are about 1.3 billion cattle on Earth (almost 100 million
of these are in the U.S.). They take up almost one fourth
of the landmass of the planet. There are approximately 250,000
North American Bison on Earth. Most of these are ranched
bison confined behind fences.
Yellowstone bison are one of only 3 bison herds in the country
not confined by fences. They have roamed freely for longer
than any others.
Yellowstone Park bison have lived with the disease, brucellosis,
for 80 years. The disease has no effect on the population.
No bison have died from the disease, but several thousand
bison have been killed because of it.
Although it is theoretically possible for bison to transmit
the disease to cattle, in the many decades Yellowstone bison
have lived with the disease, they have never done so.
Cattle and bison have co-mingled in Grand Teton National
Park for 40 years. Cattle are allowed to graze inside that
park. A greater percent of those bison test positive for
the disease compared to Yellowstone bison. Just as in Yellowstone,
they have never transmitted the disease to cattle.
long-term case studies suggest the risk that bison will
give the disease to cattle is extremely small. Dr. Nicoletti,
a well-known authority on the disease, states, "Perhaps
few situations in life are risk-free, but this one seems
near". In the highly unlikely event that cattle were
to contract the disease from bison, straightforward measures
could be taken to address an outbreak.
would be much more cost-effective to deal with isolated
outbreaks of the disease in cattle than to eradicate the
disease from all organisms that carry it, including bison,
elk, deer, moose, coyotes, bears, etc..
Given this reality, people have questioned whether the killing
of more than 1,000 Yellowstone bison last year (1996/97)
was motivated by science or politics.
Notwithstanding the concerns of people across the nation,
1,084 Yellowstone bison, or 1/3 of the oldest free-roaming
herd, were killed last year on the insistence of the State
Montana's Department of Livestock (DOL) directed the slaughter
of Yellowstone National Park bison. That department has
no expertise in wildlife. It is charged with promoting Montana's
bulls and calves cannot transmit brucellosis. Yet, almost
one third (341) of all bison killed last year were bulls.
146 calves were shot or sent to slaughter.
There are 25-30 times more elk than bison in the Yellowstone
ecosystem. Elk also have the disease. Unlike bison, elk
have reportedly transmitted the disease to livestock (there
are six cases). Although bison continue to be slaughtered,
elk are ignored. Elk hunting is a major money earner for
Montana, earning the State $11 million/year from sale of
licenses and permits alone.
Many people believe that bison are being killed not because
of disease, but because they are perceived as a threat by
the cattle industry. Sheep were once also considered a threat
by the cattle industry. 53,000 sheep were killed during
the cattle/sheep wars.
Largely unaware of the senseless nature of the slaughter,
taxpayers are now paying to kill the animal Americans struggled
to save only 100 years ago.
Montana's livestock department sold the carcasses of the
bison killed, advertising them as "Property of the Department
of Livestock". They kept all proceeds ($185,763 in 1997).
They donated carcasses when they could not make money from
selling them. Many tribes consider the killing disrespectful
and several have refused to accept the carcasses.
The effect of brucellosis on beef cattle is minor. If cattle
contract the disease, they typically abort one calf, after
which they tend to birth normally. Cows abort for many reasons,
including eating too many pine needles.
Even though a vaccine for cattle is available, Montana does
not advocate mandatory vaccination of cattle against brucellosis.
To protect cattle from the disease, only female calves would
have to be vaccinated, once in their life. The cost would
be $6/cow. Oddly, although Montana claims any threat of
brucellosis is "too great", it does not insist that ranchers
vaccinate against the disease. Instead, Montana demands
that non-ranching taxpayers pay to "protect" cattle by killing
Almost 20% of Montana is owned by farm and ranch corporations
. A mere 10% of the cattle operations in Montana own 50%
of all the cattle in the State. The livestock industry is
a powerful lobby in the State even though Montana has less
than 3% of all cattle in the country, and only 1% of the
total cattle operations in the country.
all ranchers agree with the extremist approach adopted by
Montana. Many do not consider brucellosis a threat to their
Many are outraged that Montana insists on killing the nations'
natural heritage in the name of protecting livestock, livestock
that are being grazed by large-scale landowners with heavy
subsidies on publicly managed land designated as wildlife
habitat. The public demand to cancel these subsidies may
grow as people become more aware of what is happening.
Yellowstone Park is high country. Some bison leave the Park
in winter to move to lower lands. Many bison were shot last
winter when they moved onto lowland they traditionally used
during severe winters -- land now owned by a religious cult,
the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). The Church moved
from California to what is the most intact ecosystem left
in the continental United States. They have constructed
huge bomb shelters on this land. They have not welcomed
the original inhabitants, bison, on the land. The Church
decided to graze hundreds of cattle on its land during the
height of the bison-cattle conflict.
More bison have been killed on land owned by the Church
than anywhere else. This land forms part of a U.S. Forest
Service livestock grazing allotment. The priority use of
this land according to the Forest Plan is for wildlife.
The public is increasingly questioning whether the Forest
Service is doing an adequate job at managing this land,
i.e., the "Park" grazing allotment, for its intended purpose,
wildlife. The Forest Service alone is responsible for managing
livestock grazing on this land -- on both the Church's private
land, as well as the public lands within the allotment.
The government could, therefore, modify the livestock grazing
permit to reduce conflicts between wildlife and livestock
on this land, or they could terminate the permit, recognizing
that livestock grazing is not compatible with the primary
designated land use. They have taken no action.
Because of the Church's silent endorsement of the slaughter
of bison on land where they graze cattle at highly subsidized
rates, some taxpayers have objected to subsidizing the Church
-- the largest private landowner in the area. Currently,
the Church is permitted to graze cows on public lands at
91% less than the going rate on private lands. (It costs
$1.35 to graze cows on National Forest lands compared to
$15 for a cow/calf "unit" per month on private lands in
Compensating landowners for losses attributed to bison (such
as broken fences) would be much more reasonable and cost-effective
than the current scheme.
The social and cultural concerns of traditional Native Americans,
some of whom consider the buffalo sacred, have been ignored.
Tribal nations have passed resolutions calling for the killing
to stop. Thus far they have been ignored. Native peoples
gathered to pray for the buffalo on the Park boundary. During
the ceremony, and within earshot of those praying, Montana
Because Montana cattle are free of the disease, the federal
agency in charge of animal disease control, APHIS, has designated
Montana as a "brucellosis-free" state. Contrary to popular
belief, the mere existence of brucellosis in a wildlife,
not domestic, animal, is not sufficient cause for APHIS
to downgrade a state's brucellosis status. There must be
an outbreak of brucellosis in either cattle or other domestic
livestock before APHIS could downgrade a state. Thus, infected
bison (which are wildlife, not livestock) do not pose a
threat to the brucellosis status of the State.
Because Montana is designated as brucellosis-free by the
federal government, some people question whether it is legal
for other states to impose sanctions on Montana cattle --
as some have. Oddly, Montana has not challenged these states,
but has instead used the threats to justify the continued
killing of bison.
State Veterinarians may pose the biggest threat in the brucellosis
conflict. Individual states can threaten the livestock industries
of other, sometimes competing, states by restricting the
import of cattle from states classified by APHIS as brucellosis-free.
No scientific justification is required from the State Vets
who impose such sanctions. Many people believe the powers
of the State Veterinarians should be limited to preclude
the possibility of abuse of their powers.
Numerous State Veterinarians wrote letters to Montana threatening
to restrict the import of Montana cattle into their states.
These letters were all sent within the brief period of nine
days, all covered the same points, often in the same order.
Some have questioned whether this was mere coincidence,
or an orchestrated campaign to have states threaten to boycott
Montana cattle in order to justify the continued killing
of bison. Others have challenged the logic of asking non-ranching
taxpayers to incur costs of expensive actions to address
threats when the livestock industry is apparently threatening
A risk-assessment to determine the risk that bison would
transmit brucellosis to cattle in the Yellowstone area has
never been done. This is normal procedure in cases where
costly actions to avert risk are considered. Such an assessment
promotes wise use of tax monies.
Montana has yet to adopt the modern concept of determining
scientifically-based acceptable levels of risk, and continues
instead to insist on the antiquated zero risk approach --
regardless of whether it is cost-effective or not.
Millions of buffalo were slaughtered in the 1800's in attempts
to subjugate Indian people. Today, little more than one
hundred years after the first massacre, buffalo are once
again the target, and, just as before, the reason for the
slaughter is political.
The plan for killing bison is still in place today, March
20, 1998. The facts suggest that something other than a
disease is the real issue. What is the livestock industry
really worried about? Does this struggling industry feel
threatened? Is that why they are killing bison? Do they
feel threatened by the disease, or by the bison? The many
years over which no transmission of the disease has occurred,
and the surveillance system in place, attest to the risk
being extremely small. This suggests the consequences are
not likely to occur.
if the risk that bison would transmit brucellosis to cattle
was much greater than it is, the potential consequence, i.e.,
downgrading of the State's brucellosis status, does not warrant
the radical approach that has been adopted by Montana, and
could be avoided altogether by:
curtailing the power of State Veterinarians so that they
can't impose sanctions on cattle from states designated
by the federal government as brucellosis-free,
modifying Montana's "zero-tolerance" policy to one more
consistent with modern disease management,
acquiring additional winter range for bison outside the
4) removing privately owned cattle from public lands. The
bison slaughter is unnecessary for disease management purposes,
but many believe bison are being killed for a different
purpose, i.e., to show that the West still belongs to cattle
and to cattlemen, and that buffalo and the movement for
a more ecological approach to land use have no place there.
this violent and explicit demonstration will prove to be wrong.
There is no reason why the West cannot be shared by both cattle
and bison -- unless people are forced to choose between the
two. In this case, those who wage war on bison may well lose
the war they wage on the West. Will the livestock industry
allow a few wild bison to share the range with the 99.5 million
cows in the country, or will Americans be forced to choose
between preserving the symbol of wildness or producing more
by: Virginia Ravndal P.O. Box 364, Gardiner, MT 59030