Unusually high snow levels in Yellowstone National Park drove an estimated 382 bison over the park's northern boundary early last week, prompting management officials to corral the animals at Stephens Creek. Park spokesman Al Nash says that of the roughly 200 ungulates already checked for brucellosis exposure, one-third tested positive and could be in line for slaughter this winter.
Critics of the park's bison management strategies quickly decried the possibility of a large-scale bison kill, fearing a repeat of the brutal 2008 winter when 1,400 captured bison were shipped off to slaughterhouses. The Buffalo Field Campaign and several other groups and individuals filed an emergency injunction in federal court in Missoula on Feb. 3 in an attempt to prevent the park from taking similar action this year.
"Those bison and their ancestors have lived on that ground not surrounded by fences forever," says Dan Brister, director of the Buffalo Field Campaign, which was founded after the first mass bison slaughter in 1997. "So the more intensive management that happens, the more that wildness is eroded. The more we treat them like livestock, the more they'll become like livestock."
According to the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) that directs treatment of Yellowstone's wild bison, the proposed slaughter is completely defensible. The current bison population rests somewhere around 3,700, Nash says, well above the 2,100-bison benchmark agencies have set in the IBMP for ceasing all lethal brucellosis management activities. Any kills carried out this season aren't expected to impact the genetic viability of the herd, Nash adds, a position the plaintiffs dispute.
That mindset doesn't sit well with environmentalists in Montana. Chuck Irestone, co-founder of Missoula's Sustainable Business Council and a longtime advocate for wild Yellowstone bison, believes the bison—and their history with the American Indians—should be revered as a symbol of sustainability. Instead, he says, the policy of slaughtering bison that migrate out of the park is characteristic of the state's negative views of free-roaming herds
"Kansas has a live buffalo on their [state] quarter," Irestone says. "In Montana, we put the skull on. You ever notice that?"