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The Yellowstone Bison Range War – As the Old West collides with the New, America’s icon, the bison, is caught in the middle


The American bison’s near-miraculous revival sprang from handfuls of animals in ranches, zoos and national parks. Yellowstone National Park today holds several thousand bison, but neighboring states do not allow them entry for fear of spreading disease to domestic cattle. In response, excess bison are slaughtered—a practice that is being called the “second persecution of the American bison.” Allowing bison to repopulate the West is a complex and challenging issue that involves many stakeholders. African nations such as Botswana and Namibia can show the US how to accomplish this.

American bison probably made up the greatest game herds on post-Ice Age earth. Before 1800, an estimated 50 or 60 million of them populated North America from Mexico into Canada and from Nevada as far east as Pennsylvania and south to the Gulf Coast. But by 1870, their numbers had dropped to roughly 5.5 million and then, after just 20 years of intense, systematic slaughter, only a few hundred remained in the US, sequestered on private ranches and in zoos.

In winter, through natural mortality as well as removals, Yellowstone Park’s two bison herds may shrink to about 3,000 animals. Jim Peaco/NPS

Today the bison has rebounded from that precarious level to about half a million, in Canada and the US. Most are still behind wire, but there are some wild herds in national parks, most notably in “America’s Serengeti,” Yellowstone—the only park in the Lower 48 that still has all the large native species that were there before Europeans arrived. From the park’s website:

“The protection and recovery of bison in Yellowstone is one of the great triumphs of American conservation. In 1902, after years of market hunting and poaching, there were only two dozen bison left in Yellowstone. Over the next hundred years, park employees worked to bring this species back from the brink of extinction. We succeeded, and now face the challenge of helping to manage a healthy, rapidly growing population of bison that sometimes roams beyond our borders onto private land and land managed by other agencies.”

Keep those “other agencies” in mind; also that a wild herd is not necessarily free-ranging.

In August 2018, there were some 4,500 bison, in two herds, in Yellowstone Park, but the numbers fluctuate on an annual cycle of calving, predation, winter kill and other natural mortality, and “removal.” By late winter, the population may reach a low of 3,000 animals. But even with wolf reintroduction and the grizzly bear’s recovery, Yellowstone’s bison herds grow by some 10% to 17% annually; sustainability is not a problem. The problem is that, as the National Park Service points out, while the herds are growing, “the park’s borders are not.”

There is a squeeze going on, and this has led to a host of other problems that Michael Finley, park superintendent from 1994 into 2001, called “the toughest Gordian knot I’ve ever known. We are witnessing the second persecution of the American bison, and it is almost as violent and prejudicial as the first.” Stakeholders and observers on every side of this issue have weighed in with op-ed columns, letters to the media, demonstrations and lawsuits.

Mountain Journal

In what would be an inspiring reversal of their awful historic trajectory, bison numbers would be allowed to climb and, as they expanded beyond Yellowstone’s capacity, bison would resume their rightful place among the elk, deer, antelope and other native wildlife of the American West. But no. The three Yellowstone Park states—Idaho, Wyoming and Montana—do not allow bison to roam freely outside the park. Montana has not even allowed the transport of bison from Yellowstone to other conservation areas in the state. When a bison steps outside the park, which is unfenced, under Montana law it transmutes from a wild animal in federal care to livestock regulated by the state.

(Montana is the lead actor in this state’s-rights drama for geographic reasons: As each winter approaches, park bison seek to migrate to lower, greener ground, which typically means moving northward into Montana’s Upper Yellowstone River Valley rather than west into Idaho or east or south to Wyoming.)

In 1995, Montana sued the National Park Service to keep bison off its land, labeling them a “species in need of disease management”; five years later, an Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) went into effect. At least eight state, federal and tribal bureaus have input into the plan, which presently mandates the bison “removals” mentioned earlier.

The National Park Service: “Until there is more tolerance for bison outside Yellowstone, the population will be controlled by hunting outside the park and capture near the park boundary. Captured bison are transferred to Native American tribes for slaughter and distribution of meat and hides to their members. . . . We understand that many people are uncomfortable with the practice of capture and slaughter. We are too, but there are few options at this time. Along with our IBMP partners, we’re pursuing alternatives like quarantine and expanded tolerance outside the park that would reduce the need for capture and shipment to slaughter.”

Bison are being contained or slaughtered to protect the health of ranch cattle. Cows are big business in Montana and, in some eyes, bison are a threat to them. Not only can they compete with cattle for graze, some Yellowstone bison carry brucellosis, a contagious disease that can cause cows to abort their first fetuses. (Brucellosis can pass to humans through unpasteurized milk or contact with open wounds—while, for example, dressing out a carcass—but cooking the meat kills the bacteria.) Yellowstone bison were first diagnosed with brucellosis in 1917; the disease is non-native and so, ironically, they probably contracted it from cattle. Beginning in 1934, the US Dept. of Agriculture spent an estimated $3.5 billion (White et al. 2015, p. 23) to develop vaccines and test programs and to eradicate infected herds, and finally stamped out the disease nationwide—almost.

Today the GYA, Greater Yellowstone Area, is said to be the last pocket of brucellosis in North America. Montana cattle, however, after a reported outlay of $30 million over 30 years, were certified brucellosis-free in 1985, and the state wants to maintain this certification. (The presence of brucellosis disqualifies a herd from market.) Today, biologists, veterinarians and the Montana Dept. of Livestock agree that there has never been a documented instance of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle. To some, this says that bison segregation works; to others, it means that ranchers have nothing to fear and bison should be allowed to roam.

Elk herds are allowed to roam freely throughout the Greater Yellowstone Area and mix with cattle, even though they too carry brucellosis. National Park Service

As it happens, there is a far greater (in numbers) vector of brucellosis in the region than bison: Among other animals, elk also carry the disease. Every instance in the GYA in which domestic cows caught brucellosis from wildlife reportedly involved elk (White et al. 2015, p. 23). Nevertheless, elk mingle freely with cattle—while bison that tried to leave the park were once hazed back in by rangers on horses or snowmobiles or in helicopters. Bison are the only wildlife in the GYA that are not allowed to migrate. The hazing has stopped, but animals that are excess to the park’s capacity are captured for slaughter or killed by Native American hunters or the small handful of others who win the annual lottery for tags. (In 2015, Montana awarded 72 bison tags to 10,424 applicants; in 2004, the first year of hunting, 10 of 8,373 applicants were issued bison permits.)

Hunting is banned inside Yellowstone, and this sets up another disagreeable front in the Bison War: what occurs just outside the park, where at least some bison-tag winners set up firing lines that are said to be more butchery than fair-chase. In a recent interview with Mountain Journal, Cam Sholly, the new superintendent of Yellowstone Park, asked, “Are we really calling that a hunt?”

Last fall, rangers culled 460 Yellowstone bison. This year, the IBMP calls for taking off 600 to 900 animals. By the end of 2019, some 12,000 Yellowstone bison will have been killed this way since the 1980s, the great majority simply captured and slaughtered—at enormous expense and probably needlessly. Meanwhile, especially in nearby Wyoming, elk not only range freely, they also have been supported (for more than a century) by winter feeding stations that keep their numbers artificially high. These concentrations of elk are hothouses for brucellosis transmission and perhaps soon for CWD, chronic wasting disease, but elk mean significant income for ranchers with hunting leases as well as for outfitters and guides. They are also a major draw for visitors to the National Elk Refuge in nearby Jackson Hole (established in 1912) and many other wildlife viewing areas.

This fall, however, Montana apparently will permit the Park Service to truck 55 bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in the northeastern part of the state; these “most expensive bison on earth” will be bulls that have been tested and held in quarantine. (To diagnose brucellosis definitively, an animal has to be killed, but blood sampling can indicate infection. Furthermore, while bulls may carry the bacteria, they do not leave behind the “birthing materials” that are the primary sources of infection, nor do they infect females—bison or cattle—during breeding.) And next winter park rangers expect to sequester another “cohort” of bison for observation, in hopes of eventually moving them to safety too. This quarantine program adds yet more cost to the millions spent on capture and slaughter (which bison advocates say could have been used to secure more land for the animals), but it is a small ray of hope.

Picturesque herds of bison roaming freely may be an attractive prospect to the millions of visitors who flood into the GYA every year, but—just as with elephants in parts of Africa—the idea spooks some members of rural communities. Bison can compete with cattle for grass; and hundreds or thousands of wild one-ton ungulates pose at least potential risks to property and human safety. There are also less specific but deeper fears among some long-settled residents, that they are becoming victims of a sort of gentrification, Western-style. Newcomers from urban areas are altering the demographics and politics of the region. At the same time, “re-wilding” initiatives ranging from the Buffalo Commons of 1987 to, currently, the American Prairie Reserve seem to threaten ranching by seeking to replace livestock with wildlife. (Signs proclaim “Save the Cowboy, Stop American Prairie Reserve.”) To these people, the bison is a symbol of their own passing; keeping the animals cooped up buys them time.

As well, some rural residents of the GYA view the spread of grizzly bears and wolves, and the restrictions on hunting them, as examples of the federal government favoring wildlife—predators of their livestock, at that—over people. Free-ranging bison, then, appear to be a further form of “land grab,” one that will put even more pressure on themselves, their families and their livelihoods.

Shawn Regan/PERC

As in Botswana and Namibia with their elephants, the way forward for bison must first acknowledge the people, including Native Americans, who will have to live with them. Also as in southern Africa, “if it pays, it may be allowed to stay,” which would call for both consumptive (hunting) and non-consumptive (viewing) uses of bison. If ranchers and others can be compensated, quickly and fairly, for losses due to bison, and if they can share in bison-hunting revenues as they do with elk, a good portion of their objections to bison might evaporate. A fair-chase bison-hunting sector would have to be set up, with all of the appropriate regulatory, guiding, off-take and fee structures, to provide the twin benefits of income and bison population management. Fiscally speaking, such a comprehensive program could not only erase the expense of bison capture, slaughter, quarantine and transport, but also bring new revenue into the GYA.

Brucellosis fears could be addressed by creating bison corridors and tolerance zones outside the park and expanding the quarantine program until all parties are assured that bison are no threat to cattle. New vaccines and delivery systems could help wipe out the problem too. According to Park Superintendent Sholly, the IBMP is re-evaluating and re-writing its bison plan, and new thinking appears to be creeping in. Finally, over time, as tolerance for free-ranging bison grows, management and ownership of the animals should shift from the federal government to the regional community.

Bison grazing along Rose Creek, in Yellowstone Park’s Lamar Valley—a sight that could someday become common throughout the American West. Neal Herbert/NPS

Allowing bison to expand beyond Yellowstone Park will satisfy their instinct to migrate and safeguard the social dynamics and genetics of the herds. It will also help complete the restoration of the Western ecosystem. (Bison now occupy less than 1% of their historical range, which makes it impossible for the species to fulfill its ecological functions.) It will also halt the annual slaughter, a bad conservation practice that wastes valuable animals as well as money, time and other resources, and attracts bad publicity. (Although perhaps not enough bad publicity; American animal-rights activists seem to be more interested in telling African nations what to do with their elephants and lions than sticking up for their own bison.) Altogether, such a program will also reduce pressure upon Yellowstone Park itself, which cannot exist simply as an isolated island of wilderness and was never meant to be a bison ranch.

Since 2012, the first Saturday in November has been designated National Bison Day in the US, to honor the ecological, cultural, historic and economic importance of the beast. On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, officially making the American bison the national mammal of the United States. And 144 years before that, on March 1, 1872, at the stroke of President Ulysses S. Grant’s pen, Yellowstone became the first national park in the US (and possibly the world).

Are there two more celebrated icons of wild America together anywhere in one place? Yet one of them—the epitome of what biologists call “charismatic megafauna,” the one that was very nearly wiped out a century and a half ago—is being treated abominably, again. New conservation models are sweeping the world, and with success they rapidly become established. Despite initial howls of protest from visitors, over time Yellowstone Park has benefited from many of them, from catch-and-release fishing to advances in bear management. A sweeping change in how bison are treated could benefit not only the park but also the entire Greater Yellowstone region and, by extension, the nation.

Silvio Calabi is Co-Editor of CFL. He is a retired magazine publisher and well-traveled hunter and angler who lives on the coast of Maine and in the mountains of Colorado.

Banner photo: Bison cows and calves in Yellowstone Park. American Bison were brought back from the edge of extinction only to face new threats today. Neal Herbert/NPS

Further reading:

Yellowstone Bison: Conserving an American Icon in Modern Society

Bison Management: Yellowstone National Park

Mountain Journal: Cam Sholly’s Agenda for Safeguarding Yellowstone

Mountain Journal: The Killing Fields Await Yellowstone Bison Once Again in Montana

Mountain Journal: Bison: Still Not Back From the Brink

Mountain Journal: What Can Greater Yellowstone Learn From Africa?

USDA/APHIS: Brucellosis and Yellowstone Bison

National Geographic: How Ranching and Hunting Shape Protections for Bison and Elk

National Parks Traveler: Yellowstone Bison, America’s National Mammal, Stigmatized in Montana

Yellowstone Insider: Montana May Acquire 583 Acre Corridor for Yellowstone Elk, Other Wildlife

PERC: Where The Buffalo Roam—Rewilding the American Serengeti

The National Academies Press: Revisiting Brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area