Winter Kill in Yellowstone

Wall Street Journal
January 28, 1997

By Holly Lippke Fretwell and Linda Platts

BOZEMAN, Mont. - So far this winter more than 700 Yellowstone National Park bison have been shot on sight or shipped to slaughterhouses as they searched for food outside the park. The purpose of this bloodletting is to prevent the spread of infectious brucellosis from wild bison to Montana's cattle.

Cattle ranchers have every reason to be concerned about bison that carry brucellosis, a bacterium that causes cattle to abort their calves. If a single cow is found to carry the disease, the entire herd must be destroyed. The livestock industry has invested more than $30 million to ensure that cattle exported from Montana are brucellosis-free. This brucellosis-free status, conferred in 1985 by an office of the Department of Agriculture, has been worth at least $6 million a year in the marketplace to the state cattle industry.

But the slaughter of hungry bison to protect domestic livestock is a tragically flawed policy that pleases no one -- park managers, ranchers or environmentalists. Montana Gov. Marc Racicot has even appealed personally to President Clinton to stop the bison-cide. Luckily, a humane and rational alternative is at hand: Eradicate the disease from Yellowstone bison. This has been done at lesser-known parks like Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park in South Dakota. Why not Yellowstone?

Amid rolling prairie grasslands and ponderosa pine forest, Wind Cave hosts a herd of some 300 brucellosis-free bison. It eradicated the disease with an annual program of testing, vaccination and elimination of only disease-carrying animals. Park managers maintain the herd at a size that can be supported on park lands: Each year the bison are rounded up, and animals in excess of the park's range capacity are sold to Indian tribes at about $275 a head, enough to cover the park's costs.

Custer State Park has also used testing and vaccination to achieve a disease-free herd, with about 1,000 bison. Excess bison are auctioned, usually to private herd owners, at an average price of $2,200. Last fall, the Custer sale brought in more than $800,000 at a cost of $135,000. One-third of the park's total operating expenses are covered by these revenues.

If Yellowstone's herd were disease-free, humane alternatives for managing the bison would expand. One option would be to let them migrate out of the park as do elk and deer. Another would be to follow the lead of the South Dakota parks by selling live animals to private herds, commercial bison ranches, other parks or animal groups. In Arizona the International Society for Protection of Mustangs and Burros has purchased 331 acres of land where it houses excess wild horses it plans to build ~ visitors' center, library and museum to attract paying tourists. Similar action could be taken for Montana s bison if groups could purchase brucellosis-free animals.

Why hasn't Yellowstone chosen such a humane approach? Park biologists claim brucellosis vaccinations are unreliable, but Custer and Wind Cave have proved otherwise--neither has had a bison test positive for brucellosis in 13 years. Media mogul Ted Turner relies on vaccinations to maintain a brucellosis-free bison herd on one of his Montana ranches. "There is no reason Yellowstone cannot achieve brucellosis-free status," says Montana State Veterinarian Clarence Siroky.

Instead, the park pursues a senseless and even cruel hands-off bison-management policy, known as "natural regulation." Brucellosis-infected animals are allowed to spread the disease, reproduce and overpopulate the park. The herd has grown to more than 3,000 bison, far beyond the estimated 1,500 to 2,000 the park can support.

As population pressure forces bison nut of the park in search of food, they become a problem for the state of Montana, which several years ago authorized hunts to keep possibly diseased bison from mixing with cattle. Hunters lined up at the border and picked off grazing bison as they left the park, resulting in a storm of public protest. In 1991 the state called a halt to the hunting, but not the killing. Because nothing had been done to eradicate brucellosis, bison crossing park borders were still shot down, only this time tax-paid game wardens and park rangers, rather than fee-paying hunters, were pulling the triggers.

This winter Montana has ordered the capture and testing of all animals leaving the park. Animals testing positive for brucellosis are shipped to slaughter, while disease-free bison may be turned loose on nearby public lands. Animals that can't be caught are simply shot. At the beginning of the season, estimated program costs were $395,000 to the state and $100,000 to the federal government. After only a month of operation, state officials are calling the program "a tremendous drain on our resources."

It is time to try a hands-on approach to bison management. Yellowstone could turn an intractable problem into an opportunity to save bison and to generate revenue for the park. If Custer State Park can earn $665,000 through sensible management of its much-smaller bison herd, surely Yellowstone and its wildlife could have a secure and prosperous future.

Ms.Fretwell is a research associate and Ms.Platts is an editor with the Montana-based Political Economy Research Center.

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Linda is responsible for the PERC web sites, media relations, the national journalism conference, and the media fellows program. She is author of Forest Fires, part of a series of  environmental education books for high school students. She also wrote and produced Square One, a newsletter that introduced grassroots environmentalists to market...
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Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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