Early last week state and federal wildlife officials were making a final push to haze about 25 Yellowstone National Park bison back into the park. The push was necessary because after May 16, any bison found outside the park’s boundaries would be sent to slaughter to protect the health of nearby livestock.
The 3,600 or so Yellowstone bison are the country’s only continuously wild bison herd (as if a herd that’s contained inside an artificial boundary can ever be considered truly wild). But since the formation of the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IMBP) in 2000, more than 1,900 have been killed. In the winter of 2005–2006 alone federal and state agencies oversaw the killing of 1,010 bison.
The seasonal hazing and slaughter of Yellowstone bison has long been a point of contention across the West. The livestock industry insists that Yellowstone bison are a danger to Montana ranchers because they carry brucellosis, a disease that causes pregnant cows to abort their calves.
But the IMBP doesn’t address elk, which also carry brucellosis and are spread far and wide in and around Yellowstone. Which brings us to the second bison-related news item of the week:
On May 18, just two days after the slaughter-on-sight deadline passed, state officials announced that seven Montana cows from a herd near Emigrant tested positive for brucellosis. That news marks the first major blow to the state’s brucellosis-free status since it was granted by the federal government in 1985. If another herd turns up positive, Montana ranchers could end up facing millions of dollars on testing and vaccination programs for the state’s 2.5 million cattle.
However, Yellowstone bison aren’t the likely cause of the recent outbreak. Federal animal health agents suspect it was wild elk that infected the Montana cows. In fact, there has never been a documented case of wild bison transmitting the European livestock disease to cattle—even prior to the IMBP—which raises an important question: Why do we continue to expend so much time and so many resources hazing and slaughtering Montana’s native bison herds when they aren’t a danger to cattle? All this government-sanctioned slaughtering of the continent’s largest native ungulates and yet Montana cattle still aren’t safe from brucellosis?
What last week’s events should make clear to Montanans is the feverish annual efforts to impose arbitrary deadlines and imaginary boundaries on wild bison aren’t solving the brucellosis problem. Thousands of bison have died, but our cattle aren’t any safer.