Once again the state of Montana, along with Yellowstone National Park, are killing bison migrating out of Yellowstone National Park. The slaughter of Yellowstone’s bison is represented as a disease contamination program, but it is really a sham. If disease control were the issue, we wouldn’t be killing bison. The more you know about the brucellosis-bison issue, the angrier you get.
For instance, news reports always note that so many bison “tested positive” for brucellosis. Most people assume that this means that the bison in question have brucellosis. In reality field-testing only demonstrates that the bison in question have antibodies to brucellosis. They have been exposed to the disease-perhaps even in the womb, but it doesn’t mean they can readily transmit the disease. I would test positive for polio because I was “exposed” to polio virus as a youngster-but I cannot transmit polio to anyone.
Secondly, transmission of brucellosis is difficult and seldom-if ever-happens, with wild free roaming animals. The usual pathway for transmission is for a cow bison to abort an infected fetus. Then a domestic animal like a cow has to come along and lick the fluid before the brucellosis bacteria dies-which under wild conditions is fairly quickly since the bacteria is not able to survive outside of the body. The domestic animal would also have to beat a scavenger like coyote, raven or other animal to the aborted fetus before the scavengers consume it.
Additionally, nearly all bison abortions-and abortion in wild bison is an extremely rare event-occurs in the late winter. In most of the habitat used by bison at this time of year, cattle are not present. They are back at the home ranch being fed hay. That is why simply keeping cattle and bison separated is a fairly easy solution to conflicts-if a solution were something that the Ag boys were interested in creating.
Third, because it is through abortion of a fetus, bison calves, and bison bulls cannot transmit the disease even if they have it, yet calves and bulls are regularly killed. If fear of brucellosis transmission were really driving this program, there would be no reason to kill these animals.
Fourth, far more elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem carry brucellosis than bison. A high percentage of elk in Wyoming carry brucellosis because of the feed grounds that the Wyoming Game and Fish maintains. The unnatural concentration of elk favors brucellosis transmission. Yet the US Dept. of Agriculture does not require the state to close the feed grounds that would go a long ways towards reducing brucellosis occurrence in the ecosystem. Additionally, they don’t slaughter elk-at least not yet. Why? Because hunters and perhaps, more importantly, some outfitters would come unglued if the same policy of non-tolerance of elk outside of our parks were implemented.
There is plenty of cattle-free bison habitat outside of Yellowstone. The Upper Gallatin River drainage in the Teepee Creek and Daily Creek areas has no livestock. Much of the Dome Mountain and Eagle Creek basin near Gardiner are livestock free, as are other lands in the region. And of course I would advocate that other public lands be open to bison by removal of livestock or the understanding that any rancher grazing these public lands must accept the low risks involved. In Wyoming, ranchers regularly graze their cattle on allotments with bison-demonstrating once again that brucellosis transmission is a rare, if non-existent risk that most ranchers are willing to accept.
The slaughter program is driven by antiquated federal policy. Originally the desire to eradicate brucellosis was done under the guise of public health. Brucellosis can also occur in humans-where it causes fever like conditions, swelling of the joints, and in rare cases even death. Back in the 1930s when the brucellosis control program was implemented, many people were exposed to brucellosis either because they lived around livestock and had contact with infected animals or they drank unpasteurized milk. Today the disease is very rare and about the only people who get the disease are veterinarians and others who work around infected animals.
So the original purpose-a public health issue-no longer applies. So why does the US government continue to spend money on brucellosis eradication? Well, one by-product of the brucellosis control program is that it saved ranchers money. Brucellosis can cause abortion of a fetus in infected cows. To save ranchers the loss of some calves and potential profit, Ag interests successfully persuaded the government to continue its brucellosis eradication program-at a cost of billions to taxpayers-with all the benefits now largely going to the livestock industry.
One incentive that the Department of Agriculture implemented to get states to crack down on brucellosis was to threaten the loss of brucellosis-free status. Why is this important? Well, again it’s money. A state without brucellosis-free status must test and certify that any cattle moved out of state are free of the disease. This adds a slight bit to costs and more paperwork for producers. Also in brucellosis-free states, livestock producers may not be required to inoculate their livestock against the disease-again saving some expense.
However, there is no rational reason producers across an entire state should be penalized because one or two herds of livestock become infected. The Department of Agriculture has the authority to quarantine individual herds. But the threat of state-wide loss of brucellosis-free status continues because Ag interests want to control wildlife. Their zero tolerance policy is both unrealistic and harmful to the free movement of wildlife. Why should bison be denied access to public lands in Montana, or any other state? We don’t impose zero tolerance on any other native wildlife just for moving into a state.
I think there are several reasons for the continued slaughter. One is the long term goal of Ag interests to gain control over wildlife-to wrest it away from state Fish and Game agencies and the public. Short of doing that, they want to control the wildlife agenda of state wildlife agencies-which in many western states they already do.
Beyond that, I suspect some livestock producers fear the widespread movement of wild bison on to other public lands. Bison are a direct competitor with cattle. If more bison are grazing Forest Service or BLM lands, there will be less forage left for domestic livestock. They also fear that wildlife advocates such as myself will start to question why we shouldn’t have bison grazing our public lands instead of someone’s privately owned livestock. Their fears are justified. I ask exactly that question.
In short livestock producers fear that if they let the genie of wild bison grazing on all public lands out of the bottle, they will never get it back inside, and in the end that can only hurt the ability of ranchers to graze public lands.
It’s time to let wild bison roam our public lands. Our parks should not be prisons, maintained by a fence of bullets or traps. There is no good reason why wild bison cannot co-exist with humans and even livestock. This shameful destruction of wildlife to appease an irrational and increasingly irrelevant industry must end.
GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer with 34 published books, including Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Montana, Magnificent Wilderness and, most recently, Thrillcraft: the Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation.