May 23, 2006

Rocky Mountain News

899 bison captured outside Yellowstone Park this winter
Controversial plan aimed at keeping brucellosis at bay

Becky Bohrer, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. - State and federal officials captured and sent to slaughter 899 bison from Yellowstone National Park that wandered into Montana in search of forage this winter and spring.

That is the largest number since the winter of 1996-97, when authorities killed 1,084 bison, park spokesman Al Nash said.

The bison are killed to stop the possible spread of the cattle disease brucellosis, which infects some park bison.

"What happened this winter certainly has increased attention to the challenges we all face with brucellosis risk management and managing bison in the ecosystem," Nash said. "And it has again heightened the discussion about the problem and is prompting people to look again at ways to move this forward. And that's good."

However, the bison population heading into winter was at its highest documented level - 4,900. In early March, park officials estimated the population at 3,500, which took into account the normal death of bison because of winter cold and starvation.

The Yellowstone herds remain above the park's target bison population of 3,000, and they are now calving, which will increase the population going into summer.

The bison were killed under a state-federal plan that is aimed at reducing the potential spread of brucellosis from bison to cattle in Montana. Brucellosis can cause cows to abort, and transmission could lead to trade sanctions.

Activists argue that transmission from bison to cattle has never been documented in the wild, but livestock industry leaders say the risk remains.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer intends to meet with state and federal officials to discuss options to the slaughter, including greater tolerance of bison and the buyout of grazing rights on lands near the park where cattle are run, said his chief policy adviser, Hal Harper.

Schweitzer isn't convinced the current plan works well for the long-term protection of the state's prized brucellosis-free status.

Last fall marked the first time in 15 years that Montana held such a hunt, and Schweitzer favors the continued use of hunting.

"Both can be accomplished if we use common sense," Harper said of the hunt and preserving the state's brucellosis-free status.

It could be a hard sell: The current plan, signed in 2000, took years to reach and remains controversial. Groups such as the Montana Stockgrowers Association continue to urge agencies involved to eradicate brucellosis from the greater Yellowstone area, something many bison activists consider impossible.

The Buffalo Field Campaign, devoted to protecting Yellowstone bison, argues that it isn't a disease issue.

"For the livestock industry, again, it's about the grass and who gets to eat it," said Stephany Seay, a spokeswoman for the group.

But Errol Rice, executive vice president of the stockgrowers group, said eliminating brucellosis from Montana cattle was a long, expensive endeavor, and the industry will go to "great lengths" to protect its brucellosis-free status.