The Privatization of Wildlife: How Ted Turner Scored Yellowstone Bison

Photo courtesy of Buffalo Field Campaign.

The following is an excerpt from The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink.

It is just one more battle in the century-and-a-half-old range wars, where land and wildlife have come into direct conflict with selfish, private interests. It’s also a story of privileged ethnocentrism, where a once proud indigenous culture and the wild species it depended on have been all but eviscerated.

Welcome to the Interior West, the land of selective freedom and prosperity.

“I love this land and the buffalo and will not part with it,” wrote the great Kiowa Chief Santana, who later killed himself while imprisoned in Texas after being tricked by General William Sherman into believing a peaceful council meeting was in his tribe’s future. “A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.”

The betrayal continues. American bison once roamed these Great Plains in such large numbers that Lewis and Clark noted seeing 10,000 head in a single glance. Their observation no doubt sealed the species’ fate. As anyone who has driven down Interstate 90 through Wyoming from Montana today can surely attest, these awe-inspiring creatures no longer dominate the Plains.

Instead hormone-infested cattle and genetically engineered crops occupy this lonely, dry landscape. Water has been stolen for profit. Impoverished Native Americans have been quarantined while oilmen keep drilling for more cash. The only remaining wild buffalo inhabiting these parts roam in places like Yellowstone National Park. But it is certainly no safe haven. When the buffalo migrate past the park’s invisible boundaries (perhaps in an attempt to escape fanatical summer tourists sporting binoculars and high-powered cameras), they are killed under the pretext of “disease control.” More than 3,000 have been killed since the 1980s by state agents and hunters who have purchased buffalo tags.

The illness that has prompted the State of Montana and Yellowstone Park to embrace such a vicious policy is called brucellosis. Management officials declare that most of Yellowstone’s buffalo test positive for brucellosis, a disease where intracellular parasites cause chronic ailments. What these wildlife professionals won’t tell you, however, is their field-testing only demonstrates that the buffalo possess antibodies to the disease, and not full-blown brucellosis. This means they’ve been exposed (like humans who were exposed to polio as kids) but are not necessarily able to transmit the disease.

Even more alarming is the fact that spreading of the brucellosis rarely occurs among free-roaming herds. Transmission only happens in very specific, unusual cases, where a domesticated animal like a cow comes into contact with living brucellosis bacteria. One such instance where this might happen is when an infected fetus is miscarried (or aborted, as scientists term it) in the open range by a buffalo and then licked clean by a cow shortly thereafter. The likelihood of such an encounter is minimal at best, as a cow would have to discover the fetus well before scavengers consumed it. The solution is simple: Keep cattle and buffalo separate.

“[N]early 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,” says Montana-based ecologist and author George Wuerthner. “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.”

Yellowstone buffalo, despite being on the verge of extinction, have virtually no protections in the West. It’s rather telling then, that the current Yellowstone Buffalo Management Plan is carried out by the Montana Department of Livestock (MDOL) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that enforces the Endangered Species Act. Buffalo aren’t seen as a threatened species by our government, despite alarmingly low numbers when compared to the historical records. They are viewed as expendable property.

“These are native wild animals but they are treated as livestock,” Stephany Seay of the Buffalo Field Campaign, an advocacy group based in West Yellowstone, recently told me. “Brucellosis is a livestock disease, plain and simple. The ranching community doesn’t want buffalo on public lands, so they are willing to spread the lie that brucellosis is a killer.”

The Buffalo Field Campaign and others believe this is what’s at the core of the State’s buffalo management policy; the battle over which type of animals have the right to roam free and eat the grasses that sprout up on our public lands. For example, if buffalo are reintroduced into areas that have typically been dominated by cattle, then the grazing rights of ranchers on these public lands are threatened.

What’s driving the buffalo killings outside Yellowstone is the fact that a handful of ranchers graze cattle on the public lands adjacent to the park. The USDA and MDOL claim these livestock are at risk of contracting brucellosis, even though there has never been a single documented case of a wild buffalo transmitting the disease to cattle. Down in Wyoming’s Grand Teton Park buffalo that carry brucellosis antibodies commingle with cattle on a daily basis, yet there has not been a single contamination instance ever recorded.

“The so-called random shooting at the Montana borders is actually eliminating or depleting entire maternal lineages, therefore this action will cause an irreversible crippling of the gene pool,” warned Dr. Joe Templeton of Texas A& M University’s Dept. of Veterinary Pathobiology back in 1998. “Continued removal of genetic lineages will change the genetic makeup of the herd, thus it will not represent the animal of 1910 or earlier. It would be a travesty to have people look back and say we were ‘idiots’ for not understanding the gene pool.”

In what the government livestock managers claim to be a study to help save the last remaining wild buffalo in the region, they developed a Quarantine Feasibility Study, where buffalo from Yellowstone are captured, probed, tested and killed in an attempt to study brucellosis as well as to create a so-called disease-free herd. The ultimate goal, as stated in the study guidelines, is to release brucellosis-free bison onto public lands.

The study, now into its sixth year, has turned out to be a utter failure. To date, none of the buffalo studied have been released back into the wild. At the study’s onset officials promised that the herd would be placed on public or tribal lands and that none would be used for commercial profit. But when the study was coming to an end late last year, the ranching community flexed their lobbying muscle and put their cattle interests above the welfare of this biologically threatened species.

As MFWP asserted at the time, the buffalo from Yellowstone were captured to “determine if bison that have successfully completed quarantine are reliably negative for brucellosis and suitable for the establishment of new tribal and public herds.” The Park’s permit clearly states that buffalo collected “may be used for scientific or educational purposes only, and shall be dedicated to public benefit and be accessible to the public…”

Nonetheless, after the quarantine, the buffalo had to go somewhere, yet Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) had no plans for what to do with the herd. The Buffalo Field Campaign and others have opposed the Quarantine Feasibility Study from its inception. The groups argued that the experiment would “manipulate and sacrifice the wild integrity and unique behavior of America’s last population of migrating buffalo.”

But as the 11th hour of Feasibility Study struck, a backroom deal was hatched. The ranching community had been successful and forced the agency to backtrack on its original promises. Not once were there public discussions on whether or not to let the bison roam free on tribal lands, even though the Northern Arapahoe said they would allow their lands to be grazed. Millions of acres could have been considered for the buffalo’s relocation in Montana and Wyoming alone.

Instead, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer picked up the phone and called a uber-wealthy rancher to bail the agency out.

Ted Turner, the media mogul-turned-Montana buffalo rancher, answered the governor’s call. In exchange for 75 percent of the herd’s offspring, Turner would allow the buffalo to live on his Green River ranch for the next five years. In all, there could be upwards of 400 buffalo born into his possession. Turner certainly had to be excited about the opportunity to improve the genetics of his own domestic herds. In February, 88 Yellowstone buffalo were transported, protected by Homeland Security, to Turner’s property. One calf from the herd has already perished.

“MFWP and the media would have us all believe that the only options that these buffalo had were going to Turner or to slaughter, and if you are opposed to them going to Turner then you must be for slaughter,” the Buffalo Field Campaign wrote shortly after the announcement. “Ironic, coming from one of the agencies that participate in the slaughter of wild Yellowstone buffalo.”

There are many reasons, aside from Turner’s own greed, to oppose the relocation of the quarantined herd to Green River. Just two years ago a major anthrax outbreak occurred at Turner’s Flying D ranch, which is located just down the road from where the buffalo are today. Anthrax, a deadly bacteria, occurs in soil and remains dormant until it rains when the spores can become lethal. The anthrax on Turner’s ranch in 2008 took the lives of 257 of his domestic buffalo. It was also reported that at least two deer and 14 elk fell victim to the outbreak. A state veterinarian even recommended that cattle ranchers in the area vaccinate their cattle against Turner’s anthrax.

On March 23, opponents of the bison relocation to Turner put their complaints to the test and filed a lawsuit against MFWP, asserting that the Turner agreement violated commitments made by the agency throughout the quarantine process. Western Watersheds Project, Buffalo Field Campaign, Gallatin Wildlife Association and the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation filed the legal challenge.

“By removing these bison from Yellowstone, holding them on private lands where the public is not allowed to see them, and selling their offspring to a private corporation, the State of Montana is in clear violation of its public trust responsibilities,” says Joe Gutkoski, a representative of the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, “How did the promise of wild buffalo in Yellowstone National Park for the enjoyment of future generations become ranched buffalo fenced behind PRIVATE, NO TRESPASSING signs?”

MFWP had no comment on the lawsuit or the feasibility study.

When it comes to buffalo, indigenous rights and the welfare of the land, special interests typically rule the day. Yet it is worthy fights like this that remain the wild buffalo’s last chance at genetic survival.

“This is simply a clear violation of the public trust and the offspring of these wild buffalo do not belong to Ted Turner,” Stephany Seay of the Buffalo Field Campaign told me. “Livestock don’t own our land. We, the people and the bison do.”

April 13, 2010

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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