Much to the dismay of federal agencies, as well as environmental organizations protecting bison, groups of buffalo have already clomped their way out of Yellowstone Park this fall, wandering outside of their official boundaries into private and other public lands.
To combat the roaming nature of these creatures, the Montana Department of Livestock has resumed hazing operations-chasing bison on horseback while firing "cracker barrels"-to keep the buffalo in the park and away from cattle-grazing lands. The Department of Livestock worries that bison infected with brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort their first pregnancies, will transmit the disease to cattle through reproductive materials left on the ground after a bison aborts or bears a baby bison.
The Greater Yellow-stone Coalition, Buffalo Nations and The Fund for Animals-three organizations working to protect the bison-argue that bison are not endangering cattle since ranchers have moved their herds elsewhere for the winter and reproductive materials would not contain the live brucellosis disease by the time cattle are brought back in June to graze.
"No cattle in the area clearly means no risk, and no risk should mean no hazing and no killing," says Jon Catton of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "If they are killing bison in January, February and March, it can't be said that they are protecting cattle. Cattle are not at risk."
"There are not even cattle in the areas where they are driving buffalo out," says Sue Nackoney of Buffalo Nations. "They are basically harassing these animals, and that can kill them, especially right before the winter when there are not a lot of resources for them to refuel."
But bison protectors may think hazing to be a much better alternative than what federal agencies are hoping to implement as soon as possible: the capture and testing of all bison leaving the park, leading to the slaughter of those carrying brucellosis. With the recent approval of a special use permit valid through January 31, 1999, the Department of Livestock hopes soon to construct and operate a $500,000 capture facility in Horse Butte, on Forest Service land. The state also requested approval of long-term operation of the facility-up to 10 years. If the money is not available in the state's budget, final approval for the facility will come in the form of cash from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The U.S. Forest Service says that the new capture facility will limit the slaughter of bison leaving the park because bison will be tested and then slaughtered only if infected with brucellosis. District ranger Stan Benes says that the only three options under the Interim Bison Management Plan are to haze; to capture, test and then either release or slaughter; or to shoot the bison as they leave the park. "This is a real difficult thing for everyone. People don't want to see the buffalo killed," he says. "But I work under the management plan and if the bison are not trapped, they will most likely be killed. This way, if they don't have brucellosis, they are let go."
But a wildlife biologist from The Fund for Animals disagrees. "From my perspective, you don't have to capture the bison at all," says D.J. Shubert. "You should have to get all the bison off the land back in the park 30 to 60 days before the cattle are supposed to come back. That is sufficient protection for the cattle."
Enviros also argue that the public was not adequately involved in the decision-making process for the proposed capture facility, violating the National Environmental Policy Act. According to Buffalo Nations and The Fund for Animals, almost all of the residents in the Horse Butte area have signed a petition against the new facility, angry that the time period to comment was short and no public hearing was held. The Forest Service replies that the facility is to be built near a snowmobile trail, and people just don't want to see any bison killed.
The facility also is near a bald eagle nesting site. The Fish and Wildlife Service will need to determine if the facility can still operate after January 31, 1999-nesting season starts February 1. Even if bison infected with brucellosis graze on cattle lands, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says, Montana will not lose its brucellosis-free status-a coveted status that all but just a few states can claim. In Wyoming, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service did not pull the brucellosis-free status after cattle contracted the disease, Catton says, and there is no known case of bison transmitting the disease to cattle. The one case in Wyoming could not be linked directly to bison, he says. Organizations for bison claim that the fear of brucellosis is irrational and Montana's fear may spread to other states.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, an alternative to the Interim Bison Management Plan will not be available until late spring or summer. Federal agencies received comments on the draft environmental impact statement until November 2 this year, but the thousands of comments need to be analyzed and discussed before a new plan is implemented-leaving the bison to face the Department of Livestock's guns during another, possibly harsh, winter. "