|Yellowstone Bison Slaughter
plans to end brucellosis in park herd
By Jennifer McKee
- Gov. Brian Schweitzer outlined a plan Monday
to permanently eradicate a troubling disease from Yellowstone
National Park's bison herd that involves slowly depopulating
the park of bison, destroying the sick ones and reintroducing
a healthy herd.
"The grand plan is a permanent, sustainable solution
to brucellosis," Schweitzer said in an interview
with the Gazette State Bureau. "Hazing bison back
into the park? What the heck is that?"
He was referring to the current system Montana and the
federal government use to manage park bison. It involves
hazing the animals back into Yellowstone when they leave
the park. If the bison cannot be pushed back, they are
rounded up and tested for brucellosis. Those that test
positive are destroyed and healthy animals are released.
Yellowstone's 4,200-head bison herd is the last vestige
of the enormous herds that once dominated the American
West and Great Plains. As such, they are celebrated for
their wild, uniquely American nature. But many of the
animals also carry brucellosis, a disease that can cause
cattle to abort their first calves.
Montana is currently classified as brucellosis-free, a
status that allows Montana's cattlemen to easily export
the state's No. 1 beef product: live, young animals bound
for feedlots and slaughterhouses out of state. If even
a handful of Montana livestock develop brucellosis, the
state could lose its brucellosis-free status, and stockmen
fear that would make it much more difficult and expensive
for ranchers to sell their cattle.
Consequently, the current bison-management plan was designed
to maintain Montana's brucellosis-free status, with an
eye on eventually eradicating the disease from bison.
But Schweitzer said that plan may never result in a healthy
bison herd and Montana will long be stuck with the headache
and controversy of protecting a beloved American animal,
while safeguarding the state's ranching industry. Plus,
he said, a true, fair-chase bison hunt may never be possible
as long as bison carry the disease and cannot freely roam
the state like other big-game animals.
Schweitzer's plan is a significant departure from the
way the state has managed bison for many years.
It would do the following:
•Create pockets of public land on the northern and
western border of Yellowstone where the animals can freely
range right now. This would require paying ranchers who
currently use some of that land for pasture not to run
livestock there. Schweitzer said he hoped to come up with
the money using a combination of federal and private funds.
•Build a quarantine facility. The National Park
Service at one point promised to build such a facility,
but so far has not. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., recently
secured around $860,000 to study building the facility.
•Slowly run every bison in Yellowstone through the
facility. Healthy animals will be adopted to American
Indian tribes or private landowners. Diseased animals
will be destroyed if they cannot be hunted. Schweitzer
said he anticipated this process to take several years.
No animals processed through the quarantine would be released
•Use a more precise brucellosis test than the one
currently used. The common brucellosis test produces too
many false results, Schweitzer said.
•Monitor the bison adopted out to make sure they
stay genetically pure and do not interbreed with cattle
or non-Yellowstone bison.
•At some point, all the bison will be moved through
the quarantine and Yellowstone will temporarily have no
bison. Then, the herd will be reconstituted, either with
the actual animals that were adopted out or with their
offspring. The result will be a bison herd completely
free of brucellosis.
• Encourage Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal to close
the elk feeding grounds around Yellowstone. Artificially
concentrating elk at the feed grounds is believed to be
responsible for the high incidence of brucellosis in park
elk, particularly those in the southern part of Yellowstone.
Schweitzer said he'd been thinking about the plan "for
a long time," before he was elected governor. He
said he wasn't sure if every part of the plan would work,
but he'd like to change course from the one state is currently
on and will start talking about his plan with the federal
and state agencies, as well as those closest to the bison
To enact the plan, Schweitzer would have to change the
Interagency Bison Management Plan, an agreement among
the state and a host of federal agencies.
"This plan gets us to our objective:" healthy,
free-ranging bison and a healthy cattle industry, Schweitzer
The plan, which is still in its earliest stages, won some
approval from both bison activists and cattlemen.
"We do share many of his goals and expectations,
beginning with what I hope is an overall eradication of
this dreaded disease within the Yellowstone National Park
bison herd," said Steve Pilcher, executive vice president
of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
Pilcher said he didn't support the idea of expanding the
winter range for bison now because the animals carry the
disease. Plus, it would require ranchers not grazing their
Mike Mease, campaign coordinator with the Buffalo Field
Campaign, a pro-bison group in West Yellowstone, said
he applauded Schweitzer's use of better brucellosis tests,
but wondered if family structure of the Yellowstone herd
could be maintained if the population was scattered about
and later reconstituted.
"No one has studied family structure," Mease
said. "One of the things that makes these animals
unique is that they haven't been domesticated."
Still, Mease said he was "really excited the governor
is looking into this. I think he's on the right track."