Barbarians rev up at the gates of Yellowstone
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1997:
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK––As the
first and most popular National Park, Yellowstone could be
seen as the capitol of a wilderness empire as far-reaching as
The 150 snowmobiling wise-use wiseguys who
rallied October 11 in West Yellowstone against limited park
road closures might be seen as the vanguard of the Huns,
hellbent on sacking what they don’t understand.
Looking at a map of North America, one can easily
imagine parks, forests, and national monuments linked
into a continuous set of wildlife corridors from the Yukon to
the Gulf of California. Much of the Mexican terminus is
already protected within a United Nations-recognized
Biosphere Reserve––but another part, the San Ignacio
Lagoon, is both an important gray whale calving area and
potentially jeopardized by salt extraction facilities in joint
development by Mitsubishi and the Mexican government.
The U.S. and Canadian portions of the potential
north/south transcontinental wildlife corridors are likewise
beseiged. But political momentum toward completing the
Canadian links picked up during the first three days of
October, when more than 300 wilderness advocates and
conservation biologists met at Waterton, Alberta, to discuss
what former E q u i n o x magazine editor Bart Robinson calls
the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative.
Within days, British Columbia prime minister
Glen Clark and former World Wildlife Fund head Prince
Philip, Duke of Edinburgh jointly announced the designation
of a new 4.4-million-hectare protected wilderness region
called Muskwa Kechika. About a third of the territory will
be totally off limits to human incursion. It constitutes about
half of the total area of the northern Rockies––a territory
larger than the whole of Switzerland, connected to Jasper
and Banf National Parks in Alberta.
Together, the Canadian park system nearly links
to Yellowstone. Yet it misses the southern prairie, the most
valuable farm land in Canada. There, University of Alberta
zoologist Wayne Roberts reports, just 1% of the original
grasslands remain, and biodiversity is crashing. Sage
grouse have crashed, from an already marginal 2,500 along
the Saskatchewan/Montana border in 1989 to just 250 today.
There, Canadian wise-users say, they’ll make their stand.
The U.S. part of a north/south transcontinental
wildife corridor could take several different routes, or all of
them. The route farthest east, which futurists Frank and
Deborah Popper argue should be linked into a “Buffalo
Common” via privately owned game ranches and hunting
preserves, would follow the Continental Divide through
western Colorado, then fork through central and western
New Mexico. A middle corridor could run through central
Utah and Arizona. A western corridor could cross Idaho,
follow major watersheds west almost to the Pacific, go
south through Washington, Oregon, and northern California
along the Cascade, Coast, and Sierra Nevada mountains,
and in southern California would connect to the Los Padres,
Angeles, and Cleveland National Forests via the Mojave
Each corridor already exists for the most part––but
the missing links include fiercely defended development property,
ranches, and privately owned fragments called inholdings,
already surrounded by public land.
The wise use movement began when Chuck Cushman
founded the National Inholders Association, the first of his
string of direct mail-based pressure groups, to oppose anticipated
expropriations of inholdings. The green-shaded portions of
maps delineating public land along the U.S. corridors look to
conservationists like a hand cupping the west as a gift to the
future, but to wise-users resemble an unwelcome land grab.
Even the rancher-friendly Popper proposal hasn’t
gained much favor among potentially affected private land
owners, other than Ted Turner. Turner has already built his
eight bison ranches into a series of private “buffalo commons”
occupying 1.3 million acres in New Mexico, Nebraska, and
Montana. Among them they have an estimated 20,000 bison,
more than the total U.S. government bison herd.
On August 19, governors Jim Geringer of Wyoming,
Marc Raciot of Montana, and Phil Batt of Idaho, the figurative
leaders of the barbarians at the gates of Yellowstone, signed a
series of agreements to coordinate lethally “managing” wolves
when they come off the federal endangered species list; to seek
federal funding for similar “management” of grizzly bears,
should a similar restoration get them off the endangered species
list; to push for early removal of federal grizzly protection; to
extend by 60 days the comment period on an assessment of
winter use of Yellowstone, meaning snowmobiling could continue
uninterrupted through the winter holidays; and to continue
to lethally “manage” bison migration from Yellowstone.
Guns & chainsaws
Though public land corridors often appear to continue
for hundreds of miles on paper, they are in fact interrupted
often by management regimes of differing mandate, some of
which may interfere with natural wildlife movement.
National Forests encompass the most land, but are
designated for economic use. Wildlife and recreational users
must co-exist with logging and grazing.
Recreation and sightseeing get top priority at
National Parks, National Monuments, and National Preserves.
Wildlife nominally gets first consideration on
National Wildlife Refuges, by far the smallest corridor component.
In practice, about 60% of the 509 refuges are managed in
part as pubic hunting and fishing preserves––and many also
permit cattle grazing. Attention to conservation often centers
on particular endangered species, with scant concern if any for
overall ecological health.
Under the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement
Act, introduced by House Natural Resources Committe chair
Don Young (R-Alaska) and signed by president Bill Clinton on
October 10, such practices are now not only standard but mandated.
Refuge managers are now not only supposed to protect
wildlife, at least on paper, but also to promote public access
for hunting, fishing, wildlife photography and observation,
and environmental education.
In effect, the new law allows the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to run refuges as wildlife exploitation zones at
less risk of lawsuit from people who don’t equate “conservation”
A forerunner of the bill was introduced early in the
1996 presidential primary election campaign. Seeking only to
enshrine hunting and fishing as purposes of the National
Wildlife Refuge System, it was forestalled when Clinton in
March 1996 issued an executive order which recognized hunting
and fishing and refuge purposes without the passage of a
law, and included wildlife photography, observation, and
environmental education as a sugar coating for nonhunters.
The Clinton administration then opened 23 refuges to
hunting and 18 to fishing between March 1996 and the
November 1996 federal election.
The push toward expanding the legal claims of
hunters continues at both the federal and state levels, especially
in the west, where the Wyoming legislative committee on travel,
recreation, wildlife, and cultural resources on September
25 voted to try once more to enshrine hunting, fishing, and
trapping as rights under the state constitution. A 1996 attempt
failed to clear the legislature.
Loggers and grazers are also trying to forestall any
effort to restrict their use of public land. [See page 10.] Senator
Larry Craig (R-Montana) has since last December pushed a
rewrite of the National Forest Management Act that would try
to prevent litigation over federal timber sales. The Craig bill
would suspend the Federal Advisory Committee Act to allow
businesses and business front groups to meet with the Bureau of
Land Management and Forest Service in secret.
The Craig bill would also allow the USDA and
Department of the Interior to charge copying fees of anyone
who makes multiple requests for BLM or Forest Service documents
within a six-month period, or requests more than $1,000
worth of documents in a six-month period. The latter provisions
would be especially onerous to small-budget activist
groups and investigative media––like ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Mining the park
Miners are also digging in for a fight.
Conservationists have unsuccessfully tried for nearly 20 years
to reform the 1872 Mining Act, which makes prospecting and
mineral extraction from federal land artificially lucrative. In
the first four years of the Bill Clinton administration, transactions
mandated under the 1872 act have conveyed property
worth $15 billion to private investors, for returns of only
$22,000. One such deal in December 1995 gave ASARCO Inc.
347 acres of the Coronado National Forest, with mineral rights
worth an estimated $2.9 billion, for $1,745. Three months earlier,
Faxe Kalk Inc.––a Danish firm––won title to 110 acres
with mineral rights worth an estimated $1 billion, for $275.
As many as 600 other such transactions were far
enough along to escape a 1995 Congressional freeze on further
land transfers pending passage of a Mining Act reform bill.
The reform bill was killed, however, by prominent
Republicans in the House of Representatives. About 6,000
mining claims on land in the Yellowstone ecosystem are pend
ing, according to novelist David James
Duncan, who is now doing investigative
reporting in hopes of stopping some of the
more destructive planned projects.
Pronouncing “Yellowstone is more
precious than gold,” Clinton on August 12,
1996 personally announced that the government
would buy out the Battle Mountain Gold
Company rights to mine at Cooke City, right
on the northern edge of the park. Battle
Mountain would receive $65 million for mineral
rights worth an estimated $800 million in
the New World Mining District, also known
as the Crown Butte Mine, after the subsidiary
of the Canadian mining empire Noranda Inc.
that originally began developing the site. The
land itself belongs to retired schoolteacher
Margaret I. Reeb, who acquired it bit by bit
between 1946 and 1987.
But the feds haven’t yet raised the
money. Montana governor Marc Raciot proposed
to raise it by opening coal and timber
reserves to development. Countered Doug
Hannold of the Sierra Club Legal Refense
Fund, “The way Raciot approached this was
essentially to invite the pigs to the trough.”
Other projects in the region are of
major environmental concern. Phelps Dodge
Corporation and Canyon Resources, for
instance, want to mine gold at McDonald
Meadows, an eight-square-mile site on the
upper Blackfoot River.
Wrote Duncan in a recent New York
Times op-ed page essay, “Phelps Dodge plans
to use trainloads of explosives to turn a riverside
butte where elk calve into a hole more
than a mile in diameter and as deep as the
World Trade Center is tall. The only comparable
hole in America is the nearby Berkeley Pit
in Butte, Montana––source of the Clark Fork
River Superfund sites that are costing $1 billion
and a once-legendary trout stream its life.
Phelps Dodge proposes to dry out the
Blackfoot pit by lowering the water table of
the upper Blackfoot Valley by 1,300 feet.
Then it plans to extract millions of tons of rock
to reach low grade ore containing just one 50th
of an ounce of gold per ton. To glean tiny
gold flecks from the ore, the company proposes
stacking it twice the height of the Statue of
Liberty over an area larger than New York’s
Central Park, and pouring billions of gallons
of cyanide-laced water over it.”
The potential for disaster, Duncan
continued, was illustrated at Summitville,
Colorado, where “a now-bankrupt Canadian
company, Galactic Resources Inc., opened a
cyanide heap-leach gold mine in 1986. The
plastic containment system,” similar to the
one proposed by Phelps Dodge, “ruptured,
spewing millions of gallons of poison, killing
all life in the Alamosa River and seriously
damaging much of the upper Rio Grande.
Cleanup has cost taxpayers $150 million, and
the Alamosa remains lifeless.”
By contrast with mineral extraction,
so-called microbial mining at the Yellowstone
hot springs might be almost invisible, harming
nothing, taking no more away than just a few
test tubes of hot sulphuric water––but if the
Park Service could tap the income potential
from it as effectively as geysers tap thermal
energy, the money problems plaguing the park
in recent years could be over. The hot springs
are full of unique microorganisms which have
adapted themselves to the extreme nature of
their habitat. Some are useful mainly in studying
the prospects for life in outer space.
Others have immediate utility.
University of Wisconsin biologist
Thomas D. Brock showed the way, discovering
the Thermus aquaticus microbe, or Taq,
back in 1965. Taq is now used to speed the
polymerase chain reaction that geneticists use
to replicate DNA.
“The Taq enzyme now generates
$100 million in sales for Hoffman-LaRoche,”
Jim Robbins of The New York Times r e p o r t s ,
“but no royalities have gone to Yellowstone
National Park or the Park Service.”
Hoping to avoid further losses by
default from nonparticipation in biological discovery,
the Yellowstone top brass in August
signed a bioprospecting deal with Diversa
Corporation, of San Diego. Diversa is paying
the park $35,000 a year for the next five years
to analyze life forms found in the geysers,
plus royalties on any successful marketing of
products developed from geyser life, and is
throwing in DNA “fingerprinting” of the
Yellowstone wolf population.
The Edmonds Institute, of
Edmonds, Washington, is reportedly preparing
to sue the Interior Department because the
Diversa contract was allocated without competitive
bidding. International Center for
Technology Assessment legal director Joseph
Mendelson meanwhile objects to the lack of an
environmental impact assessment.
“This is the new public lands mining,
the expropriation of public assets to private
industry,” Mendelson told Robbins.
Let it go to the dogs
Advocates of creating wildlife corridors
running north and south the length of the
Rocky Mountains and parallel mountain chains
tend to cite first the potential benefit to large
predators, such as wolves and grizzly bears,
and the thrill of again seeing huge herds of
bison following a semblance of their ancestral
migration routes. But the keystone species
most in need of extended sanctuary may be the
prairie dog, now occupying less than 2% of
the range that it had 150 years ago, yet still
shot and poisoned en masse as vermin.
At the turn of the century, biologist
Vernon Bailey reported that a single prairie
dog colony on the Texas high plains occupied
an area the size of Maine. The largest known
prairie dog colony today, at Badlands
National Park, occupies 4,200 acres––and
that’s two-thirds of all the protected prairie
dog habitat in the whole National Park system.
Sylvatic plague, spread by fleas,
recently brought a new threat to prairie dogs.
As many as 170 other wild species depend on
prairie dogs to provide their habitat and
diet––and studies have repeatedly demonstrated
that contrary to common rancher belief,
range with prairie dogs produces richer grass
for cattle than fields without. But rancher
pressure led by Senator Tom Daschle (R-South
Dakota) last winter kept prairie dogs from
receiving Category Two protection under the
Endangered Species Act. Under Category
Two, prairie dogs would be classed as neither
endangered nor threatened, but of enough
potential concern to be closely watched.
For now, prairie dogs ironically get
their most extensive protection from blackfooted
ferrets, one of their most voracious predators.
The ferrets eat prairie dogs almost exclusively,
so any prairie dogs in the vicinity of
blackfooted ferrets occupy protected ferret
Believed extinct until rediscovered
near Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981, the eight
remnant ferrets were bred in captivity. Since
1991, several hundred of their descendants
have been reintroduced to the Shirley Basin of
Wyoming, north of Medicine Bow, as well as
to sites in Arizona, Montana, and South
Dakota. Casualties have been heavy, but as
many as 35-40 blackfooted ferrets appear to
have established themselves in the Charles M.
Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana,
and in early October 1997 at least five persisted
in the Shirley Basin. The ferrets released at
Badlands National Park, however, where they
seemingly enjoyed the most favorable habitat,
apparently all died during the winter of 1995-
1996. Another 22 ferrets were added to the
Charles M. Russell refuge population in midOctober.
Ten were released on the Fort
Belknap Indian Reservation, just to the north.
Despite the importance of prey
species as foundations of the Yellowstone
ecosystem, predator restoration most captures
the public imagination––even when it really
amounts more to predator displacement, like
the much ballyhooed wolf restoration begun in
early 1995 after more than 20 years of planning
and political dickering.
Biologists expected the newly
translocated wolves to roust the coyotes who
usurped their places after the last wolf in
Yellowstone was shot in 1926––and they have.
Three years ago there were about 500 coyotes
in Yellowstone, belonging to 65 packs. Now
there are about 250 in 46 packs.
New information indicates packs of
wolves are also capable of driving away
pumas. The Hornocker Wildlife Institute,
affiliated with the University of Idaho, recently
completed a five-year study of gray wolf
recolonization of a region just west of Glacier
National Park, in northwestern Montana.
Project leader Toni Ruth told Martin
Fortstenzer, author of a special report published
by The Seattle Times, that during the
course of the study, wolf packs killed three
pumas, a grizzly killed a puma, three pumas
were killed in territorial fighting with other
pumas, and seven pumas died of starvation.
“The starvations,” Ruth said, “are
probably related to pumas getting bumped off
their kills. They expend the energy to make a
kill, but do not reap the benefits. There is also
the compounding problem of a decline in prey
Further, Ruth found, puma kitten
survival declines in the proximity of
wolves––partly because less nutrition is available
to them, partly because competing predators
make more effort to find and kill them.
Ruth predicted that this means
increased human conflict with pumas as wolf
recovery proceeds. “Pumas are able to cope
with human areas, which wolves stay away
from,” she told Fortstenzer. In addition, deer
tend to move away from wolves, toward
humans if necessary, drawing their other
predators after them.
However, as ANIMAL PEOPLE
has repeatedly pointed out in recent years,
much of the purported evidence that pumas are
establishing themselves in proximity to people
may come from encounters with pumas raised
in captivity but abandoned by private collectors.
Abandonments of exotic pets from anacondas
to emus are a fast-increasing problem
all over the U.S., and few predators caught up
in the traffic are either more common than
pumas or better adapted to wild survival.
Further, as pumas become
reaquainted with the presence and behavior of
wolves, they may develop more expertise in
contending with wolf packs––for instance,
learning to drag prey into trees, like Africa
leopards, who must fend off hyenas. Pumas
are known to sometimes climb with prey, but
have probably mostly never had the need.
Wolf predation on livestock is much
publicized in the Yellowstone region, but
overestimated as a cause of losses, records
indicate. In Montana in 1995, 172,000 cattle
and sheep died on the range, but only four
calves and no sheep were wolf-killed. Wolfkillings
of livestock jumped in 1996-1997, but
so did deaths from other causes, due to an
unusually harsh winter. At that, wolves
killed fewer cattle and sheep than domestic
dogs, who kill more than 200 a year.
Wolf predation in Wyoming may be
greater than in Montana this year largely
because a lone female, #68, allegedly killed
56 sheep in August and early September
before USDA Wildlife Services shot her.
Wyoming ranchers and public officials
are using the case to illustrate their contention
that wolves should be confined to
Yellowstone––and should not be allowed to
cross Wyoming to get into Utah and Colorado,
where wildlife organizations have said they
would be welcomed, despite rancher opposition.
The Fish and Wildlife Service argues
that wolves cannot be taken off the endangered
species list until they achieve recovery target
numbers. Yellowstone by itself isn’t big
enough for that many wolves.
The wolf reintroduction program
was embarrassed in mid-October after a pack
of six were captured south of Dillon,
Montana, for allegedly killing livestock, and
were taken to the impounding pen where the
Nez Perce tribe keeps problem wolves pending
relocation. Impounded at the same pen before
their release into the region last spring, the
wolves this time made a coordinated escape.
Radio collars traced them over the next few
days as they fled to the Hayden Valley.
Grizzly (and often grisly) incidents
repeatedly punctuated the debate as a series of
seven hearings on the proposed grizzly bear
restoration to the Selway-Bitterroot
Wilderness in Idaho and Montana approached,
and then got underway in early October.
In mid-September two guided hunting
parties in two weeks opened fire on grizzly
families in the Teton Wilderness of the
Bridger-Teton National Forest. The first
group mortally wounded a sow and shot at her
cubs, but missed. The second group killed a
sow and all three of her cubs. Assistant U.S.
attorney John Barksdale, of Casper, Wyoming,
said his office was investigating, but
added, “That doesn’t mean we’re going to
The Forest Service responding to the
killings by inspecting Teton-area hunting
camps for compliance with sanitation rules
meant to discourage bear/human conflict.
“Beer cans and gelling bacon grease decorated
about half the hunting camps,” Jennifer
McKee of the Wyoming Bureau of the Billings
G a z e t t e reported. The rangers passed out an
undisclosed number of $75 summary citations.
Rancher John Shuler, of Dupuyer,
Montana, complained then of grizzlies killing
his sheep. Shuler was fined $5,000 in 1989 for
illegally shooting a grizzly who had allegedly
killed 16 sheep, but has refused to pay the fine
while appeals are pending. Beginning
September 25, Montana wildlife officials livetrapped
for relocation from the Shuler property
three sub-adult female grizzlies and a male,
and reportedly killed another grizzly as a
known multi-time livestock slayer.
Altogether, eight grizzlies had been
killed in 1997 as of mid-October, including a
two-year-old male who was shot in the Bob
Marshall Wilderness for repeatedly raiding
hanging deer carcasses, garbage, and horse
feed at hunting camps. That brought the toll
within one female or three males of exceeding
the federal grizzly recovery plan target for the
third year in a row. Wyoming Game and Fish
Department bear biologist Dave Moody
warned in early October that more grizzly
killings might extend the length of time that
grizzlies are protected as a threatened species.
Grizzly/human conflicts were almost
as intense on the Canadian side of the border.
An estimated 34 grizzlies inhabit the CastleCrown
wilderness corridor that links northern
Montana to Banff, Alberta, along the edge of
the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Two were killed this year, and 14 were relocated
due to conflict with ranchers.
Southwest of Castle-Crown, northwest
of Yellowstone, the Selway-Bitterroot is
believed to be the best grizzly habitat not
presently occupied by grizzlies, and the last
habitat they need to reoccupy to be delisted
under the Endangered Species Act. About
1,000 grizzlies now inhabit Yellowstone and
Glacier National Parks and the Bob Marshall
Wilderness. The Fish and Wildlife Service
wants to release 25 grizzlies into the 5,785-
square-mile Selway/Bitterroot area over the
next five years, under a plan parallel to the
Yellowstone/Idaho wolf recovery plan. The
grizzlies would be expected to expand into a
population of about 280 over the next 50
years––more than the 250 grizzlies believed to
be in the greater Yellowstone region now.
According to terms brokered by
Defenders of Wildlife in consultation with timber
industry fronts, the introduced grizzlies
would have “experimental nonessential” protected
status. Thus they could be killed to protect
livestock. A draft reintroduction plan published
by the Fish and Wildlife Service in July
also allows a citizens’ committee appointed by
the governors of Idaho and Montana to decide
where the grizzlies should be allowed to
go––although their recommendations could be
overridden by the Secretary of the Interior.
The Sierra Club and the Alliance for
the Wild Rockies favor natural rather than
induced habitat reclamation. Under this
regime, grizzlies would retain full federal protection.
The Idaho Conservation League
opposes the aspect of politicians rather than
bear biologists having the final say on what
should and should not be grizzly habitat.
Apart from conflict with humans,
both wolf and grizzly recovery depend heaviily
on the health of the Yellowstone region elk
and bison herds. Both the elk and the bison
carry brucellosis, a disease which causes
undulant fever in humans who drink milk from
afflicted cows, and causes cattle to abort.
Neither elk nor bison are known to infect
domestic cattle, but dairy cattle are believed
to have infected the elk and bison circa 1915.
Ranchers haven’t worried much over
the past 35 years about infected elk migrating
out of Yellowstone, as elk and cattle rarely
mix, and elk are in effect a cash crop themselves,
with an elk hunting season, during
which landowners may lucratively lease hunting
rights. Elk from Yellowstone more than
tripled the grazing population just north of the
park last January, but ranchers said little about
it as hunters shot them in record numbers.
Bison, on the other hand, are close
relatives of cattle, and although hunted on
game ranches and in special cull shoots, are
not subject to any regular hunting season.
They are also notorious for fence-smashing.
Thus they don’t offer ranchers any financial
opportunity, and do pose an economic threat.
Anywhere from 10% to 50% of the
Yellowstone bison have endemic brucellosis,
according to recent official estimates. The
USDA considers Yellowstone wildlife to be
the last major reservoir of brucellosis left in
the U.S., after a 63-year eradication drive.
Twenty-two quarantined herds in four states
constitute the only remaining brucellosis in
U.S. livestock. The target date for total brucellosis
wipeout is next year. The livestock of
40 states are already USDA-certified as brucellosis-free,
meaning no cases have been
found in more than a year. Ranchers in certified
states––including Idaho, Montana, and
Wyoming––may ship livestock interstate without
quarantine. This advantage would be lost
should brucellosis reappear in their herds.
From 1902, when Congress ordered
Yellowstone to conserve the last remaining
wild bison, through 1967, when the park
closed a slaughterhouse it used to run in the
Lamarr Valley, the herds were managed as if
they, too, were domestic cattle. There were
397 bison in Yellowstone in March 1967,
when ranch-style management ended.
Allowed to live and die as wildlife, they multiplied
up to nearly 4,000 over the next 30
years. Foreseeing an eventual need for a
buffer zone between Yellowstone and private
ranchers in the Gallatin Valley, park management
tried to buy 13,500 strategically located
acres from Malcolm Forbes in 1981, but thenU.S.
president Ronald Reagan vetoed the deal.
Instead, that land and another 18,000 acres
were acquired by the far-right Church
Universal and Triumphant, which has maintained
a rigid “no bison” policy.
Since 1986, hundreds of bison have
meandered north into Montana and occasionally
south into Wyoming during severe winters.
Controversial massacres have resulted––by
Montana game wardens, hunters, and last
winter by Yellowstone staff. Of about 3,500
bison in the park when the unusually heavy
snows of 1996-1997 began falling steadily in
November, 1,089 were killed. Approximately
half were shot on site. The rest were sold to
slaughter. Just a few were hauled back into
the park, mostly to become research subjects.
Another thousand bison remained
within Yellowstone but didn’t survive the winter.
Official attempts to haze wandering bison
back into Yellowstone reportedly failed
because even when they were turned around,
they often had to be turned repeatedly, and
used so much energy thereby that they eventually
died from starvation and exposure.
Amid rising public outcry, the
USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service last February proposed to leave
Montana’s brucellosis-free certification in
place through the winter, if the state would
allow bison who wandered out of Yellowstone
in search of food to graze in the Gallatin
National Forest, just to the north. There were
no domestic cattle out on the range then, and
none were expected to be put out until after
April 30, by which time the bison were
expected to have returned into Yellowstone.
However, Alabama, Colorado,
Oregon, and Texas all threatened to withdraw
recognition of the Yellowstone states’ brucellosis-free
status. Alabama and Oregon actually
imposed special handling requirements on
Yellowstone states’ cattle. This reduced
demand and drove up production costs––and
perhaps propped up the sale price of range
beef from other states.
By mid-March, park rangers were
wearing black tape over the bison emblems on
their badges. “It shows opposition to the continued
unnecessary demise of bison outside the
park,” chief ranger Dan Sholly explained.
Sholly, the top Yellowstone law
enforcement officer, was suspended with pay
on September 30 and put on a three-week
administrative leave, followed by temporary
reassignment, during a Park Service probe of
unspecified alleged professional misconduct.
Seeking to avert any repetition of
last winter’s fiasco, the Park Service, USDAAPHIS,
Forest Service, and state of Montana
in July 1997 agreed the Yellowstone bison
population would be capped at 1,700 to 2,500.
The deal was immediately
denounced as inherently unecological by eight
leading Yellowstone researchers, whose
apparent availability as potential witnesses lent
weight to the threat of lawsuit from environmental
and animal advocacy groups.
The capping agreement also left
open the question of what to do with a bison
surplus. Buying land enough to provide outside-the-park
winter range for them could cost
from $7.5 million to $25.6 million, the Park
Service estimated in August. The Native
American environmental group Cold
Mountain, Cold Rivers and the InterTribal
Bison Cooperative of Rapid City, South
Dakota, want any surplus bison who test brucellosis-free
to be relocated to reservations, as
foundation stock for beef herds. A group organized
by former Bureau of Land Management
staffer Jeffrey Tombaugh, called Bring Back
The Bison is crusading, meanwhile, for the
surplus animals to be reintroduced to other
A USDA-APHIS review of Wyoming
brucellosis control stoked the controversy
in August by recommending that cattle in the
six counties closest to Yellowstone should be
tested for brucellosis before slaughter. APHIS
made the recommendation at request of the
Wyoming agriculture department. Both see
the testing as a way to establish whether elk
and bison really can infect otherwise healthy
cattle. The recommendation was widely taken,
however, as a suggestion that Wyoming might
lose brucellosis-free status.
Rancher paranoia exploded when
within days the Fund for Animals unveiled a
“Boycott Beef to Save the Buffalo” campaign,
asserting in mas mailings that, “The beef
industry is waging war on our bison.”
“They graze their cows on public
land, we subsidize most of it, and then they
push for bison to be killed,” fumed Fund
national director Heidi Prescott.
After Wyoming state veterinarian
Don Bosman said the APHIS recommendations
would be accepted, and that testing
would be required effective January 1, 1988,
the board of the Wyoming Wool Growers
Association demanded federal compensation
for what they termed “punitive and unfair
sanctions”––apparently meaning the testing
Charged the Fremont County
Commission, “This whole problem may have
been put in motion to try to get all domestic
livestock out of the greater Yellowstone
ecosystem.” They urged the Wyoming
Livestock Board to “force the National Park
Service to control brucellosis in their bison and
elk herds, by litigation if necessary.”
In deference to rancher sensitivity
over brucellosis, Montana State University at
Bozeman in July quietly killed six bison who
were part of a longterm brucellosis study,
rather than risk being blamed for spreading the
disease if it recurred in the area. Word of the
killings leaked to the Billings Gazette a b o u t
three weeks later.
Wyoming for the third winter will
hold cull hunts to kill bison who wander down
the North Fork of the Shoshone River, and
may also hold cull hunts in the Bridger-Teton
National Forest and National Elk Refuge.
A joint management plan announced
on October 2 caps the Jackson Hole bison
herd, which normally winters in BridgerTeton
and the National Elk Refuge, at 350 to
400. The Jackson herd is distinct from the
Yellowstone herd. The cap would be maintained
by hunting. Andrea Lococo, Rocky
Mountain coordinator for the Fund for
Animals, and Franz Camenzind, executive
director of the Jackson Hole Conservation
Alliance, immediately pointed out that the cap
seems to be based on the present herd size of
about 380, rather than on the as yet unknown
capacity of the habitat.
The Park Service, meanwhile, will
for the first time allow rangers to shoot bison
before they actually exit Yellowstone, if other
measures fail to stop them.
The noisiest issue in Yellowstone
right now, though, may be neither predator
reintroduction nor brucellosis. On May 20,
1997 the Fund for Animals and the
Biodiversity Legal Foundation sued Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Department of
the Interior for permitting encouraging snowmobile
use in the park without an assessment
of the potential impact on wildlife.
Yellowstone managers estimated in
1990 that the park would have only 143,500
winter visitors during the next decade, but in
actuality it attracted 113,504 winter visitors
just last year, 71,759 of them on snowmobiles.
“Yellowstone bison expert Mary
Meagher has stated that groomed snowmobile
trails are the largest factor contributing to
bison movements outside the park,” noted a
Fund press release. The trails give bison a
way to leave when the snow is otherwise too
deep for long walking.
The suit also cited potential harm to
grizzlies, grey wolves, and other species
whose routines snowmobiling might disturb.
As the Fund and the Park Service
moved toward an out-of-court settlement,
Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) on August 6
asked Park Service director Robert Stanton to
fight the suit instead. A coalition called
Yellowstone Outdoor Recreation Solutions
petitioned for intervenor status. But a settlement
was announced nonetheless on
September 24: the Park Service would ban
snowmobiling this winter on the Fishing
Bridge/Canyon Village trail, and would continue
to experimentally close certain roads to
snowmobiles for three winters while producing
an environmental impact statement.
Recreational vehicle industry nerves
were already raw that day. The Park Service
had just banned personal watercraft such as Jet
Skis from various sensitive waters, and on
September 23 won an Eighth U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals ruling that it may bar snowmobiles
from parts of Voyageurs National
Park, in Minnesota, to protect wolves. The
Park Service initially restricted snowmobile
use in January 1993, but had been challenged
in court since 1994 by the Minnesota United
Snowmobilers Association. A lower court ruling
favoring the snowmobilers meanwhile kept
the full ban from coming into effect.
Within three weeks, 26 Yellowstone
region municipalities were on record against
any closures of roads to snowmobilers. The
Yellowstone Outdoor Recreation Solutions
petition was to be heard in federal court on
October 27. Whatever the verdict, as the
October 11 ralliers made clear, it wasn’t likely
to be the end of anything.
Further upsetting wise-use wiseguys,
the Fund on October 6 responded to a special
lottery for youth permits to kill elk at the
National Elk Refuge by offering a new mountain
bicycle worth up to $1,000 to the first winner
of a permit who surrendered it and his or
her hunting licence to the Fund, and promised
not to hunt again during the current season.
If anyone hoped still that the 1872
Congressional goal of “preserving” Yellowstone
forever could be achieved, researchers
Patrick Bartlein, Cathy Whitlock, and Sarah
Shafer of the University of Oregon at Eugene
might have dashed it with a study of global
warming published in the June 1997 edition of
Conservation Biology. They found that at the
current rate of carbon dioxide build-up, tree
cover patterns can be expected to change over
the next several hundred years throughout the
Yellowstone region, turning the now diverse
woods into a semi-monoculture and shifting
the centers of biodiversity southward.
But such longterm ecological change
might still be mild compared to the cumlative
impacts of human use and management––especially
management, which has probably subjected
the Yellowstone basic to more ecological
change in a century than it had experienced
in the preceding thousand years. Aside from
the shifting theories that have governed
wildlife management, changes in the philsophy
of habitat management have had a huge
effect. All forest fires, for instance, were put
out as soon as possible until the importance of
forest fires in rejuvenating forest ecosystems
was belatedly recognized and in the mid-1980s
management began letting lightning-started
blazes burn. Since the unprecedentedly large
fires of early 1989, however, when tourism
briefly dropped with catastrophic effect on the
regional economy, firefighting has resumed.
The Yellowstone budget has grown
from $12 million a year to more than $20 million
over the past 10 years––but attendance has
jumped from one million a year to three million.
Park managers haven’t even been able to
keep up with maintenance of the park’s roads
and 2,200 buildings, let alone with the impact
of the increased human use of nature. The
positive side is that the environmental ethics of
the present era minimize individual effects
compared to the 1950s and 1960s. There is
less littering, less graffiti, less animal-feeding,
and are far fewer animal/human conflicts.
Although parking lots today take up
more park space, three of today’s cars pollute
less than one car of that era. The increased
popularity of hiking, and the advent of mountain
bikes and off-road vehicles, meanwhile
mean four to five times as many people use the
Yellowstone trails––and tend to venture deeper
into the areas preserved as semi-wilderness.
The paradox for Yellowstone management,
and for management of all the imaginary
Yellowstone Empire, is that human
endorsement of the notion of wilderness makes
preserving some possible, yet humans mostly
endorse wilderness preservation so that we,
too, can sometimes enjoy wild habitat.