A new government report faults state and federal bureaucracies for failing to stop the slaughter of bison leaving Yellowstone National Park — even as the number of animals killed this year set a new record.
More than 1,400 park bison have been removed or killed since February, under a federal-state agreement meant to prevent the spread of a livestock disease to cattle ranches surrounding the park.
The bison are captured as they migrate to lower elevations outside Yellowstone in search of food.
The report, by the Government Accountability Office, sharply criticized federal and state agencies for failing to expand the area where bison can freely roam outside the park, as called for in the 2000 agreement.
That lack of progress occurred despite almost $16 million spent on bison management since 2002, according to the report.
Another $13 million was spent on land and conservation easements just outside the park in an area where bison often attempt to migrate. But part of that deal was never completed and the land remains off limit to bison.
Lawmaker: Plan 'not working'
The GAO report was requested by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-WV, and Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-NY. The congressmen released a copy of the report Wednesday.
"It's been clear for some time now that the current (bison management plan) is not working," Rahall said in a statement. "Both federal and state agencies could and should do much, much more to protect these magnificent animals while still safeguarding the cattle industry."
The slaughter program's impact on the park's bison population has been dramatic. This year's slaughter has driven the population down more than a third, from 4,700 animals last summer to an estimated 3,000 in a count released last week.
Since the 2000 agreement was signed, more than 3,200 bison have been killed.
However, the GAO report said the program had succeeded on at least one count — keeping bison separate from cattle to prevent the transmission of brucellosis. The disease can cause pregnant animals to abort their young, and a widespread outbreak in Montana could cost the livestock industry tens of millions of dollars in lost sales and decreased cattle prices, according to the report.
Al Nash, a National Park Service spokesman at Yellowstone, said the agency was doing its best to balance bison protection with the brucellosis threat.
"We agree we can improve," Nash said, adding the agency was "committed to maintaining a viable, wild, free-ranging bison population."
Bison, often referred to as buffalo, are considered an icon of the West's natural heritage and serve as the symbol for the National Park Service.
Once numbering in the millions and found across most of North America, they were virtually wiped out by early European settlers in the late 1800s. By the time Yellowstone's bison population began to rebound late last century, the park's wildlife had emerged as one of the country's last reservoirs of brucellosis.
With the disease now eradicated from the rest of the country, the livestock industry has pressed for Yellowstone's bison to remain contained.
Conservation groups contend such pressure has prevented those involved in the slaughter program from showing greater tolerance for bison even in areas where cattle no longer graze.
The 2000 agreement was signed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Montana Department of Livestock and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
"The Department of Livestock and APHIS have been unwilling to treat bison as wildlife, and instead they continue to manage them like livestock," said Amy McNamara with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a group that advocates for more bison habitat outside the park.
A livestock industry representative said he was not surprised by the report's conclusions and criticized the National Park Service for not moving faster to develop a brucellosis vaccination program for bison.
"We've been hearing about that (vaccination program) for the last six years and nothing's happened," said Errol Rice, vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
Park officials have said they will release a draft environmental study on the program later this year. It was delayed, in part, by tests to ensure the vaccine originally developed for cattle also would work for bison.