How not to save the bison

Back in the early 1800s, an estimated 65 million bison roamed the Great Plains; a century later, intensive hunting had driven the lumbering creatures to the brink of extinction. Barely two dozen wild bison survived the slaughter, hiding out in remote corners of Yellowstone park; now their descendants - America’s only continuously free-ranging bison herd - are under fire once again, thanks to bureaucracy, bad management, and bullying cattle farmers.

The trouble is that besides being an iconic symbol of the vast American plains, the Yellowstone bison are one of America’s few remaining reservoirs of brucellosis, a disease that causes fertility problems in cattle. There’s no evidence that bison can transmit the disease to cattle, but ranchers in neighboring Montana don’t want to take any chances: Over the past six months, thousands of Yellowstone’s 4,700 bison have been captured and killed after wandering across the park’s fenceless border.

The butchery - the biggest kill-off since the 19th century - is the upshot of a botched deal between the USDA, the National Park Service, and local livestock and wildlife agencies. The plan, hatched in 2000, was supposed to use capture-and-kill as one prong of a wider strategy that would have seen cattle-free buffer zones created along Yellowstone’s borders, with the park’s bison herd being gradually vaccinated against brucellosis.

In fact, despite spending some $2 million a year on the plan, the agencies have failed to meet even their preliminary goals: According to a scathing Government Accountability Office report, capture-and-kill has become the default tool for controlling Yellowstone’s bison herds, and the agencies have no idea when or if they’ll be able to implement alternatives. 

That’s outraged greens and park officials, who say the bison herds are one of Yellowstone’s star attractions - and worry that continuing to slaughter the supersized ungulates could ultimately threaten the herd’s future. Already, bison sightings in the park are at their lowest levels for 14 years: “It’s been a horrible, horrible year for bison,” one activist told the Christian Science Monitor.

Fortunately, there’s a ray of hope on the horizon. Two weeks ago, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer ordered a halt to the slaying of Yellowstone bison; now he’s working to secure new land for the bison on the park’s borders. “I favor a common sense solution,” he said. “Frankly, it’s common sense that’s been lacking.” That’s a good start - but with Montana’s powerful cattle lobby pledging to fight Schweitzer all the way, the Yellowstone bison aren’t out of the woods just yet.

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