Brucellosis, bison, wardens and the horses they ride in on

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1997:

PARK––The guns fell silent on January 31,
at least temporarily, after shootings and shipments
to slaughter killed 25% of the bison in
America’s most famous herd. News video of
bison falling dead and a Fund for Animals call
of a boycott of tourism to Montana brought a
change of plans from National Park Service
director Roger G. Kennedy, Forest Service
chief Michael Dombeck, and Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service administrator
Terry L. Medley.

Fed up with taking flak for policies
pursued to placate Montana ranchers, the
three department heads ordered park rangers
to mount horses, set up 24-hour patrols––no
mean feat over the rough terrain in winter blizzards––and
drive any bison leaving the park
back in. The bison might still go to slaughter
after testing for brucellosis, but at least they
wouldn’t be shot on TV by Montana wardens.
Montana governor Marc Racicot
quickly straddled the fence. “We have
absolutely no interest in killing bison,” he
insisted, called for President Bill Clinton,
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, and
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to take
unspecified “decisive and meaningful” federal
action, and meanwhile told state officials to
hold the line and keep shooting all bison who
cross out of Yellowstone into private property
––in particular the extensive holdings of the
Church Universal and Triumphant, an apocalyptic
sect founded by Elizabeth Claire
Prophet which formerly sold rights to shoot
stray Yellowstone bison and now complains
that they menace the church cattle.
There was, to be sure, no guarantee
that the horseback roundup would work, as
Racicot pointed out. A reminder of the contagiousness
of brucellosis and the risk involved
came January 17, when Wyoming and
Montana state veterinarians Bob Hillman and
Clarence Sirosky confirmed discovery of the
disease in a Wyoming game warden’s horse,
who apparently contracted it while working at
state-run elk-feeding stations near Jackson and
the federally managed National Elk Refuge,
just south of Yellowstone. Bison may have
been the source of the infection, having
joined elk at the feeding stations since 1980.
However, the elk may also have transmitted
brucellosis to both the horse and the bison,
since the elk herd carries the disease too––as
the Fund pointed out in a November statement
opposing a bison hunt on the refuge, purportedly
scheduled to reduce the brucellosis threat
to Wyoming cattle.
Humans can get brucellosis too, in
the form of undulant fever, but only slaughterhouse
workers who ignore safety precautions
are believed to be at risk from the bison.
Brucellosis and bad weather
combined to bring a 20th century
record level of bison killing to
Yellowstone and surrounding public
lands. Brucellosis, a disease causing
spontaneous abortion and often
death in domestic cattle, has been
endemic in the Yellowstone bison
herd for decades––probably since
the first half of this century, when
often grazing alongside cattle, bison
easily acquired cattle diseases.
Like cattle
As Scott McMillion of the
Bozeman Daily Chronicle explained
on January 31, “Until the early
1950s, most of the park’s bison
were treated like cattle: turned
loose in the summer, rounded up
and fed hay in the winter. Bull
calves were castrated,” to control
population growth, and when further
control seemed necessary,
“rangers ran them into corrals much
like the ones drawing so much controversy
on the park borders today.
Then they were killed and processed
in the Park Service’s own slaughterhouse
in the Lamar Valley,” which
ceased operating in 1953, along
with Buffalo Ranch, where bison
were bred and calves protected from
predators. “In later years, bison
were shot in the field in the park
interior, or herded into traps with
helicopters. Then they were trucked
to a packing plant in Livingston,
Montana, one of the same slaughterhouses
used today.”
The elk herd was similarly
managed. Predators were killed;
wolves were entirely extripated from
Yellowstone in 1926.
Brucellosis hasn’t visibly
slowed bison reproduction, as bison
numbers have steadily increased
since 1889, when the Yellowstone
herd of 21 were all the wild bison
left in the world. Brucellosis has,
however, devastated beef and dairy
herds wherever it has afflicted
domestic stock––not least because
the only known means of keeping it
from spreading is slaughtering all
the animals in a herd known to have
even one affected member.
Normally the Gallatin
Range and Gallatin River form a
barrier between the Yellowstone
bison and Montana livestock, but in
particularly harsh winters when fodder
in the park is scarce, many bison
try to migrate north, out of the park,
into the lush high plains that for millions
of years belonged to their normal
range. Ranchers once shot
potentially infected bison who
approached their herds on sight.
Later, Montana sold permits to
shoot the bison to trophy hunters.
When the Fund threatened a tourism
boycott over that practice in 1988-
1989, when a then-record 569 bison
left the park and were killed, the job
was turned over to Montana game
wardens and the Montana Board of
Livestock. That, for a while,
brought the killing a lower profile.
Meanwhile the USDA proceeded
toward fulfilling a 60-year
goal of making the U.S. free from
brucellosis, state by state. One
Montana rancher, Jim Hagenbarth,
has reportedly spent $250,000 on
testing and vaccination in the effort,
even though his own herd has never
had the disease. Ranchers in states
certified brucellosis-free may sell or
swap stock without quarantine, a
significant advantage when striving
to move cattle in a hurry so as to get
the best slaughter prices. Montana
enjoys brucellosis-free status––and
with only 32 cattle and bison herds
in the U.S. still quarantined for brucellosis,
the Yellowstone bison herd
is among the last major reservoirs of
the disease.
“In the past, much like
today,” McMillion remembered,
“some animals were tested for brucellosis,
and those who tested negative
were sometimes released,” relocated
to other parts of the park
where eventually other culls would
occur. The bison were vaccinated
against brucellosis before release.
But that practice failed to eliminate
brucellosis, which was still readily
reacquired from cattle even if extirpated
temporarily from a particular
bison herd, and no follow-up
research was ever done to find out if
the vaccine was even working.
Continued McMillion,
“Bison reductions, along with much
bigger and more widely known elk
reductions, came to a halt in 1966,
when under intense pressure from
hunting groups and others who
didn’t like the practice, the park
began managing in ways that left the
bison mostly to their own devices.
At that time there were an estimated
366 bison in the park, down from a
high of 1,450 reached in 1954.”
Hunters opposed the elk
and bison culls because they wanted
the trophy species to spread into the
Grand Tetons, the Gallatins, and
the Jim Bridger National Forest,
where they could be shot for sport.
The old brucellosis screening
plan was dusted off, updated,
and proposed for implementation
starting November 1, 1996. To satisfy
Montana, all bison exposed to
brucellosis and all pregnant bison
caught in the West Yellowstone area
would be killed. The plan was
expected to cull from the
Yellowstone herd about as many
bison as would normally die in a
harsh winter––and was believed
likely to avert winter kills, both on
the range of the elements and at the
Montana border, if begun in time.
Although capturing bison
near West Yellowstone began on
November 17, disposing of any was
held up by a lawsuit filed on
September 18 by the Sierra Club
Legal Defense Fund, Greater
Yellowstone Coalition, Gallatin
Wildlife Association, Jackson Hole
Alliance for Responsible Planning,
and the American Buffalo
“This sets a terrible precedent
for other wildlife species who
move outside the park at some times
of year and can be inconvenient,”
explained SCLDF attorney Jim
Angell. “What’s next? Bear? Elk?”
U.S. District Judge
Charles C. Lovell, of Helena,
Montana, tossed the suit on
December 19, but the plaintiffs
appealed on January 17.
Meanwhile, faced with a lawsuit
from the State of Montana if the
bison killing didn’t proceed, the
Park Service on January 11 sent to
slaughter the first 146 of 266 bison
captured near Gardiner, Montana.
Nobody expected snow
more than twice as deep as normal
and the greatest bison migration
since 1975. As of January 31, the
Park Service had tested and sent 401
bison to slaughter under the brucellosis
eradication plan, shooting six
others who proved unhandleable.
Montana rangers had shot or sent to
slaughter another 358 bison, including
32 just on January 30. The combined
total was more than double the
average winter bison loss. The surviving
herd of 2,100 was expected to
dwindle further, between the second
half of winter and the ongoing testand-truck
“From the beginning, we
have argued that this policy of
rounding up and slaughtering bison
is brutal and completely unnecessary,”
said National Parks and
Conservation Association president
Paul C. Pritchard. “But if this heavy
snow drives more bison from the
park, we could have a bigger disaster
than anyone imagined. There is
no limit to the number of bison who
can be destroyed.”
The bison issue stoked the
ongoing conflict among park users,
neighbors, and conservationists as
to just what Yellowstone is and
should be. The Fund blamed the
bison migration on accelerated herd
growth, and blamed the herd growth
on snowmobiles.
“The groomed trails that
permit snowmobile access into
Yellowstone are used by bison as
energy-efficient winter travel routes
that, directly or indirectly, facilitate
bison emigration,” explained a Fund
action aler. “Bison winter kill is
reduced while productivity and survival
are increased. The result,
according to Mary Maugher,” a
Park Service biologist who has studied
the Yellowstone herd for 38
years, “is a bison population which
is nearly double the size it would be
if trails were not groomed to facilitate
snowmobile use and snowmobiles
were not permitted in the park.
In addition to facilitating bison
movements,” the release continued,
“bison use of groomed trails has disrupted
their distribution and habitat
use, causing ecosystem-wide impact
to park vegetation and rangelands.”
The Fund asked members
to remind Yellowstone supervisor
Mike Finley that it is, “A National
Park, not a National Playground.”
The Fund and the Biodiversity Legal
Foundation also warned on January
27 that they will sue the Park
Service if it fails to publish an
Environmental Assessment of snowmobiling
within the park by the end
of February.
Should the Park Service
ban snowmobiling, it would run
directly afoul of one of the most
influential wise-use factions, offroad
vehicle users, whose pressure
groups are heavily funded by makers
of snowmobiles and other off-road
The National Wildlife
Federation and InterTribal Bison
Cooperative harked back to 1966
with a January 23 demand that bison
who leave the park be sent to tribal
lands for quarantine followed by
reintroduction to range where they
might become meat herds and/or be
hunted. The Montana Board of
Livestock immediately opposed the
idea because some infected bison
might escape. Their fears were
underscored by the January 15
escape of 1,500 bison from brucellosis
quarantine on the 60,000-acre
Triple U Ranch near Fort Pierre,
South Dakota, home of the herd
used in the 1990 Kevin Costner film
Dances With Wolves. The bison
walked up compacted 20-to-25-footdeep
snowdrifts and over the top of
eight-foot fences. Volunteers on
snowmobiles rounded up all but 200
to 500 bison within 24 hours, but
the bison had already spread over an
area 20 miles long by 15 wide.
Taking yet another
approach, the Wyoming Game and
Fish Department applied on
December 2, 1996 for a permit to
capture 36 Yellowstone bison calves
over the next two years and experiment
with vaccination again, this
time using RB51, a new vaccine
that they believe will be more effective
than Strain 19, the one used 30-
40 years ago.
The immediate effect of
the bison killing will be to compound
the inevitable loss of elk,
deer, and moose to deep snow and
scarce fodder. Fewer ungulates and
bison mean a hungry spring for
Yellowstone predators, including
coyotes, pumas, grizzly bears, and
the wolf packs reintroduced during
the past two years. Of 66 wolves
released in Idaho and Yellowstone
since January 1995, at least 13 are
deceased, four of them illegally shot
and one killed by Animal Damage
Control personnel for eating sheep.
However, an estimated 53 to 63
pups have been born, bringing the
population to the reintroduction target
of approximately 100 wolves.
Yellowstone has been the most hospitable
locale for the wolves, who
swiftly extirpated coyotes from the
Lamar Valley and now are the dominant
predator at the Montana end of
the park––precisely the area of the
bison culling and shooting.
Plans to reintroduce grizzlies
to the Selway-Bitteroot
Wilderness and perhaps the Frank
Church River of No Return
Wildnerness north of Yellowstone,
along the Montana/ Idaho border,
were indefinitely postponed in
December, apparently due to lach of
political support. Representative
Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) has
called the idea “as crazy as bringing
sharks to the beach.” The Sierra
Club Legal Defense Fund last July
argued that Defenders of Wildlife
gave away too much to the timber
industry in negotiating a reintroduction
protocol that won endorsements
from several major timber firms plus
the biggest logging industry unions,
the Teamsters and Brotherhood of
Operating Engineers. The grizzlies
were to be taken from Canada––and
that drew flak from a coalition of 43
Canadian environmental and animal
protection groups. But the coup-
d’grace was probably public alarm
over a June 5 grizzly attack on a
hiker in Glacier National Park,
Montana––which the hiker survived
––and the August killing of grizzlies
209 and 233 in Grand Teton
National Park and the Abasarokee
Wilderness, near Yellowstone, for
preying on cattle and raiding cabins.

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