five hours to a 50-gallon, cement-filled drum in the middle of the road leading to a bison capture facility, the Billings Gazette reported on March 6. Though he did not slow down the process—three horse trailers laden with bison headed for slaughter rumbled by as authorities were cutting his chains—he was charged with disorderly conduct, breaking the area closure around the capture facility and interfering with government operations, the Gazette said. Arraigned on Tuesday March 11, Jacobs refused a plea bargain and will appear in court again on April 2, the Billings Gazette said.
The season was declared over on March 7 after about 600 bison had been removed in total, the Associated Press reported. Authorities told AP that 258 bison that had migrated outside the park had been captured and shipped to slaughter, while hunters had killed 264 or more, and 60 others had been put into an animal-contraception experiment.
Although ranchers do not support the release of bison outside the park, a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Wildlife Conservation Society found recently that bison can be quarantined and determined to be brucellosis-free. This makes it safe to take young bison out of Yellowstone and combine them with herds elsewhere without risking brucellosis transmission to a new set of animals, the study authors said.
“The results of this study indicate that under the right conditions, there is an opportunity to produce live brucellosis-free bison from even a herd with a large number of infected animals like the one in Yellowstone National Park,” said Dr. Jack Rhyan, APHIS Veterinary Officer, in a statement released by the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Additionally, this study was a great example of the benefits to be gained from several agencies pooling resources and expertise to research the critical issue of brucellosis in wildlife.”
Brucellosis, which causes miscarriage in the animals, can be passed on to a cow that comes in contact with the aborted fetus of a bison, elk or cattle. The study took young bison from an infected herd and kept them long enough to calve. The animals and their offspring were tested for brucellosis and found to be disease-free, rendering them safe, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.
Yellowstone bison are the most genetically pure, meaning they are a match for the herds that used to thunder across the Great Plains, a mainstay of culture and sustenance for Indigenous Peoples. An agreement with Montana mandates the park to keep the bison population at 3,200 in its northern herd and 1,400 in the central, the latter being the one that tends to migrate out of the park in winter.
Meanwhile acrimony erupted between two tribes that are historical enemies when a Blackfoot man accused the Nez Perce of killing pregnant female bison. Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman spoke out after James St. Goddard of the Blackfoot Confederacy showed up at Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s office bearing a bloody bison heart in a plastic bag. Whitman said that although they did not agree with the methods used, Nez Perce members welcomed the meat. The Salish Kootenai, Umatilla and Nez Perce all have hunting rights outside the park, according to the Helena Independent Record, while the Blackfoot do not.
“We deal with the hand we’ve been given, and our people need to eat,” said Whitman.