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Where the Yellowstone buffalo roam

Bison at Yellowstone National Park find food where they can, oblivious of park boundaries  

When winter snow piles up in Yellowstone National Park, the park's bison are naturally inclined to seek warmer feeding grounds at lower elevations.

Oblivious of park boundaries, the bison have followed this migration pattern since prehistoric times. The higher the snow, the lower the buffalo roam.

While millions of their ancestors were wiped out as pioneers settled the West, the bison population, which exists in one of the one of the severest ecosystems in the United States, has endured.

But buffalo that wander outside of their protected zone in Yellowstone National Park could be subject to continued elimination by humans for the next 15 years, conservation groups warn.

A revised long-term management plan recently released by the National Park Service will fail to protect the Yellowstone herd of about 2,000 animals, the largest and healthiest remaining legacy of the American buffalo, the groups say. A public comment period on the management plan has been extended to Tuesday.

About half of Yellowstone's bison are infected with a disease called brucellosis, a bacterial infection common among elk, buffalo and cattle that causes spontaneous abortions.

Many of the bison that migrate outside Yellowstone during the winter season end up on U.S. Forest Service land in Montana near the north and west entrances of the park. The area occupied by buffalo provides grazing allotments for about 2,000 Montana cattle, generating around $5,000 a year for the government.

The Yellowstone bison pose a risk to the cattle that graze around the park, even though cattle in Montana currently enjoy a brusellosis-free status. Though there is no documented case of Yellowstone's bison transmitting the disease to Montana livestock, livestock producers feel the risk of transmission is too great to ignore.

Wyoming bison rancher John Flocchini does not feel directly threatened by brucellosis, but he notes, "What is going on in Yellowstone gives all buffalo in the United States a bad name."

Most of the bison that migrate outside Yellowstone during the winter season end up on U.S. Forest Service land in Montana near the north and west entrances of the park  

To address the risk of brucellosis transmissions to livestock, the Park Service released a draft environmental impact statement for the Interagency Bison Management Plan in 1998. The revised preferred alternative released in August involves attempting to eradicate brucellosis by capturing, testing and eliminating infected bison at various facilities inside the park.

In a recent letter to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, conservation groups said the National Park Service's preferred plan "proposes to spend federal money, killing the public's wildlife on publicly owned land." The groups maintain that bison should be allowed to roam freely on the public lands of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

"You have to protect habitat for buffalo outside of the park," said Darrel Geist, executive director of Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers. "Genetically speaking, the Yellowstone bison are the most healthy, diverse population of bison in the United States. The plan that the Park Service has put forth will domesticate this herd."

Under the Park Service plan, up to 5,174 bison could be killed over the next 15 years, Geist said. "That will have a significant impact not only on the bison but also for the ecosystem as a whole."

One example of the bison's ecological importance is the meat they provide for hungry grizzly bears in the fall and spring.

Geist said Yellowstone bison might also offer a unique genetic trait that makes them naturally resistant to brucellosis. "In all likelihood, they are undermining the disease that this whole managemnt plan is about."

During the winter of 1996-97, a particularly heavy snow season, more than 1,100, or one-third, of Yellowstone's bison herd was eliminated by Montana's Department of Livestock and the National Park Service. Conservation groups claim the current proposal will allow that practice to continue.

"We need to give wildlife preference over cattle," said Hope Sieck, associate program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

According to Sieck, examples of how to reduce the conflict between bison and cattle exist throughout the region. In Jackson, Wyoming, for example, ranchers use federal dollars to vaccinate their cattle from brucellosis. "In Jackson, the buffalo are in even closer proximity to cattle," Sieck said. "In Montana, they won't even consider vaccinations."

Native Americans also criticize the Park Service plan.

"How many reasons do we need to stop killing buffalo?" said Louis LaRose, president of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative. "Wyoming's successful appproach of vaccinating cattle instead of slaughtering buffalo ought to be reason enough."

Even if the Park Service revises the bison management plan, the state of Montana must accept the plan. Conservation groups say that scenario is unlikely.

So far, more than 67,000 public comments have been sent to the federal government. More than two-thirds of these citizens requested that public lands adjacent to Yellowstone be made available to bison and that the elimination of the bison be stopped.

Meanwhile, for the sake of the bison, environmental groups and Native American tribes are keeping their fingers crossed for a mild winter.

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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National Park Service
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • long-term management plan
Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers Yellowstone's bison
Buffalo Field Campaign
Montana Farm Bureau
Bison Central

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