The Buffalo Field Campaign's Stephany Seay called in from an observation post several miles outside Yellowstone National Park's Stephens Creek capture facility early this week with troubling news. She saw more than 150 bison being held at the site, and said that's only part of what the nonprofit has witnessed throughout the Gardiner Basin as it monitors interagency management efforts over bison.
"We just looked through the spotting scope," she said, "and there's dozens more around the trap." The fate of those bison already in the corral was, as of press time, unclear. But it's likely many will be shipped to tribal entities for slaughter soon—if they haven't already.
Over the past few weeks, efforts to cull some 600 bison from Yellowstone's population have fanned the flames of debate over how state, tribal and federal agencies manage the species. Licensed Montana hunters and members of various tribes have so far harvested 209 bison, and officials have captured and transferred to slaughter 65 more. Another 16 went to the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, for testing related to brucellosis, a disease the livestock industry maintains could be transferred to cattle by bison migrating beyond the park.
It's the largest push for reduction since winter 2008, when more than 1,600 bison were killed. However, winter 2014 could be just the beginning. In the interests of scaling back the now 4,400-strong bison population to a previously agreed- upon management cap of around 3,000, biologists last year recommended removal of 600 bison each winter through 2016. Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash says the ability to reach that annual total is entirely dependent on the animals' movements across the park's northern boundary.
"We have a rather robust bison population that increases in size without some kind of population control," Nash says. "And there are very limited ways that we can address population numbers in the park."
Outrage over the slaughter coincided this winter with another development on the brucellosis front. Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, added language to the 2014 Farm Bill providing $35 million in federal funding over the next five years to support research for "surveillance methods, vaccines, vaccination delivery systems, or diagnostic tests" relating to livestock and wildlife diseases including brucellosis. Christian Mackay of the Montana Department of Livestock says that research will most likely focus on vaccine research for livestock—exactly what bison proponents have been seeking all along.
"This is going to a project in Wyoming for vaccine development for a better cattle vaccine," Mackay says. "Interesting enough, the bison advocates are just positive that this means we're going to be vaccinating wildlife and USDA APHIS is trying to exert control over wildlife through this and have opposed what they have asked for: A better cattle vaccine."
Conservationists nonetheless lambasted Enzi's move, suggesting it could promote an expansion of vaccination research not just for bison but for elk as well.
"They're trying to inch their way into going after elk, but it's like, why would you ever consider doing a disease management thing and not control all the elements that had that disease?" says Buffalo Field Campaign co-founder Mike Mease. "They've known from the get-go that elk had it too, but they never want to go after that. Why? Because it's a political nightmare."
According to a study last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, elk transmission was attributed to brucellosis infection in 17 cattle and ranched bison herds in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming since April 2002. It's not a threat management agencies are necessarily running from.
"The threat from elk is very real, and in fact, in the last seven years, all of our cattle transmissions have come from elk," Mackay says. "So there are increased vaccination protocols for cattle, there are adult vaccinations, there's extra testing that goes on. [Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks] helps keep elk separate from cattle, and it's been very successful. As a percentage, we've had a very low incident of transmissions from elk."
While the Farm Bill has fueled renewed speculation among certain groups that APHIS is attempting to exert more control over wildlife species like elk, Yellowstone itself actually allayed one of Mease's concerns last month. National Park Service officials released an environmental impact statement on a proposed remote brucellosis vaccination program for bison in January, concluding that existing vaccination practices for bison leaving the park boundary were preferable to use of field techniques like biobullets—biodegradable projectile injections—in the wild. Nash says the park felt remote vaccinations for bison were too costly and time-consuming an investment.
"The bottom line of our research indicated that we could spend a lot of time and a lot of money for, at this point, a rather uncertain outcome," Nash says. "Therefore, our environmental impact statement did not propose our establishing the remote vaccination program and to focus on continuing hand vaccination when appropriate, when we have some bison in a capture facility."
The BFC's field estimate of 150 bison remained unchanged Tuesday afternoon. It's been hard to keep track of the official numbers, Seay said, because park officials decided this year to discontinue regular press releases relating to shipment and slaughter activity. Dozens more bison are grazing near the capture facility, she added, and park staff had left several corral gates open. Given the piles of hay laying inside that pasture, Seay believes Yellowstone is essentially "luring them in."