Yellowstone's Bison face uncertain future

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GARDINER, Mont. - Since 1985 more than 3,240 Yellowstone National Park buffalo have been killed, largely in part by the National Forest Service and the Montana Department of Livestock. Most of the killings have taken place in the state of Montana along the northwestern border of Yellowstone in the Gallatin National Forest.

One would ask why a symbol of Plains Indian culture and an icon of Yellowstone National Park is being treated in such a manner. It might be the powerful Montana cattle industry and the idea still upheld by cattle ranchers that the west belongs to cattle and cowboys, not buffalo and Indians. Most Americans are unaware that the back country of Yellowstone National Park is one of two places in the world where the buffalo were not exterminated. Most people are aware of the Yellowstone herd and are misled to believe these buffalo are guarded, respected, and managed by the National Park Service.

We are all familiar with the accounts of the great buffalo massacre of the 1800s. We've seen the old black and white photos of ghostly buffalo skeleton mountains; frontier men clad in western outfits with guns held proudly off to the side. Herds that once numbered 70 million were gone by 1880. This horrendous slaughter, encouraged by the government, opened the plains for farming and homesteading by white settlers. Thousands of plains Indians starved to death, their relatives forced to subsist on meager government rations as the bison numbers dwindled. The Indian spirit, along with that of the buffalo, experienced a huge loss. It wasn't until 1894 that Congress passed the Lacey Act, which prohibited buffalo hunting, imposing a fine on anyone convicted of shooting one.

In 1902, fewer than 25 mountain bison remained in Yellowstone. Domestic plains bison were imported from Texas and mixed with the remaining mountain herd, allowing the herd to increase in numbers over the years. These buffalo were treated like cattle, grazing in summer months and corralled and fed hay in the winter. Overpopulation was remedied by simply shooting the buffalo dead. Cattle also occupied the area during these years and it was during this time some of the buffalo became infected with brucella abortus, (also known as brucellosis) a contagious disease introduced to the area by cattle.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease, transmitted by ingestion of infected afterbirth or fetal matter and can cause spontaneous abortions in infected animals. There is no known vaccine available for bison against the disease. It has never been documented that a free-range bison has transmitted it to cattle. Brucellosis is also common in wildlife such as elk, coyote, and moose, even deer. The state of Montana tolerates those animals mingling with cattle yet chooses to focus on bison. The bison management authority in the northern park border area is the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL).

Most of the buffalo killings take place during late winter/early spring when cattle are not present. Most of the buffalo shot are bulls, which can't transmit the disease.

Yellowstone buffalo follow their natural instincts in early spring when they migrate to lower elevations near the northern park border for easier grazing. This usually is a one-way migration as they are gunned down in their tracks or baited and captured when they cross the invisible line into Montana. The National Park Service captures the bison, and the DOL transports them to slaughter. The DOL officially declares that brucellosis is the motive for the slaughter. Over the years thousands of bison have been killed by the state of Montana with assistance from these two agencies.

The cattle industry is significant to the state of Montana, where it is a billion dollar a year business. Montana ranks sixth in the nation in beef production, with 2.6 million head of cattle and 20,000 dairy cows. Montana earned the status of "brucellosis-free" in 1985, which means the ranchers no longer had to pay for costly tests before exporting cattle. The only way the "brucellosis-free" status can be revoked is if an actual outbreak occurs among the cattle. When a suspected outbreak threat occurred that same year, the state of Montana implemented a bison hunt. Due to public outcry the hunt was suspended. Instead, only bison that wandered out of the park were shot.

In 1995 the first interim management plan was devised because of a lawsuit filed by the state of Montana, which claimed the National Park Service and the Dept. of Interior management allowed "diseased bison to enter the state." The plan was to remain in place until late 2000, when a final interim plan known as the Bison Management Plan was adopted. Both plans institute a policy of zero tolerance, allowing the capture and slaughter of buffalo both inside and outside the park. The current plan allows the DOL to haze bison back into the park if they are near the borders, using helicopters and all-terrain vehicles. The plan designates May 15 as a "deadline" date, after which time any bison wandering outside the park are immediately shot without testing.

The Yellowstone herd presently numbers around 4,000. Using data from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, state bureaucrats have placed the capacity of the herd at 3,000. The 1,000 bison exceeding the count are subject to the shoot-to-kill solution of herd control allowed by the Bison Management Plan. Captured bison are required to be tested for brucellosis, yet the DOL agents seem to forget this as most of the buffalo are slaughtered without being tested; their carcasses sent to the Stillwater Packing Plant, a slaughterhouse located in Columbus, Mont.

Several studies done on captured and slaughtered Yellowstone bison reveal that while a large percentage has been exposed to brucellosis and carry antibodies, less than 20 percent were actually infected. Bison also possess a gene called NRAMP1, a gene that becomes active when the bison reaches the age of two. NRAMP1 purges the disease, if present, from the bison.

Native communities and grassroots action groups have expressed their outrage of the killings and are taking steps to restore the buffalo.

The Intertribal Bison Cooperative, based in Rapid City, S.D., has a membership of 42 tribes and a collective herd of 8,000 bison. This non-profit organization is committed to reestablishing buffalo herds to Indian lands. Founded in 1990 with the primary goal of returning the buffalo to Indian country, the IBC helped pressure Congress into appropriating funding for tribal bison programs in 1991. In past years "surplus" buffalo have been transported from the park to reservation lands through the Cooperative's efforts.

The IBC hopes to develop a marketing strategy that creates a fair market price to tribal buffalo producers and increase the use of bison meat as a food source. Health problems including diabetes and heart disease that are rampant in Indian country could be decreased by consumption of more traditional foods such as bison meat. The IBC was present when the National Park Service held their tribal consultation meetings on June 5 in Gardiner, Mont.

The Buffalo Field Campaign, an action group with headquarters in West Yellowstone, employs a direct approach. With a staff of volunteers, this group patrols the border of Yellowstone near the buffalo capture facilities. Each day in the winter and early spring members of the BFC can be seen on patrol on skis, snowshoes or on foot, with a video camera on hand. Members stand with bison and defend them if they appear to be in imminent danger and close to the park boundary. "The kill numbers have gone down since the BFC was established in 1997," says Jonas Ehudin, BFC member and press coordinator. "Our daily patrols have had a major impact as the DOL agents are constantly aware that their every action is monitored and recorded." They have built elaborate road blockade tripods to stop the two capture facilities from being built, resulting in the arrest of several BFC members.

As summer approaches and the herds migrate toward the safety of the inner park and away from the relentless hazing along the borders, the BFC group tours the country and delivers information to the public about the situation in Yellowstone. "We need all the help we can get, not just us but other groups willing to defend the buffalo," said Ehudin. "Montana's new governor, Judy Martz, is just as determined as past governors in their efforts to continue this shoot-to-kill method of controlling the herd."

In February 1999 a group of 30 Indians from various tribes made a 50-mile journey on foot and horseback from Rapid City to the north Yellowstone entrance in a demonstration of spiritual activism. Led by Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder, the group faced harsh winter weather, personal struggles, and racism along the way. Little Thunder is the co-founder of Buffalo Nations, from which the Buffalo Field Campaign branched out. "There should be some alternative to killing them, in this day and age," said Little Thunder.

In February, the Senate Fish and Game Committee passed S. 395: Sport Hunting of Wild Buffalo As A Management Tool. A bill that will likely become law, S. 395 is considered a tool for the DOL to use to do their dirty work. According to S. 395, the DOL would establish the terms for when, where, and which animals are to be hunted. The Fish and Game Committee would then issue a permit.

So far, 2003 has been the deadliest year since 1996, when 1,100 bison were slaughtered. Two hundred thirty-one bison have been killed this spring. The outlook might seem dismal, yet there may be some alternatives in the near future which will protect the bison from further harm.

In late April, the U.S. Forest Service announced it had transferred the cattle grazing allotment on the national forest land near the Horse Butte capture facility to another allotment in Idaho. This is good news for the bison in future years because the land near these grazing allotment lands is usually where most of the DOL hazing, capture, and slaughter took place. The argument that brucellosis will be spread from bison to cattle could become tenuous and outdated. One private ranch remains in the area yet the owners have not disclosed if they will allow cattle grazing on the property in the future.

A proposed management plan giving the Salish and Kootenai tribes responsibility for the 18,000-acre National Bison Range in Montana could be approved by November 30 of this year. The proposal would leave the bison range in federal ownership but under tribal management. If approved by the Interior Department the range could provide a safe haven for the surplus Yellowstone bison and pave the way for other similar plans.

The Park Service, which oversees the buffalo management plan currently in effect in Yellowstone, is constantly pressured by the livestock industry. Unless more people voice their opinions and offer suggestions that protect buffalo interests above that of cattle, this slaughter of buffalo and disrespect of Indian religions will continue.

For further information on the action groups working on behalf of the buffalo, contact: Intertribal Bison Cooperative at: www.intertribalbison.org, Buffalo Nations at: buffalo@wildrockies.org or the Buffalo Field Campaign at: stop-the-slaughter@wildrockies.org.