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Capture, Slaughter of Yellowstone Bison Roil Big Sky Country

Correction: Comments in this article by Brian Rouse, a director with the Montana Cattlemen's Association, were originally misattributed to Montana rancher Ryan Goodman.

The American bison is one of the nation's most enduring symbols, a heritage that helps explain the outcry that erupts like Old Faithful each year over the selective slaughter of hundreds of the wild-and-woolly creatures when they attempt to leave Yellowstone National Park.

"The first time I saw a buffalo I cried," said Stephany Seay of the nonprofit Buffalo Field Campaign, which has been fighting the culling and slaughter of the Yellowstone bison for 19 years. "... They're hugely charismatic. I sometimes compare it to seeing a unicorn. You never get used to it."

Image: Bison on road near Old Faithful Yellowstone National Park
Bisons roam on the road near Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Jim Peaco / Yellowstone National Park

The bison — also known as American buffalo — have been the subject of a long-running dispute between the park service, animal rights activists, Native American groups and the state of Montana over their annual migration outside Yellowstone each winter in search of better grazing at lower elevations.

The problem is that when the lumbering herbivores leave the park they quickly run into livestock — no surprise in a state where cattle outnumber people.

Ranchers say the powerful animals, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, knock down fences, letting cows and horses escape from pastures, and damage other property.

"Once they're determined where they're going to go, there's not much that can deter them," said Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, which represents ranchers. "Fences, sprinkler systems, pipelines are really are no obstacle."

A far bigger concern for the ranchers is that the bison could transmit the highly contagious brucellosis bacteria, which can cause cows to abort or deliver stillborn calves. Unless quickly contained, such an outbreak could severely damage the state's cattle industry, which contributes nearly $2 billion annually to Montana's economy.

"We need to preserve our brucellosis-free status as a state, which is a huge deal for cattlemen," said Mike Honeycutt, executive director of the Montana Livestock Department. "… If there were to be a brucellosis problem, it could shut down the transportation of our animals out of state, which would limit their marketability tremendously."

Concerns about the disease led the state to file a lawsuit against the park service in 1995 over the annual incursion of the bison onto state and private lands. A court-mediated settlement five years later created the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which requires that hundreds of bison be killed each year with a goal of maintaining the Yellowstone herd at 3,000.

The National Park Service hasn't been able to meet that target through the annual culling of the herd, which involves a hunting season followed by a large capture-and-slaughter operation. The herd — the last continuously wild population of bison in the nation — currently stands at a modern-day high of 4,900 after having dwindled to just 23 bison in 1902.

Image: Yellowstone National Park staff moving bison in Stephens Creek Capture Facility
Yellowstone National Park staff move bison in Stephens Creek Capture Facility in January, 2015. Jim Peaco / Yellowstone National Park

This year's cull began on Feb. 15 after hunters — members of four Native American tribes and those licensed by the state — killed about 300 bison. It will continue over the next several weeks with the aim of capturing and sending to slaughter between 200 and 500 bison.

If it approaches those numbers, it could be the largest cull since 2008, when a record 1,631 bison were captured, according to the Buffalo Field Campaign. All told, about 8,200 park bison have been killed over the last three decades, according to a tally by the Associated Press.

So far, though, the bison have not been cooperating.

After venturing near the Stephens Creek trap set up by the park service just inside the park boundary in early February, most of the herd returned to higher elevations because of warm, wet weather. The park service posse only managed to guide 24 of the animals into the big pens where they are still being held.

Jody Lyle, a spokeswoman for Yellowstone National Park, said it's unclear what will happen if the bison don't descend into the Gardiner Basin again before the scheduled end of the roundup on March 31.

"This is a very unpredictable process and it's highly dependent on the weather," she said, adding that, at the least, the 24 penned bison would likely be sent to slaughter once the roundup is officially declared to be over. The park service says that meat and hides from butchered bison are distributed among the four Native American tribes that traditionally hunted bison in the region.

Image: Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek bison trap
A bison is taken into Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek bison trap. The park service discontinued the use of nose rings years ago and has make other changes to make the roundup more humane, according to a Yellowstone spokeswoman. National Park Service

Culling only two-dozen bison from the herd would be a big disappointment, said Brian Rouse, a rancher and director with the Montana Cattlemen's Association, noting that missing this year's goal would require an even bigger cull next year - and more bad publicity.

"You have to take care of whatever you've got," he said. "You wouldn't let your yard get six-feet tall and then start mowing. … You have to keep things healthy, you have to manage."

As with many disputes in the West involving ranchers, environmentalists, the feds and the state, the rub lies in how you define a healthy ecosystem.

Seay, the anti-cull activist, argues that expanding the bison range would help "heal" the wounds from the "shameful history of nearly wiping buffalo out" in the 1800s.

"There is no such thing as surplus wildlife and surplus bison," she said. "The buffalo are a keystone species that evolved on this landscape. They are the grass and the grass is them."

But representatives of the ranchers and the state say the bison can't be allowed to wander wherever they please.

"The big overarching concern is that we maintain the protection of our cattle industry and use a balanced approach to managing the ecosystem," said Rice.

He also said the industry is eagerly awaiting a report by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, which is currently reviewing all scientific literature on brucellosis and is expected to recommend the best prevention strategies soon.

Park service officials at Yellowstone estimate that about half of the bison herd has been exposed to brucellosis. That prevents them from reducing the size of the herd by transferring animals to other parks or tribal lands to add to the diversity of their bison herds, since that would require lengthy quarantines and repeated testing to be sure the bison were free of the disease.

If the National Academy of Sciences panel can come up with a better way of mitigating the risk of spreading the disease, "that could really be a game-changer," Rice said.

Related: Cruel or Necessary? The True Cost of Wild Horse Roundups

But Seay, whose organization conducted a week of protests and demonstrations around the state this month to coincide with the bison cull, said brucellosis fears are overblown, noting that there "has never been a documented case" of bison spreading the bacteria, while there are numerous examples of elk infecting cattle.

She sees a different agenda driving the bison cull.

"The closer you look at this, it's an issue about the grass and who gets to eat it and it's the livestock industry calling the shots," she said.

Honeycutt, the state livestock official, scoffs at the notion that brucellosis is a red herring, saying the lack of documented brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle merely shows that the state's testing protocols and risk-assessment programs have been working.

"People say I've never met anyone with polio … well that's because we had a very effective vaccination program that has eradicated the disease," he said. "I would say something very similar about our brucellosis program."

He also noted that in cases where elk transmitted the bacteria to cattle, aggressive quarantine and testing programs prevented the outbreaks from spreading.

In the meantime, opponents of the bison cull did have a reason to celebrate this week.

In December, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, announced that the state would open two areas totaling roughly 400 square miles to the north and west of the park, where Yellowstone bison will be able to roam freely.

"This decision is a very modest expansion of the conditions under which bison may remain outside the park, in response to changing science and changing circumstances on the ground," he said in a statement.

Lyle, the Yellowstone spokeswoman, said that a longer-term bison management plan currently under discussion by all the stakeholders could "provide more options and a better future for the bison" when it is finalized.

"We've simply outgrown the current plan," she said. "There's so much more we know now about bison management, and we have more knowledge about brucellosis. And the plan needs to change."

But no matter what options are eventually selected, that won't eliminate the need to control the size of Yellowstone's bison herd to ensure that there isn't "a catastrophic event like a disease outbreak," said Rouse of the cattlemen's association.

"As Americans we've got a real soft spot for wildlife and people can't even entertain the idea that they have to still be managed," he said.