More than 2,000 bison stand strong, independent and majestic in Yellowstone National Park. Their broad shoulders, rugged expressions and thick fur leave the impression that they are survivors, able to remain free despite many hardships in their long history-and possibly a few more in their future.
But under the current management plan, bison cannot venture into public grazing lands outside of the park without being rounded up-and tested for disease, and then either killed or returned to the park. Two years ago, a harsh winter forced the Yellowstone bison toward lower elevations outside of the park for food. The slaughter of 1,100 bison who left the park in search of food in the winter of 1996-97 spurred a bitter controversy over this plan.
In response, several government agencies have jointly released a draft environmental impact statement with management schemes ranging from hunting, to quarantining the shaggy beasts, to leaving the current practices in place.
Groups advocating both for the bison and on behalf of the ranchers have stepped forward to promote their own alternatives to the government's plans. The government hopes that one of seven plans can be used to prevent cattle from contracting brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort their first pregnancies. Despite a lack of evidence that the disease can be transmitted in the wild, ranchers fear that Montana will lose its brucellosis-free certification-a costly prospect.
Environmentalists counter that wild bison are being managed for the benefit of livestock growers, without regard for federal wildlife laws.
The state and federal agencies of the Interagency Bison Committee have chosen as "preferred" an alternative that outlines a specific population range. In order to keep the number of bison under 2,500, government agents would use current techniques to maintain the animals. The government maintains that the capture and slaughter would only occur outside of Yellowstone.
Jon Catton of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), a Bozeman-based conservation group, calls this plan "flawed," though he adds that it "is the least egregious of all the alternatives-with that, we agree with the government."
In response, GYC has drafted its own alternative-the Citizens' Plan, which calls for the maintenance of wild, free-roaming herds with access to public lands outside of the park. The Citizens' Plan would rely on discussions with landowners, land acquisition, bison relocation to Indian reservations and incentives for landowners to change cattle operations.
"Decisions about hazing and shooting are left up to the Montana Department of Livestock and that is only one part of the equation. Wildlife professionals should be making crucial decisions as well," Catton says.
A government spokeswoman points out that the National Park Service has emphasized a range of flexible management objectives. Inside Yellowstone, bison are fully protected, but migration outside of the park moves them to an area with different management goals, including the protection of cattle by various agencies.
Sarah Bransom of the National Park Service says that "these alternatives represent what all the agencies felt were reasonable ways of maintaining the bison population and protecting cattle."The Ecology Center, an environmental group based in Missoula, criticizes both the government's plan and the GYC plan. The center has drafted its own "Plan B," or what members call the "Buffalo's Alternative." "None of the government's alternatives are acceptable and the Citizens' Plan is a minor variation of one of the government's alternative," says Jim Coefield of the Ecology Center.
"Until it is proven that brucellosis is transmitted in the wild, it's not a problem."
Coefield explains that Plan B does not limit the size or movement of the bison herd, and ensures that buffalo receive preference over livestock on public lands.
Jeanne-Marie Souvigney, the associate director of GYC, says that the Citizens' Plan is very similar to Plan B. Souvigney notes that the coalition agrees that population size should be determine by the capacity of the land. By contrast, Souvigney advocates the removal of bison to Indian reservations or available public lands-and possibly hunting, but only if it is scientifically proven that there are too many bison for the available land.
While enviros pursue options that would maintain wild, free-roaming bison, members of the Montana Stockgrowers Association propose an aggressive plan to prevent cattle from contracting brucellosis. The stockgrowers call for the slaughter of all bison infected with brucellosis and the vaccination of the rest of the herd. "Any alternative that the park service decides on must have an eradication of brucellosis-complete eradication," says Beth Almond of the association. "Once the [cattle] herd gets it there is no cure for it. The entire herd has to be destroyed."
Ironically, the cattle are being protected from a disease that is probably not native to North America, but was introduced by the cattle's European ancestors. Now, Yellowstone bison are not only subjected to the transmission of brucellosis within their herd, but they are also confined to a park-in an area where they used to roam free.
A public hearing, sponsored by the Ecology Center, is scheduled from 2-9 p.m., Tuesday, September 15, at the Missoula Public Library.
The Yellowstone bison herd grazes this spring, but the harsh winter months could call for continued slaughter of the wild beasts.
Photo by Christina Willis