Start Treating Yellowstone Bison the Way They Deserve

Photograph Source: Mark Gunn – CC BY 2.0

The state, federal and tribal groups involved in the Interagency Bison Management recently announced they would slaughter up to 900 Yellowstone bison this winter.

Yellowstone’s wild bison were declared our national mammal in 2016 and are of international significance.

Yellowstone bison are not the same as other bison scattered around the West. They are the most genetically pure bison left on the continent, largely influenced by natural evolutionary processes.

Nearly all bison herds, including those on tribal lands and other national park and wildlife refuges, have been domesticated and are treated more like cattle than wild animals.

The annual massacre of Yellowstone bison is biologically degrading the herd. Yellowstone’s bison went through a genetic bottleneck in the last 1800s when only approximately 50 animals were left in the park.

The annual killing of up to 20% of the herd to satisfy the overstated concerns of the livestock industry continues to erode this globally significant wild biological heritage. There are 100 million cattle in the US and only 5,000 Yellowstone wild bison — which has greater importance to the world?

This carnage is based on a big lie — that bison threaten the Montana cattle industry.

The big lie is that bison “might” transmit brucellosis to cattle. It is true that brucellosis is a disease that can cause domestic cattle to abort. The reality is that the threat is greatly exaggerated.

First, the primary way that brucellosis might be transmitted is if a bison cow aborted its fetus and a domestic animal happens to lick the dead fetus or birth fluids. The occurrence of bison fetus abortions is infrequent. Plus, it is not difficult to separate cattle from any area actively used by bison in the spring when bison might abort.

Even if a bison aborted its calf, coyotes, magpies, golden eagles and other scavengers quickly consume the fetus.

Second, most cattle can be vaccinated against brucellosis—though, like all vaccinations, they are not 100% effective. Invulnerable herds, a second vaccination could reduce the number of animals without protection.

Third, though 20 ranch cattle herds have been infected with brucellosis, in all cases, the transmission was due to elk, not bison. Yet elk are not bottled up in Yellowstone or rounded up for slaughter.

Fourth, as an indication that brucellosis is not the primary reason for the annual bison slaughter, bison bulls and calves can’t transmit the disease yet are regularly killed as part of the official butchery program.

The second part of the big lie is that too many bison are in the park. However, it is only “too many” because the Interagency Bison Management group agreed to keep the bison population below that arbitrary number.

Other studies by NPS biologists suggest Yellowstone could support almost as twice as many bison. Plus if bison were permitted to migrate and live on other federal lands surrounding the park, their numbers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could be significantly increased and any negative impacts to park vegetation could be reduced.

The Interagency Bison group tries to assuage the annual carnage with assurances that any slaughtered bison will be transferred to Indian tribes or be killed by tribal hunters.

Imagine if, for some reason, the last old-growth redwood trees (also of international significance) were being cut down. Would you feel any better about this destruction if the agencies justified it by saying they would cut the trees into planks to be distributed to tribes to make huts or redwood decks?

There are numerous places on public lands surrounding Yellowstone where wild bison could roam. They should be encouraged to use these lands rather than destroy them. The transfer of Yellowstone bison to other public lands like Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge or to Forest Service lands in the Upper Green River area of Wyoming is also an option.

Another potential solution is to expand Yellowstone’s borders to the north of Yankee Jim Canyon and to the northwest into the Gallatin Range providing far more protected wildlife habitat for bison to roam.

Yellowstone wild bison are part of the global biological heritage. We must start to treat them as the matchless legacy they represent.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy