Judge allows Yellowstone bison cull to proceed

Feb 18, 2011

Whether more than 500 Yellowstone National Park bison should be sent to a packing plant for slaughter has turned into a legal shootout at the Stephens Creek corrals near Gardiner, MT, where the potentially infected iconic buffalo have been detained after migrating out of the park in search of food.

In a 72-page ruling issued on Monday, Feb. 14, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena, MT, said the bison infected with brucellosis and driven out of the park this winter by deep snow and bitter cold into lower elevations could be slaughtered, denying attempts by environmentalists and wildlife advocates to block the killings.

In a surprise move on Tuesday, Feb. 15, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed an executive order to prohibit the importing of park bison into Montana for 90 days, contradicting Lovell’s ruling and blocking all routes out of the park, effectively preventing their slaughter and granting a reprieve or stay of execution.

Schweitzer, a Democrat, said he wanted to send a message to the U.S. Interior Department to better manage Yellowstone buffalo herds and urged park officials to bring in loads of hay to feed the 525 bison captured outside the park in Montana. He said shipping the bison to packing plants could spread brucellosis among livestock.

The reproductive disease can cause cattle, elk and bison to abort their calves. It has been confined mainly to Yellowstone’s wildlife after the cattle industry aggressively sought to eradicate it the past 10 years. Periodic transmissions have happened between elk and cattle, but no bison-to-cattle infections have been recorded.

Park officials were surprised by Schweitzer’s action and scrambled to respond. Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said the slaughter plan was agreed to in January by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Montana Department of Livestock. Past bison shipments have not lead to brucellosis infections in cattle, he said.

As of last Monday, 217 of the 525 detained bison tested positive for exposure to brucellosis. They were to be the first to be shipped off and slaughtered, with their meat tentatively distributed to food banks and tribal agencies.

In the past, Montana officials have backed shipping infected bison to packing plants, and the state’s agents have shot bison leaving the park to protect livestock. More than 1,400 bison were rounded up three years ago by state livestock agents and park workers and sent to slaughter. Yellowstone’s 3,700 buffalo are the nation’s last purebred herd of wild bison, but an estimated half of them have been exposed to brucellosis. Park officials estimate more than 1,000 bison could try to exit the park this winter.

John Youngberg of the Montana Farm Bureau said Schweitzer was removing the only effective means to reduce buffalo numbers. Tom Woodbury of the Western Watersheds Project said Tuesday’s executive order puts the burden on federal officials to break that impasse.

In 2006, the governor brokered a deal with ranchers fearing the loss of the state’s brucellosis-free status and conservationists lobbying to protect the bison. Negotiations ultimately expanded the range Yellowstone bison could roam outside Yellowstone without threat of killings.

Following Lovell’s ruling, an attorney for the conservation, tribal and sporting groups opposing the slaughter said they will appeal the judge’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Lovell also threw out their 2009 lawsuit demanding a new environmental review of the 2000 federal/state agreement prohibiting bison in Montana. Lovell wrote that while the bison slaughter may be "distasteful," it is a "time-honored" method of controlling a disease carried by many of the animals.The judge noted there has been steady, slow progress in establishing new habitat for the bison outside the park. Citing prior slaughters that have eliminated more than 3,000 bison the past decade, Lovell said that shows Yellowstone’s bison herds could be due for another culling. Non-lethal methods must be used when the bison population drops to 2,100."For those of us who admire the Yellowstone bison, it is easy to be sympathetic to an emotional appeal to ‘stop the slaughter.’ Yet it is clear that this population of wild bison—diseased and healthy—ought not to be allowed to reproduce prolifically beyond the capacity of its range without the institution of scientific management," Lovell wrote.The judge also opposed feeding the animals as Schweitzer proposes."Promoting population expansion by supplemental feedings would likely lead to more problems for the herd," he wrote.

Meanwhile, new federal rules ease sanctions against bordering states when livestock get infected with brucellosis. Under USDA guidelines, ranchers with brucellosis-infected cattle no longer will be confronted with losing entire herds to slaughter.

Idaho, Montana and Wyoming also will not automatically lose their valued "disease-free" status if brucellosis is detected in cattle. When that has happened in the past, it cost the cattle industry tens of millions of dollars in lost sales and expenses.

The USDA rules also call for increased disease monitoring for wildlife like bison and elk, but do not change the government’s bison capture program. States are given more control over managing brucellosis, and periodic transmissions from wildlife to cattle will be treated differently than cattle-to-cattle infections.

Bordering states must agree to draw a line around a disease hot zone near the park to create a designated surveillance area. Blood tests and vaccination requirements for animals shipped out of state will be reserved for livestock producers inside that zone.

At a recent Montana legislative hearing, ranchers near Yellowstone urged that a bill including a sunset clause for the state’s new surveillance area be enacted. Cattle buyers are less likely to make a purchase when they know an animal comes from a designated brucellosis area, legislators were told. The new rules have been in place temporarily since Dec. 27 and are still open to public comment.

While about half of Yellowstone’s bison population test positive for exposure to brucellosis, the rate among elk also has risen. In one elk herd, the rate has gone from about 1 percent of animals in the early 1990s to more than 15 percent in some areas recently. Elk are believed to be the main source of at least eight cattle infections over the last decade. Bison, which move in large numbers, are the most restricted. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent