An article about the ill-conceived bison quarantine program that will likely be turning the majority of the progeny of these bison into privately owned livestock.
The Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ bison quarantine project started several years ago in an attempt to create a brucellosis free heard of Yellowstone bison from captured calves which had been repeatedly tested for the disease. These calves were separated from their mothers who were slaughtered and placed in pastures just north of Gardiner, Montana where they were fed out of troughs. They have no connection to their land and have not been exposed to experienced, older animals so they haven’t learned buffalo social skills. There is a big problem though. The program wasn’t thoroughly thought out, the FWP didn’t have any takers for the bison before the program was started.
The original, and often vaunted, intent was to create herds which would be used to repopulate the western public and tribal lands with genetically pure bison. There is a requirement to keep the bison that leave the quarantined facility fenced away from other animals for an additional 5 years in case brucellosis, a bacterial disease, re-emergerges. That’s expensive and nobody wants to do it so proposals to take the bison have been limited.
Enter Ted Turner. He has offered to keep the bison fenced, at a cost, for five years but he wants 190 of the progeny expected to be produced during those 5 years so that he can improve the genetics of his own commercial buffalo operations. This is the polar opposite of what was originally required of the recipients of the bison. The plans specifically mandated that the bison would not be mixed with hybrid bison and that they would remain in the public trust.
The Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has said that the other major proposal to take the bison to Fort Belknap is not serious in nature and that they would have to slaughter them if they can’t give them to Ted Turner. They frame the issue as if slaughter is the only other option.
But, is brucellosis really a problem in the modern era? Brucellosis has been used by the livestock industry as a way to control wildlife for decades. Montana ranchers constantly claim that buffalo are a big threat to their industry but rarely do they ever consider management of elk in the same way they manage buffalo. The ranchers also claim there would be an economic catastrophe if Montana lost its brucellosis free status but when that happened it turned out to be only a minor inconvenience. They occasionally hype up the threat to human health but exposure to the disease is rare and usually occurs at slaughtering facilities or when someone is not careful butchering an animal that has been infected. As pointed out earlier on this blog, the main threat from brucellosis came from unpasteurized milk which is illegal in most states.
APHIS, who makes up the rules, has been working for decades to rid the US of brucellosis but they have hit a roadblock in the Greater Yellowstone Area because the disease has become endemic in wildlife such as elk and bison. There is no feasible way to eradicate it yet the ranchers and APHIS have called for eradication of the disease in wildlife. To truly eradicate the disease would be a colossal endeavor that would likely require massive capture, test and slaughter operations for elk, bison and other animals with the disease inside Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas. If the disease is missed then undoubtedly the herds would become infected once again. It’s just not possible.
Meanwhile APHIS is developing a plan which would call for more testing in the Greater Yellowstone area so that infected cattle won’t be moved outside of the area. Essentially they are trying to protect ranchers who live far outside the effected zones from losing their brucellosis free status by creating hot zones rather than classifying entire states as a threat. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation has recently raised a ruckus because they don’t like the idea. I suppose some don’t like the idea because it gives them less leverage to control wildlife in Yellowstone which would no longer be a threat to those who live outside of the hot zone and they would have less to lose if only the hot zone loses its status. Some want to maintain that political power over the entire state, they want hostages.
Another issue related to brucellosis is the feeding grounds in Wyoming which act as a petri dish for brucellosis and, soon, chronic wasting disease. Each winter the state and the US Fish and Wildlife Service feed elk on winter range in an attempt to keep them from migrating into nearby agricultural fields and publicly owned BLM lands reserved for cattle. Hunters like this because it keeps the elk population artificially high and ranchers like this because they claim that it keeps elk away from their cattle and limits exposure to brucellosis. In any event, these feed grounds keep the instance of brucellosis high and are going to be a real threat to the elk, deer, and moose once chronic wasting disease becomes established if it hasn’t already.
Some have proposed plans to vaccinate Yellowstone wildlife and I expect that there are going to be plans to do so soon but there is no effective vaccine for brucellosis and testing on bison has been very limited.
I imagine people laying awake at night scheming up plans of how they could rid the entire Park of bison and elk to make the world safe from this horrible disease.
Homeless on the Range
These bison could help repopulate the West. So why is it so hard to find them a good home?
Hillary Rosner – NRDC