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August 1999
Bison and Brucellosis: The Wedge Issue between Environmentalists and Ranchers

By Martin Rowe


In the winter of 1996-1997 the state of Montana had what it thought was a bison problem. (Although the words are often used interchangeably, the large animals that used to be at home on the range are more properly called bison rather than buffalo.) Bison had been leaving Yellowstone National Park at its northern edge to reach the relatively snow-free grounds where they could find food for the winter months and calve. Although bison are protected in the Park because they are on federal land, it is up to the states to control wildlife outside the Park, even though the land the animals walk on may be public-owned.

The bison were considered a threat because of brucellosis, a disease originally given to bison by the infected cattle of settlers brought to America from Europe. Brucellosis causes cattle to abort their fetuses, although it apparently does not taint the meat. While ranchers had managed to eradicate it in cattle, brucellosis was still present in bison and the ranchers were fearful that bison would reinfect their livestock, which can happen if cattle eat grass tainted by bison females’ afterbirth. The reinfection of the cattle would mean that the state of Montana would lose its brucellosis-free status, causing livestock prices in that state to plummet.

That winter, therefore, Montana killed on the spot or shipped away to slaughter some one thousand bison—nearly a quarter of the total number of bison who lived in the Park. The massacre caught the attention of the media, especially when Montana shipped hunters in to shoot the docile animals from their cars. (One naturalist confided that shooting buffalo was about as sporting as shooting a sofa.) In a stirring gesture recalling previously generous gifts to their peoples, the state of Montana gave the buffalo meat and skins to local Native Americans.

Buffalo Nation

Of course it wasn’t always like this. Once the bison covered, like the Native American nations who depended on them for their survival, vast stretches of the North American continent. Like them, they were virtually wiped out in deliberate mass extermination. Between 1850 and 1880, Euro-Americans killed an estimated 80 million bison, so that by the end of the century there were fewer than 1,000 left, most in captivity, and only 23 in Yellowstone Park itself. By 1954, this number had grown to 1,500, although Park officials decided that the Park could only support 400 bison and began to kill them. By 1966, when the Park Service decided to let Nature decide how many bison the Park could tolerate, there were 397, a number that grew to 2,750 by 1988. By 1995, this number had increased to 4,500. Then came the severe winter, when the state of Montana and the weather combined to reduce the bison population by nearly one-half. Today, around 2,500 buffalo remain in the Park.

To many, the fact that the national symbol for Yellowstone and the West should still be slaughter fodder is an outrage—especially when there seems so little need. The northern rim of the Park, where the bison are being shot, is the grazing area for eight ranchers, all of whom have permits to graze on public land. Many people, from the most radical of environmental groups to the most conservative, have offered solutions to the brucellosis situation. The federal Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)—the organization that determines whether a state can call itself brucellosis-free—has indicated that it will waive its requirements in the case of these bison. Others have offered money to the eight ranchers to move their cattle elsewhere, either permanently or just for the two months that brucellosis may be active on the bison afterbirth. Advocates for the bison have pointed out that elk also carry brucellosis, and because of their greater numbers pose more of a risk to cattle than bison. Yet Montana does not kill elk, mainly because hunters (a hugely powerful lobby) refuse to allow the state to kill the animals when they can do it themselves. Some groups have suggested the use of a brucellosis vaccine—which is available—either for the bison or cattle. In all cases, the ranchers and their allies in the state government have refused to budge or change their policy.

Manmade Problem

It is not simply the presence of cattle around the Park that is leading to the slaughter of the bison; another manmade problem is quite literally leading them to leave the Park. Every year, some 100,000 snowmobilers congregate in the western part of the Park, polluting the air with the fumes and noise from their cacophonous engines. Yellowstone offers 200 miles of groomed trails where snowmobiles can go. Unfortunately, the bison use these trails as well, and often end up outside the Park where they are shot. Efforts by conservationists to curtail snowmobiling in certain areas (let alone stop it completely during the calving season) to prevent bison from leaving the Park have been met by resistance from organizations who claim it is infringing on the rights of those who wish to enjoy the Park. Conservationists argue that it is better for the bison to starve to death in the Park (where they will be part of the food supply for the equally hungry predators) than becoming victims of a shoot-to-kill policy.

There is currently an environmental impact assessment (EIS) being undertaken to assess the risks to cattle of the brucellosis virus. Conservationists and animal rights groups such as Friends of Animals have been pushing to avoid what Tom Skeele, Executive Director of Predator Project, fears will be the ultimate solution: the culling of bison until the entire herd has been cleared of brucellosis. Some experts suggest that up to 50 percent of the bison herd may have the virus. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC, formerly known as Buffalo Nation) uses civil disobedience to interrupt the annual winter slaughter of the bison. BFC complains that it is the wildlife agencies that should be managing the bison herds rather than the Montana Department of Livestock, which currently has jurisdiction and is clearly not a disinterested party. BFC notes that 98 percent of the land the bison use outside Yellowstone is National Forest land. The Forest Service, says BFC, should close the grazing allotments of cattle owners. Finally, BFC and others point out a further obvious fact. The bison move from public land (Yellowstone) to public land (Gallatin National Forest), therefore, the people own the land, and surveys suggest that the people want the bison—not the cattle—to have right of way.

Getting the Symbolism Right

Unfortunately, while conservation groups have been partly successful in attempts to change policies, they have found themselves on the defensive in framing the issue to appeal to the people of the Western states. In spite of changing demographics and the suburbanization of the West, these states remain suspicious of outside interference and new ways of thinking. The resistance to change does not seem to be based on economic priorities. Tourism brings more money to the state of Montana than all extractive industries (oil, timber, and cattle ranching) combined. Moreover, the Rocky Mountain states contribute only five percent of all the beef “farmed” each year in the U.S. Yet the ranchers managed to persuade Montana governor Marc Racicot to resist all efforts at compromise. Racicot is tipped to become the Secretary of the Interior if George W. Bush wins the White House.

The ranchers and politicians were able to feed off local people’s suspicion of federal intervention to claim that not only was the government interfering in a state’s right to regulate its own wildlife but that the very symbol of the West—in this case the cowboy—was being threatened. For the ranchers and state government, thinks Skeele, this was a wedge issue. If conservationists and the federal government were allowed to displace the interests of cattle ranching in favor of wildlife, not only would that threaten the power of the beef industry, but it would bring into question the ability of states to determine how to deal with their wildlife.

And, says Skeele, the ranchers and states-rights people were right: what happens to the bison will determine the future of the West. “If you think about what the West was, the whole ability to maintain our natural heritage and all the symbolism, that’s what the bison represents,” he says. “It’s our natural heritage: instead of Smokey the Bear or livestock or beef cattle.” It is, he continues, a failure to tell the story the right way, to displace the myth of the American cowboy with the reality of a vivid and wild landscape where the native beings—both human and non-human—used to live in harmony. Significantly, Native Americans are some of the most vocal opponents of the bison slaughter. As Scott Barta, a HoCank Winnebago, writes in the Buffalo Field Campaign newsletter: “We said no to bison slaughter for more than a hundred years, but they keep on killing. The genocide against the bison was part and parcel of the genocide of Indians. The recovery of the bison population in Yellowstone was to us a portent that our spirituality and traditional way of life could be rediscovered.”

Home on Your Range?

While Yellowstone has only 2,000 bison, the nearby ranch of CNN and Time-Warner chairman Ted Turner has three times that number. Turner—a firm believer in wildlife conservation—has decided to go into bison ranching, an industry that is making some headway in the gourmet meat market. Not only is bison meat lower in fat than cow flesh, but bison are bigger (more meat available) and require less management than cattle. Bison are hardier, native to America, and graze in a less intensive manner. They do not require so much fodder in the winter and can be kept on the same area of land for longer with less erosion and topsoil loss. Moreover, bison cannot be herded or confined like cows and so cannot but be free range.

The ecosystem of the great plains between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains was formed by the grazing patterns of bison, and many conservationists are calling for the reintroduction of bison as a way to regenerate the prairie and bring back other native species (such as predators). Some conservationists worry that commodifying bison as a food resource will belittle a vital national symbol that represents the freedom of America. Others argue that if Americans are not going to end their love affair with red meat, they may as well be eating bison and helping the ecosystem rather than eating cows and damaging it.—M.R.

Buffalo Field Campaign
P.O. Box 957
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
Tel.: 406-646-0070, Fax: 406-646-0071

Defenders of Wildlife
1101 14th Street, NW #1400
Washington, DC 20005
Tel.: 202-682-9400

Greater Yellowstone Coalition
13 S. Willson
Bozeman, MT 59715
Tel.: 800-775-1834 or 406-586-1593

National Wildlife Federation
8925 Leesburg Pike
Vienna, VA 22184
Tel.: 703-790-4000

Predator Project
P.O. Box 6733
Bozeman, MT 59771
Tel.: 406-587-3389, Fax: 406-587-3178

World Society for the Protection of Animals
29 Perkins Street
P.O. Box 190
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
Tel.: 617-522-7000, Fax: 617-522-7077


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