Dozens more Yellowstone bison face slaughter

By Matthew Brown
Billings, Montana (AP) 2-08

Sixteen more bison that migrated to the boundary of Yellowstone National Park were transported to slaughter and roughly 90 more were expected to be shipped out in coming days, under a program to prevent the spread of disease to livestock.

With more than five dozen animals already sent to slaughter in early Febuary, the new shipments will push to more than 170 the number of bison captured and killed by government agencies this winter.

Those agencies – including the National Park Service and the Montana Department of Livestock – are trying to stop the spread of the disease brucellosis.

Critics of the slaughter program argue it is too harsh since no bison-to-livestock brucellosis transmissions have been recorded. They say alternatives to slaughter, such as a vaccine, should be pursued more aggressively.

The 90 animals now waiting to be shipped to their deaths include 17 calves that briefly faced the possibility of being spared.

After testing negative for brucellosis, the calves were slated to go into an experimental U.S. Department of Agriculture program that aims to redistribute some disease-free Yellowstone bison to other ranges. But federal officials could not find a ranch to host the calves and they instead join those awaiting slaughter.

Meat from the animals will go to American Indian tribes and food banks.

Brucellosis is widely feared within the livestock industry because it can cause pregnant animals to abort their young and lead to other health problems. The disease was first brought to the region by European settlers and is now endemic to Yellowstone’s bison.

So far this winter, said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash, “we have managed to keep bison and livestock separated.”

But that could soon get more difficult. Winter snows are piling up in Yellowstone’s high country, prompting some bison to descend to lower elevations in search of food.

Park officials captured 30 bison near Yellowstone’s northern boundary, where all the animals shipped to slaughter this year have originated. That came on top of about 60 animals already being held from that area.

Also, about 180 bison are lingering outside the park’s western boundary, near the town of West Yellowstone, said Steve Merritt with the Montana Department of mid Febuary, they, too, could be subject to capture and slaughter.

“This is going to be a really, really bad year,” said Stephany Seay with the Buffalo Field Campaign, which opposes the government program. The group wants bison restored to their historical range.

The last wide-scale bison slaughter was in 2006, when more than 900 were killed.

There were an estimated 4,700 bison in the park at the beginning of the winter.

The federal Department of Agriculture recently announced that brucellosis had been successfully eradicated from livestock herds across the country. Yet the disease persists in the Yellowstone region’s wild bison and elk populations.

Last year, an outbreak that infected seven cattle from a southern Montana ranch prompted authorities to slaughter all the ranch’s roughly 600 cattle as a precaution. The incident was blamed not on bison but on infected elk that were believed to have come into contact with the herd.