Plight of the bison

Posted 5/20/10

However, to date, there never has been a documented case in the wild of a buffalo infecting a domestic cow with brucellosis.

Much like a Yellowstone buffalo jam, cars are halted on U.S. 287 as their occupants watch the show. One van is loaded …

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Plight of the bison


Near the intersection of U.S. Highways 297 and 191, around eight miles north of West Yellowstone, Mont., hazing to urge the bison back into the park kicks into overdrive. The buffalo are driven back into Yellowstone National Park each spring on the premise that the animals could infect domestic cattle with brucellosis. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

Roving buffalo hazed back into Yellowstone National Park

An orbiting helicopter and riders atop ATVs and on horseback provided quite the circus Thursday as they hazed buffalo that had sought greener pastures outside Yellowstone National Park to graze and birth calves on public and private land outside West Yellowstone, Mont.

The annual spring hazing of bison wintering in the Hebgen Lake area has been happening since 2000 under the Interagency Bison Management Plan. The plan calls for driving the bison back into Yellowstone National Park, less than 10 miles to the east, before May 15 to reduce the chance that they will transmit brucellosis to cattle. The disease causes pregnant females to abort their calves.

However, to date, there never has been a documented case in the wild of a buffalo infecting a domestic cow with brucellosis.

Much like a Yellowstone buffalo jam, cars are halted on U.S. 287 as their occupants watch the show. One van is loaded with Natural Resources Defense Council staffers and a few reporters.

The buffalo are chugging along parallel to the highway now. One bull huffs like a heavy smoker forced to run a marathon.

“They're running hard,” NRDC Wildlife Advocate Matt Skoglund said, clutching the steering wheel. “They'll push for miles and miles.”

A reporter hops out of the rig to snap a few pictures of five bulls dashing up the highway's barrow ditch from behind.

“Back in the vehicle, (or) you will be arrested for obstruction,” said Deputy Ian Parker of the Gallatin County Sheriff's office.

“Of what?” asks the van's driver, Skoglund of Livingston, Mont.

Obstruction of the haze, the deputy replies.

Parker said keeping folks in their cars is done for the safety of the property, people and bison. He said the van's occupants could be arrested for assault if one of the riders, driving the bison falls from his horse.

The deputy is just doing his job.

“I don't make the laws, make the policy,” Parker said.

The buffalo are here because the park grass is not green. Here, the bison can find forage, sans snow, and drop their calves, Skoglund said.

After the bison are pushed into the park, they often return here. It is a waste of taxpayer money, Skoglund said.

Brucellosis is the rationale for the hazing, said Stephany Seay, media and outreach for the Buffalo Field Campaign, a bison advocacy group headquartered near Hebgen.

In the Yellowstone herd, 13 to 25 percent of the animals have the brucellosis bacteria, but that doesn't mean they transmit it.

Though small, the risk of transmission is real, said American Bison Society scientist Keith Aune, the night before.

“The only way to be zero is for the two to never come in contact,” Aune said. But, he added, “Expectation of zero risk is not realistic.”

“Brucellosis is an excuse for the cattle industry to control wildlife,” Seay said.

On May 10, 70 bison were hazed into Yellowstone. May 11, 150 were pushed into the park and 300 on May 12, Seay said.

After a fitful start-stop drive a few miles from the junction of U.S. 287 and U.S. 191, the Natural Resources Defense Council van pulls into a turnout occupied by more Buffalo Field Campaign personnel and civilian observers.

On May 12, a grizzly bear was dining on a dead buffalo near Hebgen, so the U.S. Forest Service closed the area to humans, but the hazing continued there nonetheless, Seay said.

In the distance, the helicopter is circling a clearing like an airborne cutting horse, striving to get stubborn bison moving. Two startled sandhill cranes lift off like huge kites from the meadow, making a beeline for quieter quarters.

Four riders approach the herd a half-mile from the highway, and on the highway, deputized Montana Department of Livestock personnel, packing pistols, zoom up the road on ATVs ordering a photographer away from the approaching buffalo.

Peter Bogusko of Buffalo Field Campaign estimates around 100 bison are approaching the intersection along Duck Creek.

In a cloud of dust reminiscent of old television westerns, the buffalo come. Packed tight, reluctant to travel at the fast pace, but committed to escaping the confusing concoction of riders and machines, the bison gallop over U.S. 191, toward Yellowstone, a mile or two away.

A jumpy cow elk bolts across the highway in the wake of the tumult, equally eager to dodge man and machine.

Under the Interagency Bison Management Plan, if there are more than 3,000 bison in the park, buffalo that test positive for brucellosis can be slaughtered. However, if that number is below 2,300, they are not killed, Seay said.

“It really has nothing to do with brucellosis,” Seay said. “It's about grass. It's about a century's old range war.”

Despite the area's absence of cattle in recent years, the Montana Department of Livestock wants to control wildlife movement, Seay said.

“Especially on our public land, wildlife should take precedence,” she said.

But Errol Rice, executive vice president of Montana Stockgrowers Association, disagreed.

“It's not about grass,” Rice said that night in West Yellowstone. “The fact of the matter is the disease is persistent in the ecosystem... And it has the ability to bring a ranching family to its knees without recovery.”

The Yellowstone bison herd — roughly 3,000 head — represents the last genetically free-roaming wild bison, Seay said.

Jim Bailey, a retired wildlife biologist from Belgrade, Mont., said the federal government needs to allow bison access to winter range outside the park so they can escape the heavy snows and lack of forage in the park.

The grass this time of year is much better in the Hebgen Lake and Horse Butte area. Better forage means better lactation for bison cows bearing calves. Nutritious milk is crucial because a bison calf has to almost literally hit the ground running to dodge predators, Bailey said.

To retain their genetically purity, 2,000 head of Yellowstone buffalo in two herds each — north and central — must be maintained, Bailey said.

At this time, there are roughly 1,500 in each herd, falling 1,000 shy of the the total 4,000 needed for solid genetics, Bailey said.

“The question is, how committed are we to have truly wild herds in the United States?” Bailey said.

Up a bumpy road, a stone's throw from Yellowstone, is the Duck Creek Basin bison trap. Blood testing can be administered there to check for brucellosis. If buffalo test positive for brucellosis antibodies, they can be slaughtered, Seay said.

Three bulls were slaughtered here last year, said Louisa Willcox NRDC senior wildlife advocate from Livingston.

The trap sits on private land, but it is a federally-operated facility.

“But the public is locked-out,” Seay said.

Bailey said removal of bison with brucellosis antibodies eliminates the natural process of resistance to the disease.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the government is not articulating exactly what it is doing under the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

That afternoon, above the shores of Hebgen Lake, a handful of bison graze. Calves run between their legs like ebullient children underfoot at a shopping mall.

Later, on Horse Butte, more bison munch on a verdant slope, while their calves dash to and fro, as would any two- or four-legged youngsters celebrating the pure joy of spring and golden sunshine. Above, the Madison range shines like landlocked icebergs and thick timber flanks the peaks like blue skirts.

A group of homeowners in a subdivision with a fine view of the lake and the Gallatin Mountains in the mirrored surface conducts a town hall-type meeting.

Outside, buffalo clip grass and buffalo chips seem to sprout from lawns like brown mushrooms.

Last year during the haze, a calf suffered a broken leg, said LeeAnn Daz, who lives in Hebgen Lake Estates, a subdivision in the heart of the spring bison roundup.

“It shouldn't happen like that,” Daz said. “It's not our (land), it's theirs.”

The subdivision is a no-fly zone for the Department of Livestock's helicopter, but that doesn't stop it from flying 15 feet above rooftops.

There have been no cattle here for two years, but the hazing continues, Daz said.

“Leave the buffalo alone,” Daz said. “They can't hurt anything out here.”

Estates resident Karrie Taggert recently witnessed a newborn calf take its first baby steps. It was a beautiful moment for her.

“I have never had that happen before. They are magnificent. It's a blessing,” Taggert said.

It appears to be the consensus of Natural Resources Defense Council, Buffalo Field Campaign and the homeowners that the department has carte blanche.

Taggert said conservationists' and cattle advocates' views both have merit, but the cattle industry is not willing to try alternatives to the buffalo hazing.

Rice said ranchers are stewards of the land. The must sustain their ranches. They must maintain their current brucellosis-free status. If they don't, the land will be parceled into subdivisions.

If cattle grazing allotments are retired, it could prolong and perpetuate brucellosis in bison, Rice said.

“We believe that unique species (bison) and cattle can coexist on ranching land,” Rice said.