Yellowstone bison slaughter approaches all-time high

By Matthew Brown
Billings, Montana (AP) 3-08

The number of Yellowstone National Park bison killed through disease management and hunting is on track to hit an all-time high this winter, after another 87 animals were captured during early March.

The planned slaughter of those animals would bring to 1,090 the number of bison killed by government agencies and hunters this winter. The prior high mark was 1,084, in 1997.

Of this year’s total, the overwhelming majority were captured to guard against the spread of brucellosis by bison leaving the park. That’s a disease carried by some bison and feared by the cattle industry because it can cause pregnant cows to abort their calves.

The mounting death toll in Yellowstone this winter underscores the difficulty government agencies have had in finding a lasting solution to the disease. A state-federal agreement signed in 2000 was intended to give bison more room to roam outside the park over time, but that has largely not happened.

Government officials blame funding constraints, difficulties developing a brucellosis vaccine and opposition from the livestock industry.

But critics fault the agencies involved in the 2000 agreement – the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Department of Livestock – for continuing to slaughter bison even in areas where cattle no longer graze.

“It just seems they’re really intent on killing as many buffalo as they can this year,” said Dan Brister with the Buffalo Field Campaign, a bison advocacy group.

Bison captures occur as the animals attempt to migrate to lower elevations in search of food, after snow covers forage within the park.

A prime area of dispute this year has involved a peninsula on Hebgen Lake, just west of the park. Montana Department of Livestock agents have continued capturing bison there even though it’s been cattle-free since last year, when the last ranch was bought out.

The reason, said Christian Mackay with the Department of Livestock, is that bison on the peninsula can easily escape to areas that still have cattle. That happened earlier in March when a small group of bison walked across the frozen lake and into an area where cattle graze, he said.

“A wide-open bison-free zone – at this point that’s not an option,” Mackay said. “There’s still risk there.”
Additional groups of bison remained outside or near the park’s northern and western borders. That means more captures are likely in coming days.

Meat from the slaughtered bison is donated to charities and some hides and heads are given to American Indian tribes for ceremonial purposes.

At the beginning of the winter, Yellowstone had 4,700 bison – the largest remaining wild herd in the world.

Asked if this year’s capture operations could cause lasting harm to the remaining population, Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash pointed to the killing of roughly 1,000 bison in 2006. The population dropped to 3,900 after that winter, but bounced back to 4,700 by summer 2007.

“Our recent history continues to confirm we have a very robust population,” he said. “But the removal of a large number of bison from this population is something we take seriously and monitor closely.”