by Carl Sandburg
The buffalos are gone.
And those who saw the buffalos are gone.
Those who saw the buffalos by thousands and
how they pawed the prairie sod into dust
with their hoofs, their great heads down
pawing on in a great pageant of dusk,
Those who saw the buffalos are gone.
And the buffalos are gone.
Carl Sandburg Reading Buffalo Dusk
And yet and yet:
The New York Sunday Times
March 23, 2008
Anger Over Culling of Yellowstone's Bison
By JIM ROBBINS
GARDINER, Mont. — This was not the Yellowstone National Park that tourists see.
At first light on Tuesday, at the end of a closed road, past a boneyard of junk cars, trailers and old cabins, more than 60 of the park's wild bison were being loaded on a semi-trailer to be shipped to a slaughterhouse.
With heavy snow still covering the park's vast grasslands, hundreds of bison have been leaving Yellowstone in search of food at lower elevations. A record number of the migrating animals — 1,195, or about a quarter of the park's population — have been killed by hunters or rounded up and sent to slaughterhouses by park employees. The bison are being killed because they have ventured outside the park into Montana and some might carry a disease called brucellosis, which can be passed along to cattle.
The large-scale culling, which is expected to continue through April, has outraged groups working to preserve the park's bison herds, considered by scientists to be the largest genetically pure population in the country. It has also led to an angry exchange between Montana state officials and the federal government over a stalled agreement to create a haven for the bison that has not received the needed federal financing.
"When they leave the park they have nowhere to go," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a Democrat. "This agreement would have given them a place to go."
Al Nash, a spokesman for Yellowstone National Park, said park employees tried to haze the bison into returning to the park but often met with limited success. Last week, two employees on horseback drove a large herd across a snow-flecked mountain from the north entrance back into the park.
"They come right back out again," Mr. Schweitzer said. "They just rebel. What would you do if you were a starving buffalo?"
The culling of bison at Yellowstone, while legal, has been a briar patch of controversy for more than two decades. In 1996, the count reached a peak — until this year — when 1,084 animals were killed.
In 2000, the State of Montana, the National Park Service, the United States Forest Service and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees disease issues for the Department of Agriculture, signed an agreement to manage the population. It had two main objectives: to stop the spread of brucellosis, which can also be transmitted from elk, and to allow some bison to leave Yellowstone unmolested.
Conservationists, Montana state officials and other critics say the first part of the agreement has been honored, but the second part has been ignored by the federal government.
"The public should be outraged," said Amy McNamara, national parks program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Mont., which has worked to allow bison to leave the park. "An American icon is being taken to slaughter."
Ms. McNamara added, "By next week they'll be in somebody's freezer."
Federal officials say the money needed to make the agreement work — to obtain land along the Yellowstone River that would allow the bison to cross from the park to a publicly owned forest north of the park — has not been allocated by Congress.
Bruce Knight, under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs for the Department of Agriculture, said his department did not manage land or pay for the acquisition of habitat. "I've never received a directed appropriation for that," Mr. Knight said.
At issue is a corridor of land on the Royal Teton Ranch, owned by a religious group called the Church Universal and Triumphant. Last fall, a final stumbling block was removed when church leaders agreed to move their cattle off 2,500 acres of the land so the bison could cross to the forest, about 10,000 acres farther downstream. Any movement from there is blocked by a narrow canyon and the river.
With the cattle removed from the land, there would be no risk of transmission of brucellosis from infected bison. The plan would allow 25 bison who had tested negative for exposure to the disease to be allowed out of the park. If that went well, 50 or more would be allowed to leave, and so on.
The State of Montana and conservationists committed to raising $1.3 million toward the $3 million or so it would cost to lease the church group's land for 30 years. They expected the federal government, through the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, to provide the balance.
Mr. Schweitzer blamed Representative Denny Rehberg, Republican of Montana, for leading the opposition last summer to a $1.5-million Congressional appropriation that would have fulfilled the federal obligation. "He killed it," Mr. Schweitzer said.
A spokesman for Mr. Rehberg, Bridger Pierce, said Mr. Rehberg wanted the spread of brucellosis dealt with inside the park before any bison were allowed to migrate outside.
The standoff has been made all the worse by the detection last year of brucellosis in several cattle elsewhere in Montana. Though experts believe the disease was transmitted by elk, not bison, the case has stirred passions among ranchers. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can cause spontaneous abortion in cattle, and when detected, requires that the cattle be destroyed.
If another incidence of brucellosis appears in Montana, the state would lose its brucellosis-free status, which would mean each cow exported would need to be tested, an expensive proposition for ranchers. Wyoming and Idaho only recently regained their status as brucellosis free after cases were detected in those states in 2004 and 2005.
"Our interest is having a brucellosis-free United States," said Mr. Knight, the agriculture official. "The sole remaining reservoir is in the Greater Yellowstone. That makes it an exceptionally high priority for us."
Mr. Knight says the best solution would be a vaccine for bison, which he said could be a year away. Park officials, however, say it is not known when a vaccine, which they are researching, will be available.
In the meantime, conservationists and researchers who care about the bison worry that serious damage is being inflicted on the population here.
In the last few years biologists have discovered that Yellowstone's bison are one of only two genetically pure herds owned by the federal government.
James Derr, a professor of genetics at Texas A&M who is studying the Yellowstone bison, said he feared that some behaviors or traits, including the propensity to migrate, could be lost with the killed bison. “The great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and daughter often travel together,” he said. Killing them “is like going to a family reunion and killing off all of the Smiths. You are affecting the genetic architecture of the herd.”
In the next few weeks, so-called green-up — when the snow melts and new grass sprouts — is expected to begin in the park. At that time, some captured bison being held at a facility here who test negative for exposure to brucellosis will be released and allowed to head back into the park. Those that test positive, however, will be slaughtered.
“It’s a very difficult thing,” said Mr. Nash, the park spokesman, as he watched park employees load the bison for slaughter on Tuesday. “They do the job they have to do, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy doing it.”