The fate of the Yellowstone bison herd took center stage at a House committee hearing on Tuesday, with emotions running high over a controversial management policy that allows federal and state officials to kill bison in order to protect cattle from the disease brucellosis.
House Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall said the policy allows the needless slaugter of "an American icon."
"The slaughter of bison is not required in order to manage the threat of disease. Slaughter is not management," Rahall said. "It is an approach from a bygone era and has no place in a time of rapid scientific and economic progress."
Rahall noted that an attempt by Democrats in 2004 to impose a moratorium on the killing of captured bison failed by a narrow margin.
"That vote was a harbinger of what will come, that the status quo is no longer sufficient," Rahall said.
Representative Dennis Rehberg, a Montana Republican, defended the plan, saying it "was not something that was just thrown together to slaughter our bison."
Millions of people come to Yellowstone National Park annually to see the park's bison and its famous geysers. (Photo by Steve Maslowski courtesy FWS)The plan, agreed to in 2000, was the product of a lawsuit by the state of Montana. State officials and cattle interests remain worried about the migration of the bison herd in the winter, when some wander out of the park in search of food.
This migration puts the bison, some of which carry brucellosis, near a few hundred cattle that graze on national forest land adjacent to the park. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can cause spontaneous abortion and stillborn calfs.
The plan allows federal and state officials to try and haze the bison back into the park - bison that cannot be moved back are captured and tested for brucellosis and those that test positive are slaughtered.
But if the population of bison within the park exceeds 3,000, the Park Service can slaughter the bison without testing for the disease. The current herd size is about 3,600 bison.
Although only two bison were slaughtered this winter under the plan, federal and state officials killed 1,003 last winter. Federal agencies currently spend some $2.4 million annually to implement the plan.
That money is being wasted, said Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who said the current plan "ensures it is only a matter of time before [Montana] loses our brucellosis-free status."
Schweitzer noted that buying out grazing leases on the lands would cost less than $10 million.
"It would be much cheaper to take the long goal and look for a permanent solution," said Schweitzer, a Democrat. "The federal government is just throwing a bunch of money away."
But negotiations with the owners of grazing permits has been difficult. Schweitzer said his state is continuing to negotiate with Grand Teton Ranch, which owns grazing rights on some 5,000 acres north of the park.
The federal government spent $13 million in the late 1990s to purchase the land, but allowed the owner to retain the grazing rights.
The National Park Service sometimes uses helicopters to try and haze bison back into the park. (Photo courtesy Buffalo Field Campaign)The Montana governor also suggested that the federal government give his state more flexibility with regards to its brucellosis-free status.
Currently if two herds turn up positive for the disease, the entire state would lose its status - that would cost Montana hundreds of millions of dollars annually, Schweitzer said.
"They are placing the two million head of cattle in Montana at risk of losing their brucellosis-free status over about 700 head of cattle that occupy this space some short periods during the year," he said.
Schweitzer proposed creating a buffer zone 30 to 50 miles north of the park, where all cattle would be tested for the disease. If there were positive tests, the state would still not lose its status, he said.
But the federal official in charge of the program rejected that idea.
"There is really no point changing the program that has been so effective for so many years," said John Clifford, deputy administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Representative Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, said the issue of bison leaving the park "is being used by some as a pretext to expand the park acquire additional federal lands for habitat or control the already limited private property of the West."
Federal officials should more actively manage the bison herd, Rehberg said, calling for vaccinations and arguing that the winter migration is because of overgrazing in the park.
"Don't let diseased herds walk around the park," Rehberg said. "Where do we find the philosophy that allows the opportunity for your diseased herd to overgraze our park?"
Millions of bison once roamed the nation's Great Plains. (Photo courtesy FWS)But others said that rounding up and vaccinating the herd was impractical, noting that there is not an effective vaccine for bison.
"It is much more practical to vaccinate cattle," said Tim Stevens, Yellowstone Project Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The migration of some bison out of the park during winter is natural, according to Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis.
"They are doing what they have done for centuries," Lewis told the committee. "It is not because the park is overgrazed. It is because it is winter and the ground is covered with snow."
Mike Soukup, associate director of the National Park Service added that maintaining the free-roaming herd is of "greater value" than making the herd brucellosis free.
That view drew a sharp rebuke from Bishop, who said "simple logic tells us" that a brucellosis-free herd should be the highest priority.
"And when you say that is not the highest priority there is something that is deeply wrong with the National Park Service," Bishop said.
Representative Raul Grivalva, an Arizona Democrat, disagreed.
"Effective disease control and free roaming bison are not mutually exclusive," according to Grijalva, who said the bison slaughter "must stop."
The issue is also clouded by a dispute about the extent of the risk to cattle from bison that carry brucellosis, which is transferred by the consumption of afterbirth from a mothering animal that is infected.
"The transfer of this disease from bison to cattle has never happened in the wild," Rahall said. "Never."
Clifford acknowledged the point, but said a transfer has happened in captive bison "which would not act any differently than captive bison."
Brucellosis can only be transmitted by calving females. (Photo by Jesse Achtenberg courtesy FWS)Conservationists note the bison policy is inconsistent, as elk can carry brucellosis and there are documented cases of transmission from elk to cattle.
Elk, which far outnumber bison and are permitted to range beyond the park, were responsible for both Idaho and Wyoming losing their brucellosis-free status in recent years.
A popular target for hunters, elk have "a stronger constituency" than bison, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Pacelle said the current plan ignores the special value of the Yellowstone herd, which is descended from the 23 wild bison that survived the mass eradication of the 19th century and is considered the largest remaining single population of genetically pure bison.
"This is a special population of animals," Pacelle said, "… [but] they are treated like shaggy members of a disposed cattle herd that are encroaching on adjacent and occupied cattle ranches."
"The whole rationale here is brucellosis," Pacelle added. "This whole thing has been an exaggeration, it is a canard. This is a land use issue and it is concern about bison extending their range."
Pacelle and other conservationists at the hearing expressed support for both the buyout and for the concept of a buffer zone, and urged lawmakers to find a solution to the management issue.
"If history continues on its present course, the Yellowstone herd will become just another intensively managed, domesticated herd," said Josh Osher of the Buffalo Field Campaign.