Bison, wolves, & the wild west

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2008:
WASHINGTON D.C., YELLOWSTONE–More than 1,400 bison were
killed after wandering out of Yellowstone National Park into Montana
in early 2008, the largest bison massacre since the 19th century
heyday of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Cody and other hunters hired to kill bison to feed railway
builders shot North American bison to the verge of extinction. Cody
later helped lead the long effort to rebuild a few token herds. The
recovery of bison became the inspiration and template for attempted
restoration and recovery of hundreds of other species, worldwide.
The science of restoration ecology began with protecting the
last handful of wild bison, found hiding deep within Yellowstone,
the first U.S. National Park. The reintroduction of wolves to
Yellowstone in 1995 was touted as affirming the success of the bison
recovery by bringing back the major wild bison predator,
exterminated in the Yellowstone region about 60 years earlier.
Wolf population management in the Yellowstone region was
returned to the state level on March 28, 2008.

“The good news for gray wolves in the northern Rocky
Mountains,” wrote Jesse Bonner of Associated Press, “is that they
no longer need federal protection. The bad news is that plans are
already in the works to hunt them. Hunts are already being scheduled
by state wildlife agencies to reduce the wolf population to between
900 and 1,250.”
An estimated 1,500 wolves now roam Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
“Wolves will be fair game in most of Wyoming,” reported
Associated Press writer Matt Joyce. “They will be a protected as a
trophy species in the state’s northwestern corner, and classified as
a predator species in the rest of the state. People will be able to
kill wolves at any time and for any reason in the predator area,
which covers nearly 90% of the state.”
As many as four wolves were shot on the first day that they
were no longer officially endangered. Two more were killed within
the week.
Wolves other than Mexican gray wolves, a somewhat smaller
subspecies, are no longer officially considered endangered anywhere
in the U.S.
“The premature delisting leaves wolves at the mercy of
aggressive, non-scientific state management plans,” objected Sierra
Club spokesperson Melanie Stein. “Right now, the policies of Idaho,
Montana, and Wyoming are based on politics rather than the best
available science. They treat wolves as pests, rather than as a
valuable wildlife resource,” Stein charged.
EarthJustice, representing a coalition of 12 animal and
environmental protection groups headed by the Sierra Club, Defenders
of Wildlife, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed
notice of intent to challenge the wolf delisting on the day that it
became official.
Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain director for Defenders of
Wildlife, explained that if wolves are immediately killed in large
numbers, the coalition may seek an emergency injunction, but
otherwise will “wait and see how much people exploit the flexibility
in the state plans to go out and kill wolves.”
Defenders of Wildlife has extended to the whole of Wyoming a
program that has paid ranchers more than $1 million since 1987 for
livestock losses to wolves and grizzly bears. To be eligible for
compensation, ranchers must remove dead or dying animals from
grazing areas in a timely manner, patrol their property to prevent
predation, and corral livestock at night when practical.
GAO rips bison plan
With the wolf issue smoldering, the bison issue caught fire
politically with the April 3, 2008 release of a General Accounting
Office report criticizing almost every aspect of the Interagency
Bison Management Plan, which since 2000 has governed how the
Yellowstone bison are handled.
The GAO report acknowledged that killing bison at the Montana
border has prevented bison from coming into contact with cattle,
thereby preventing the theoretical possibity that bison might
transmit the bacterial disease brucellosis to cattle. Brucellosis,
nearly eliminated from U.S. domestic cattle, remains endemic among
Yellowstone elk and bison, and still occasionally occurs in cattle
in the Yellowstone region–but all known cases have been traced to
other domestic livestock.
There are no cases on record of cattle having contracted
brucellosis from bison; but bison and elk are believed to have
become infected long ago from domestic animals.
“The Interagency Bison Manage-ment plan does not have clearly
defined, measurable objectives, ” the GAO assessed, “and the
partner agencies share no common view of the objectives.
Consequently, the agencies have no sound basis for making decisions
or measuring the success of their efforts. Additionally, the
agencies have not designed a monitoring program to systematically
collect data from their management actions, nor have they set forth
a coordinated research agenda to resolve remaining critical
uncertainties related to bison and brucellosis-related issues.
“The plan states that all captured bison are to be tested for
exposure to brucellosis,” the GAO continued, “but fewer than half
of those captured since 2001 have been tested. For example, in
early winter 2006, the agencies lost an opportunity to collect
scientific data on about 900 bison. Park Service officials captured
these bison as they attempted to leave through the park’s northern
boundary. The bison were consigned to slaughter without being tested
at the capture facility because the Park Service determined that they
would not be used for research, and could not be held in the capture
pens until the spring for release back into the park.”
The GAO pointed out that after eight years of a purported
15-year plan to eradicate brucellosis among Yellowstone bison, the
participating agencies are still mired in the first phase. “The
agencies have no estimate regarding how long it will take to meet the
conditions for starting step two, nor have they revised their
estimated dates for reaching step three, which was expected by
winter 2005-2006,” the GAO said. The GAO also noted that the
agencies “lack accountability among themselves and to the public.”
Said Defenders of Wildlife executive vice president Jamie
Rappaport Clark, who headed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under
President Bill Clinton, “Yellow-stone’s bison are the last pure
descendants of the millions of bison who once thundered through the
American landscape. Yet as soon as they set foot outside of
Yellow-stone, even into national forests, they are harassed and
killed. This is one of the worst examples of wildlife management in
the country.”
“The Buffalo Field Campaign strongly opposes the Interagency
Bison Management Plan, and maintains that wild bison should be
allowed to naturally and fully recover throughout their historic
native range, especially on public lands,” said Buffalo Field
Campaign spokespersons Darrell Geist and Steph-any Seay in a joint
statement. “As the GAO report notes, the bison plan is nearly all
paid for by American taxpayers, with appropriations from the U.S.
Congress reaching a high of $3,304,817 in 2006.”
Added Geist, “Millions of dollars of taxpayer money now
used to slaughter wild bison can buy the grass that cattle now graze
Assessed Amy McNamara of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition,
“The Department of Live-stock and USDA Animal & Plant Health
Inspection Service have been unwilling to treat bison as wildlife,
and instead continue to manage them like livestock.”
“Yellowstone Park is being treated like a zoo,” alleged
Defenders of Wildlife representative Mike Leahy. “Bison aren’t
allowed outside the park, and those who leave in search of food are
either chased back in or shot. There is plenty of room for bison on
public lands around the park such as the Gallatin National Forest in
Montana,” Leahy added. “The only reason we don’t have bison there
now is that the livestock industry is calling all the shots and
demanding that bison be kept out of this historic habitat.”
The Yellowstone bison herd numbered about 4,700 going into
the winter of 2007-2008, but at the end of March had officially
dropped to 3,000. “At the level of 3,000 animals, government
officials have the option, but not the obligation, to back off on
the killing,” explained Scott McMillion of the Bozeman Daily
But National Park Service spokes-person Al Nash told
McMillion, “We don’t anticipate making any operational changes.”
Wrote McMillion, “That’s because rangers began last week to
test animals for brucellosis. Now, only those testing positive for
exposure to the disease are sent to slaughter. Those testing
negative will be held, fed hay, and released after green grass
As of March 28, McMillion wrote, “1,087 bison have been
shipped to slaughter, hunters killed 166, and 74 calves who tested
negative were sent to an experimental quarantine facility. A handful
of bison were euthanized or died of injuries during handling.”
Predators & prey
Wolves within Yellowstone prey mostly on elk and bison.
Outside Yellow-stone, the absence of bison may contribute to wolf
predation on livestock.
“Government agents and ranchers legally killed a record 186
wolves in the Northern Rockies region in response to depredations on
livestock, according to recently released 2007 figures,” reported
Mike Stark of the Billings Gazette. “Despite taking out about 12
percent of the population, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
estimates that there were at least 1,513 wolves in Montana, Idaho
and Wyoming at the end of 2007, up from 1,300 at the end of 2006.
“The number of wolves in the three-state area has increased
every year,” Stark noted. “In Montana, the number grew 34%, to
422 wolves last year, according to Carolyn Sime, leader of the wolf
program for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Confirmed wolf kills
included 75 cows and 27 sheep in Montana, 55 cows and 16 sheep in
Wyoming, and 53 cows and 170 sheep in Idaho. More than 120 wolves
were killed in retaliation.
“Sheep are still far more likely to die in Montana from
attacks by coyotes and foxes, along with bouts of disease, bad
weather or poison, according to USDA statistics,” wrote Stark.
Wolves do not even rank high among sheep predators, Stark pointed
out. “Of 273,000 sheep lost to predators in 2007, coyotes accounted
for about 61%,” easily more than all other species combined.
WildEarth Guardians on March 25, 2008 sued the U.S. federal
government for allegedly not seriously considering reintroducing
wolves to Rocky Mountain National Park in lieu of culling elk. The
park now has about 3,000 elk. Half that many is considered ideal.
Sumarized Associated Press writer Judith Kohler, “The
lawsuit claims federal officials ignored scientific evidence showing
that releasing wolves in Yellowstone has improved the ecosystem by
returning he natural predator. The lawsuit, filed with the help of
student attorneys at the University of Denver, also contends the
Park Service is obligated to conserve endangered species.”
“The Park Service should accept that their elk problem stems
directly from a lack of wolves in the region,” WildEarth Guardians
spokesperson Ron Edwards told Kohler. “It’s time to restore the
balance of nature.”
Wrote Kohler, “The plan approved last year calls for
sharpshooters to kill up to 200 elk annually over 20 years. The
number killed each year will depend on the herd’s size, which
Wolves persisted in Colorado as recently as the 1930s, but
only a few wanderers from the Yellowstone region have reached the
state since then.
Mexican gray wolves were expected to spread into southern
Colorado when they were first returned to the wild in Arizona and New
Mexico in early 1998, 22 years after being listed as endangered.
None remained in the U.S., and not more than 50 remained in Mexico,
where none are known to survive now. Five Mexican gray wolves
captured in Mexico became the progenitors of about 300 Mexican gray
wolves now living in captivity, mostly in zoos. Nearly 100 Mexican
gray wolves have now been released into the wild, Washington Post
staff writer Juliet Eilperin reported on March 31, 2008, but 117
wolves have either been recaptured or shot for attacking livestock,
and just 52 remain at large.
“We are facing the second extinction of the Mexican gray wolf
in the wild,” said WildEarth Guard-ians executive director John

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