SHOWDOWN AT THE HORSE BUTTE CORRAL
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1999:
WEST YELLOWSTONE––A month after
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell refused to reimpose
the 1997-1998 limit of 100 on the number of
Yellowstone bison the Montana Department of
Livestock may kill without specific reauthorization,
the 1998-1999 toll zoomed from 17 to 94, with no
end in sight.
Lovell held that the limit and reauthorization
requirement did not seem necessary because the
bison toll was likely to be insignificant.
The Montana Department of Livestock evidently
took that to mean Lovell had declared an open
season, building a bison trap at Horse Butte over
ongoing protest and herding bison into it with snowmobiles.
Captured bison are tested for past exposure
to the livestock disease brucellosis. Bison with no
evident history of exposure who are not pregnant are
released to graze in the Gallatin National Forest,
adjoining Yellowstone––but all bison who test positive
and all pregnant bison are trucked to slaughter.
Their meat is donated to Native American
food charities––over the strong opposition of other
Native Americans, who call the killing profane.
Forty Native Americans joined Lakota
elder Rosalie Little Thunder during February and
March in a 20-day, 507-mile protest walk from
Rapid City, North Dakota, to the northern entrance
of Yellowstone at Gardiner, Montana.
As they went, they were joined by another
60 members of the Lakota, Navajo, Apache,
Tuscorora, Algonquin, Crow, Assibone, Southern
Ute, Northern Cheyenne, and Blackfoot tribes, and
were escorted on the final leg by 22 Nez Perce.
The Horse Butte roundup was delayed for
more than two months by members of Buffalo
Nations, a Native American-directed organization
also known as the Buffalo Field Campaign, and by
the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which is a consortium
of animal and habitat protection groups.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition unsuccessfully
challenged the rationale for the roundup,
after laboratory testing more sophisticated than the
Montana field tests discovered that 15 of the first 17
supposedly “infected” bison killed during the winter
were not actually infected.
Further, GYC pointed out, 15 of the first
19 bison killed were bulls––unlikely to transmit brucellosis
even if they have it. The disease afflicts
mostly females, causing stillbirths in domestic cattle,
and is transmitted chiefly by contact with placentas.
At least 13 Buffalo Field Campaign members
and sympathizers were subsequently arrested for
civil disobedience––five of them on April 14, when
69 bison were captured, of whom 45 were killed.
“The state of Montana and the Department
of Livestock chose not to exercise any discretion or
flexibility,” observed U.S. Interior Department
spokesperson John Wright. “They chose to force the
issue when there was no real threat to public or livestock
The Forest Service on April 8 reprimanded
the Montana Department of Livestock for driving the
bison caught at Horse Butte too close to protected
bald eagle habitat.
The current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
interim bison management plan allows the Montana
Department of Livestock to either drive wandering
bison back into Yellowstone, an approach tending to
fail because they often return north as soon as they
can; shoot them; or pursue the present testing protocol,
as Montana officials decide.
The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund,
Buffalo Nations, and other plaintiffs on April 13
asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn
the plan, contending that it violates a
Congressional mandate that wildlife in Yellowstone
be managed with minimal human intervention.
The National Park Service announced on
March 9 that 64,182 individuals and 2,465 organizations
from 66 nations had commented on the interim
bison management plan, of whom 25,000 specifically
objected to it and 47,599 supported an alternative
plan advanced by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition,
the Fund for Animals, and the National Wildlife
Federation. The alternative plan included relocating
some bison to Native American land.
Long endemic among Yellowstone bison
and elk at the nearby National Elk Refuge, in northern
Wyoming, brucellosis chiefly afflicts female animals,
causing stillbirths in pregnant cattle.
Elk and bison were blamed for an outbreak
of brucellosis among beef cattle in Montana and
Wyoming during the late 1930s, leading to elk massacres
between 1954 and 1966 that helped impell the
1968 formation of the Fund for Animals.
After 54 years of attempted brucellosis
eradication, at cost of $30 million, Montana and
Wyoming in 1985 won USDA certification as brucellosis-free
states. The certification allows ranchers to
sell cattle to slaughter without brucellosis testing.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service since 1997 has repeatedly told
Montana that it will not lose brucellosis-free status
because of the winter presence of elk or bison who
may have been exposed to the disease, when the
nearest beef cattle are more than 50 miles from
Yellowstone. By the time cattle return to the disputed
range, most bison and elk have returned to the park.
The Wyoming Department of Game and
Fish during the winter of 1998-1999 kept brucellosisfree
state status by vaccinating about 35,000 elk.
Montana, however, continues to insist on
killing bison showing any history of exposure to brucellosis––a
position cemented into state policy during
the middle 1980s, when combatting brucellosis was
used as rationale for auctions of bison hunting permits.
The hunters typically shot the bison at pointblank
range as the bison plodded out of Yellowstone
through deep snow, with little chance to flee.
Public participation in bison-killing was
finally halted by protest led chiefly by the Fund for
Animals. The killing has subsequently been done by
state officials, peaking during the harsh winter of
1996-1997, when more than 1,100 bison were shot.
The current Yellowstone bison population
is about 2,300.