Winters in Yellowstone can be tough on the park’s wildlife, none more so than the local bison population. And few winters more so than this one.
As if being compelled to dodge bullets for the first time in more than 15 years wasn’t bad enough (okay, so bison don’t dodge, or even run for that matter), now the iconic beasts are being rounded up en masse on their own turf and shipped off to slaughter. Not since the winter of 1996-’97 have so many Yellowstone bison been herded by park officials to slaughter.
As of press time Tuesday, the National Park Service had captured 651 bison at its Stephens Creek capture facility within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. That’s the largest operation of its kind since the 1996-’97 capture and slaughter operation that claimed 1,084 bison and lead to the formation of the bison advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC).
So far, 452 of those 651 have been sent to slaughterhouses in Montana—without first being tested for brucellosis—with another 110 heading to the killing room floor this month (three have died in captivity). Hazing and capture of Yellowstone bison is allowed under the state/federal Interagency Bison Management Plan and is designed to prevent the spread of brucellosis from wild bison to domestic cattle, but the sheer magnitude of this winter’s hazing and capture activities has bison advocates on red alert.
“The park service is really surprising us all this year,” says BFC’s Dan Brister, who characterized the operation as a “taxpayer-subsidized killing frenzy.”
According to NPS spokesman Al Nash, park officials opened the capture facility earlier this month after attempts to haze herds along the park’s northern boundary back into the park failed. On Jan. 12, to the horror of BFC field observers, snowmobile-riding Montana Department of Livestock agents hazed a herd of bison onto Yellowstone’s frozen Hebgen Lake, where 14 fell through the ice and two drowned. The scene was captured on video by BFC volunteers and is available on the organization’s website.
Nash said not all the bison being held at the Stephens Creek facility would be sent to slaughter. Eighty-six calves that tested negative for exposure to brucellosis were sent to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Corwin Springs bison quarantine facility near Gardiner. With the latest shipment, researchers there now have 100 calves for their quarantine feasibility experiment. According to Melissa Frost, FWP region III information officer, the ultimate goal of the multi-year study is to develop a quarantining protocol so captured Yellowstone bison might one day be shipped to suitable public lands to help start new herds of brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison.
“This project, perhaps, will determine whether we can successfully have brucellosis-free animals for other places,” says Frost. “It will not directly impact management of Yellowstone bison.”
Proponents of the project say it’s vital for the conservation of the Yellowstone herd, but BFC advocates say it will only create a domestic herd of the nation’s last wild bison.
“This quarantine plan is a really bad idea,” says Brister. “What makes the Yellowstone bison so special is their wildness. Yellowstone National Park is the only place where bison occupy their native range. So to kill the calves’ families and then isolate them and feed them hay for four to five years does nothing but domesticate them.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer isn’t too excited about the current capture and slaughter operation, either. According to Mike Volesky, Schweitzer’s natural resources policy adviser, the administration refused to allow the state DOL to transport the captured animals to slaughter.
“We have a hunt going on in Montana and it’s not appropriate to have the Department of Livestock (DOL) or Fish, Wildlife & Parks providing that animal transport while we have a hunt going on,” says Volesky. “We want to keep those activities separate while we’ve got a hunt going on.”
According to the BFC, 34 bison have so far been harvested in Montana’s first sanctioned bison hunt in 15 years.
Volesky says the Schweitzer administration has additional reasons for not wanting to be involved in this winter’s capture and slaughter operations. He says Montana is trying to maintain its “brucellosis-free” status, and since it’s the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that determines the state’s disease-free status, that agency should be the one to handle any potentially-infected animals.
“Idaho and Wyoming have both lost their brucellosis-free status. APHIS makes that decision, so why don’t we make the agency that is ultimately responsible for disease management responsible for handling these animals?” says Volesky.
Schweitzer also wants to open more Montana land to bison, according to Hal Harper, the governor’s chief policy adviser. Harper told reporters earlier in the week that the governor is actively involved in negotiations to allow bison on the Royal Teton Ranch, previously owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant. The federal government paid $13 million six years ago for land and easements there, but bison won’t be allowed on the property until the Royal Teton Ranch is compensated for the approximately 200 cattle that still graze on the property.
The BFC is now working to hash out agreements with private landowners to purchase land and easements along the park’s west side.
“We’re starting to look at some of the private lands in the bison migration corridor and identifying high-conflict lands that would benefit bison if they were in more friendly hands,” says Brister.
“I think that our persistence is what is going to count and make a difference here,” Brister contends. “Eventually Montana is going to recognize the fallacy and see that the bison are a tremendous asset to the state.