The Ruckus on the Range

by Holly Fretwell

Bison continue to raise a ruckus on the range in Wyoming and Montana. The bison that leave Yellowstone National Park eat forage on private land and are suspected of carrying brucellosis, a disease known to cause cows to abort their calves. Should the bison be free to roam the range beyond federal boundaries onto state and private lands? Is brucellosis really a threat to ranchers and the cattle industry? These are questions that have been tossed around for decades.

The real issue is one of property rights, but the answers will come from the political realm. Do ranchers have the right to prevent bison and other wildlife from entering their land? Do they have the right to manage wildlife on their land? Generally speaking, no. Wildlife is in the custody of the state. State wildlife agencies determine what, when, and where wildlife can be hunted--or numbers managed, if you will. Because bison have exceeded the carrying capacity of Yellowstone National Park, which is federal land, it muddies the water about their management.

Another threat regarding bison management was spoken last week. If bison are not "properly managed" they may be added to the endangered species list. Known as the "pit bull" of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act overrides other management plans. Hence, if bison are listed there is no negotiation or cost-benefit consideration. This tastes a little bit like another story that has been hot in the Montana and Wyoming press for decades: the reintroduction and delisting of wolves.

Personally I love to drive through Yellowstone and admire the wolves from afar. Afar is a key word here. I am not rancher, nor a hunter. I do not pay the cost for the return of the wolves. Nevertheless, the costs are real and significant. It would be a sad day to see bison management follow a similar fate. It would mean a loss of individual rights, more centralized control, and less flexibility to manage a dynamic species (one that is far from the brink, I might add).

Originally posted at Environmental Trends