It’s high season in Yellowstone National Park—more than 41,000 visitors arrived over the Memorial Day weekend and even more are expected for the Fourth of July holiday, the busiest of the year. Many are coming to see Yellowstone’s famous bison, still the largest free-roaming wild herd in the nation—even after more than a third of the animals were killed by the Montana Department of Livestock, aided by the National Park Service, during the winter of 1996-97. This year Montana killed only a few bison, and summer visitors watching the beasts graze peacefully in roadside meadows could be forgiven for assuming that the herd is safe from future disasters.
In fact, the bison still face a potential death sentence enforced by the state of Montana, the park service, and a little-known federal agricultural agency called APHIS. Montana has played the federal agencies against each other to assert control over bison that wander out of the park—and if a controversial long-term plan is approved, by next year Montana’s livestock agency could have near-total control.
In the ongoing resource wars of the West, Yellowstone’s bison have been thrust center-stage to face their historic nemesis: a livestock industry that wants to arbitrarily restrict the range of these migratory animals. The conflict, says the National Parks and Conservation Association’s Mark Peterson, is not fundamentally about bison. “This is about control of Yellowstone National Park resources. This is about turf; it’s about grass.”
Cowboys vs. Bison
The conflict between livestock and conservation interests in the Yellowstone area is another sad chapter in the history of Bison bison, the beleaguered American “buffalo.” During the nation’s westward expansion in the 1800s an estimated 60-65 million bison, from the Appalachians to the Great Basin, were systematically slaughtered by settlers, until by 1890 fewer than 1,000 remained. By 1902, only 23 survived in Yellowstone.
This ecotragedy was reenacted in miniature during the winter of 1996-97, when the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) and the National Park Service (NPS) shot or shipped to slaughter 1,084 bison which had left the park in search of food, and more than 300 died within the park, killed by one of the hardest winters on record. By spring 1997, more than a third of the park’s bison, estimated at 3,500 the previous fall, were dead.
This wildlife management debacle was only a warning of how far Montana livestock interests could go in attempting to protect their financial investments and eradicate the dread livestock disease brucellosis. Brucella abortus is a contagious bacterial disease that causes cattle, bison, elk, and other ruminant animals to spontaneously abort their calves, and may lead to other complications in livestock. While both cattle and bison are susceptible to brucellosis, there has never been a documented case of the disease being transmitted between the two species in the wild, and what little circumstantial evidence there is has been discredited by experts (see “Brucellosis Fever“).
Nevertheless, Montana’s fear that bison will spread the disease to cattle is its justification for decimating Yellowstone’s bison herd. The state’s extreme response is based on its overly strict interpretation of regulations enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the agency that has federal responsibility for eradicating brucellosis from American livestock. Even though there is no scientifically verified case of bison passing brucellosis to cattle in the wild, APHIS and Montana insist it could happen, citing a National Research Council study of brucellosis in the Yellowstone area which concludes that “The risk of bison or elk transmitting brucellosis to cattle is small, but it is not zero.”
Even that cautious conclusion is disputed by some conservationists. “The NRC study is accurate in some respects, but in most respects it’s inaccurate,” says D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Fund for Animals, “because it’s based on fundamentally incorrect assumptions suggesting that brucellosis in bison is mimetic of [mimics] brucellosis in cattle.”
Contagious or not, Yellowstone bison are emphatically not welcome in Montana, where they can be harassed, captured, or shot by the DOL simply for wandering out of the park. Bison are migratory animals and in harsh winters, when forage is scarce, they head for lower elevations where the snowpack is thinner and grazing is easier. In recent years, snowmobile trails groomed for winter recreationists have facilitated bison movement out of the park; even before the disastrous ’96-’97 season, bison “removals” in difficult winters ranged into the hundreds.
This year DOL killed only 11 bison, an illusory reprieve attributable principally to the weather, not to any factors that provide long-term protection for the park’s herd. Milder conditions this winter meant fewer bison left Yellowstone. In addition, the efforts of Buffalo Nations, a grassroots activist group, to chase bison back into the park and monitor DOL’s response to bison migration may also have also contributed to fewer deaths.
This winter DOL also took a less lethal approach, hazing many of the animals back into the park, perhaps because the agency felt constrained by a December 1997 federal court decision that requires it to confer with the court before killing more than 100 bison. But another bad winter could result in another devastating killing season, because bison management policies in the Greater Yellowstone Area remain essentially unchanged.
Montana’s current, draconian “bison management” policy originated not with wildlife biologists, but with livestock managers like former state veterinarian Dr. Clarence Siroky. In November 1994, Siroky wrote to APHIS asking the agency to clarify its brucellosis policy regarding the Yellowstone bison: If infected or exposed bison migrate onto Montana cattle-grazing land, Siroky asked, “Will APHIS…remove Montana’s brucellosis ‘free’ status?”
APHIS replied with a stern warning: “It has consistently been our position that the states surrounding YNP would be downgraded if they failed to take action against known-infected and -exposed park bison within their borders if these animals leave the park.” Montana, naturally, took this as a threat to its brucellosis class-free status.
But the threat was a hollow one: In reality APHIS lacks the authority to reduce Montana’s status simply because it “fails to take action” against wandering bison—a fact that the agency blithely acknowledges today. “There’s nothing in the regulations that gives us management control of wildlife,” says Patrick Collins, director of APHIS legislative and public affairs. In order for APHIS to downgrade, federal regulations plainly specify that there must be an outbreak of brucellosis in “domestic livestock.” Nonetheless, critics say the agency has repeatedly threatened the class-free status of states in the Yellowstone region due to the mere presence of contaminated bison or elk.
“APHIS has consistently stepped beyond its legal boundaries by threatening [Montana’s] class-free status to force the state to take extreme action against bison,” contends Schubert. “If APHIS threatens Montana, it provides the state with a reason to kill bison.”
In fact, it now appears that the state went looking for just such an excuse. The federal agency now says that the state asked APHIS to threaten Montana’s class-free status. “Montana called us and requested that letter be written,” admits Collins. “They wanted cover to deal with bison in the way they saw fit.”
“We don’t operate in that fashion,” counters Larry Petersen, executive officer for Montana’s Board of Livestock. “That would appear to be manipulative.” He said he was not familiar with the letter, which predated his employment at the department.
Why did APHIS respond with a threat it wasn’t authorized to make? Today the agency backs away from its over-the-top response. “That 1994 letter needs to be taken in context,” explains Collins. “It does not accurately reflect the position of the agency at this time. The letter was perhaps not entirely accurate in reflecting our authority.”
Critics also allege that Siroky encouraged other states to threaten Montana with import restrictions, thereby creating the justification for the cattle-friendly DOL to wrest control of bison management away from the state’s wildlife managers. “In 1994, Dr. Siroky engaged in various schemes to provide himself with the political clout to achieve changes in Montana state law to ensure that DOL had authority over bison,” claims Schubert. “Siroky orchestrated the campaign by contacting friends in other states and encouraging them to impose sanctions on Montana.” In 1995, moved by the threat of sanctions, the Montana legislature removed authority over wild bison from the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks— and gave it to the cattlemen of the DOL.
Reached in Wisconsin, where he is currently the state vet, Siroky was less than forthcoming. He said he had no response regarding the origin of the APHIS letter, and claimed that his critics were off base: “Most of what they’re saying is unsubstantiated—they’re trying to inflame the issue.” Rather than focus on the past, “What’s important now is that we focus on solutions.”
Armed with the APHIS letter, in January 1995 Montana sued the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture, claiming that federal bison management policy posed a risk to the state’s class-free status. Rather than challenge Montana’s allegations or clarify APHIS’ misstated brucellosis policy, the feds reached a court settlement with the state—over the objections of Yellowstone park managers. Outmaneuvered by APHIS and Montana, Yellowstone managers acquiesced to a policy many of them privately oppose: destroying park bison in order to protect Montana cattle.
Some observers of the 1995 settlement surmise that the bison were a political sacrifice made at the altar of national politics. “The administration did not want a state-federal conflict at the begining of Clinton’s presidential campaign,” says the NPCA’s Peterson. “So they felt compelled to placate Montana by allowing the state to become a player in the Interim Bison Management Plan. The compromise was made in D.C., over the heads of Yellowstone National Park, to settle this. They gave Montana a seat at the table, which the state has used as a wedge to split the agencies.”
The outcome of the court-brokered agreement was the current Interim Bison Management Plan, a strategy developed by Montana, NPS, and APHIS to control the number of bison leaving the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, and the policy responsible for the devastating bison killings of ’96-97.
Like all other states, Montana has authority for managing wildlife on U.S. Forest Service lands that fall within state boundaries; the Interim Plan is designed to minimize contact between bison and cattle in such areas. One of its principal purposes is “to maintain Montana’s brucellosis class-free status,” again despite the lack of scientific evidence that bison give brucellosis to cattle in the wild. The plan allows Montana livestock managers to shoot, or capture for slaughter or release, any bison that leave the park—and to require the National Park Service to help them do it.
Agency in Search of a Mission?
This contradictory policy, which forces a federal conservation agency to help destroy wildlife for which it has nominal stewardship, owes much of its impetus to APHIS and its national brucellosis-eradication agenda, an agenda driven by livestock producers and state veterinarians.
APHIS’ brucellosis campaign is shaped largely by the annual recommendations of the private, nonprofit U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA), a good ol’ boys network of state vets, federal livestock bureaucrats, and livestock producers. Among its “allied groups” are the National Cattleman’s Association, National Pork Producers Council, American Sheep Industry Association—and the Veterinary Services division of APHIS. In fact, 11 APHIS employees serve on USAHA’s brucellosis committee—which meets behind closed doors—leading critics to charge that this cozy relationship constitutes a conflict of interest (see “Cattlemen’s Club“).
The common effort of APHIS and USAHA to eliminate cattle brucellosis has been a resounding success and will likely be completed later this year—only seven states are still not brucellosis-free. With its major mission all but accomplished, APHIS now appears to be targeting brucellosis in wild animals, including the Yellowstone bison. Although the agency admittedly has no authority to regulate wildlife, APHIS’ own stated goal in the Yellowstone region is “to develop and implement a long-term brucellosis-eradication program” for the park’s bison herds. Furthermore, APHIS notes that “Eradicating brucellosis and managing a free-roaming bison herd at Yellowstone are not incompatible goals”—this despite the death of more than a third of the park’s bison two winters ago.
APHIS says it has no intention of expanding its scope to include wildlife, but that contrasts sharply with the fervent advocacy of APHIS’ policy advisors in the USAHA. “We’re still totally disgusted with the progress that is being made in dealing with the disease” in Yellowstone, said Dr. J. Lee Alley, Alabama’s state vet and the chair of USAHA’s brucellosis committee. “If I were in President Clinton’s position, I’d say ‘USDA has authority for all animal diseases in the country and it ought to be extended to wildlife.'”
APHIS’ attention to the Yellowstone bison raises another red flag for conservationists: What about elk? NPCA’s Peterson observes that “Now APHIS is turning its attention to wildlife and to bison, but ignoring elk” in the Yellowstone area. Elk, which outnumber bison, are also infected with brucellosis—but unlike bison they’re an important sport-hunting species that generates millions of dollars each year in the Montana economy. Oddly enough, APHIS hasn’t proposed a plan to deal with the disease in elk. “This is the most absurd public policy I have ever dealt with,” continues Peterson. “Unless you address elk, you’ll never eliminate brucellosis.”
APHIS claims it’s not planning to control brucellosis in bison or elk. Although the agency wants to see the disease eliminated in wild animals, says Collins, “We’re not looking for regulatory authority over wildlife. There’s no way we could get or would want that authority.” Instead, he says APHIS’ role is simply to help other agencies with research—research aimed at eradicating the disease in wildlife.
The New Plan, Same as the Old Plan
As its name suggests, the Interim Plan is only a temporary policy while Montana and NPS develop a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) to manage the migrating Yellowstone bison, a process that has been underway since 1989 and is chronically behind schedule—NPS does not expect it to be completed before spring 1999. But its raw form is now clear: Earlier this month, NPS published the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) prepared by Montana, NPS, the U.S. Forest Service, and APHIS.
And according to the new DEIS’ “preferred alternative,” the future is not bison-friendly. Montana already can kill any bison leaving the park; the new preferred alternative would give the state even more power, officially granting DOL, which has no expertise in wildlife management, principal authority in deciding how to deal with any wild bison that leave the park. Montana would have sole discretion in deciding how much of a threat bison pose to cattle, and whether and where to tolerate the wildlife outside Yellowstone. Even if bison test negative for brucellosis, Montana could still decide whether to force the animals back into the park, shoot them, ship them to slaughter, or hold them for a proposed recreational hunting season. The NPS, as before, would be obliged to help DOL capture and hold bison, whether for testing or for shipping to slaughter.
The preferred alternative doesn’t specify the criteria the state would use to determine risk, saying simply that the creation of any “special management areas” for park bison would require the “approval of the state of Montana as specified by Montana law.” Under current state law the DOL’s Board of Livestock, consisting of seven members appointed by the governor, has authority over disease in wild bison and will determine the state’s response. By statute, all seven members must represent livestock interests, with four coming from the cattle industry.
Conservationists are not pleased. “This DEIS fails to protect bison that roam outside Yellowstone National Park,” says Bob Ekey, the Wilderness Society’s regional director for the Northern Rockies.
“DOL is not trained in wildlife management,” warns NPCA’s Peterson. “They want to turn wild Yellowstone bison into a domestic herd. You’d get livestock professionals making decisions that they’re not necessarily qualified to make.
“This plan is potentially the worst of all,” says Schubert of the Fund for Animals. “It provides the Department of Livestock with carte blanche to dictate bison management outside the park. We believe bison should by managed by a conservation agency, not by cowboys. In reality, agricultural interests don’t want a large herbivore setting up shop outside Yellowstone—this means competition for cattle.”
The preferred alternative—chosen from seven—is also the only one to target a population number for Yellowstone bison, limiting their numbers to about 2,500, even though studies have shown that the park could potentially support up to 3,500 bison. “This is a political number, it’s not ecological,” says Jeanne Souvigney of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “If the agencies adopt this option, we’re going to see the same killing we’ve seen in the last few years.”
Even Wayne Brewster, director of NPS’ own Yellowstone Center for Resources, acknowledges that the figure is “a negotiated number,” decided by Montana and the federal agencies.
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Mike Finley calls the DEIS “a compromise document. When you compromise, you end up with a less than desirable document. If I were making the decision unilaterally, I would do it differently—I would have bison ranging freely outside Yellowstone on national forest lands.”
Instead, Montana may be making the decisions unilaterally—and the DOL has yet to demonstrate that it’s a competent wildlife steward.
“DOL is an agency that represents the cattle industry and by no stretch of the imagination can this be an objective group that has an interest in wildlife conservation,” contends Schubert. “It’s a plan to placate cattle interests while destroying one of the most significant bison herds in the country.”
Indeed, the DOL seems downright hostile to wildlife conservation: More than a third of the bison killed under its authority in ’96-97 were bulls and calves, which cannot transmit brucellosis. And while APHIS has shown some flexibility over the last two winters in tolerating bison outside the park, Montana has remained intractable. APHIS has twice proposed new standards to allow “low-risk” bison outside the park, stating that the change would not “present a significant risk of transferring brucellosis to livestock and should not jeopardize Montana’s class-free status.” But DOL has refused to budge, painting the issue as a territorial dispute; as state vet Arnold Gertonson told APHIS, “Montana cannot accept expansion of the YNP boundaries.”
Now that the federal agencies have dealt Montana into the bison management game, they find that the state is holding the stronger hand—effectively using cattle to trump bison on public lands. If adopted, the preferred alternative would allow Montana to continue its current policy, or enact one that is even more severe—and without the federal requirement for public comment.
The state’s unwillingness to compromise on any aspect of the issue indicates that there’s more at stake than beef and bison, says the Wilderness Society’s Ekey. “It’s not a question about brucellosis. It’s a question of who controls wildlife in the West.”
By mid-October, when the comment period on the DEIS closes, winter will again be approaching in Yellowstone. The park’s bison herd, already significantly reduced in size, once more may be forced to the firing line by severe weather. Again the state of Montana will be calling the shots—and again they may be aimed at the Yellowstone bison.
Justin Lowe is a San Francisco-based investigative journalist.