Watersheds Messenger     Fall 2001     Vol. VIII, No. 3     PDF ISSUE


A Range is Not a Home Where Yellowstone's Buffalo Roam
By Debra Ellers

The sound of snowmobiles razzes the early-morning, subzero dawn near West Yellowstone, Montana. Snorting, a herd of buffalo races to escape the onslaught of buzzing, two-stroke engines.

It is bison calving season - early spring. Pregnant female buffalo run ponderously. A few early calves strain to keep up with the herd.

The snowmobilers intent on harassing the bison are Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) agents. Reacting to unfounded threats that Yellowstone's buffalo pose to Montana's powerful livestock industry, the DOL uses snowmobiles, ATVs and helicopters to haze the animals.

From the bisons' natural grazing and calving grounds on Horse Butte in Gallatin National Forest, DOL agents continually chase them back inside the invisible boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.

The Bison Management Plan of the DOL and other government agencies decrees that no buffalo can be on the same range as domestic livestock due to a remote - and speculative - threat of a bacterial disease called brucellosis. Some wild buffalo may carry strains of brucellosis. Ironically, domestic cattle originally transmitted the bacteria to bison in the 1800s.

The DOL pushed the bison panic-button despite the fact that there is not a single documented instance where wild buffalo have transmitted brucellosis to domestic cattle. None of the ranchers in the West Yellowstone area is required to vaccinate his cattle against the disease, which would prevent its transmission far more effectively.

Previously, the DOL's policy was to kill every buffalo that crossed into Montana from Yellowstone. When this action resulted in the massacre of 1,083 buffalo in the harsh winter of 1996-97, public outcry forced the DOL to adopt subtler but still harmful methods to "control" the wild bison.

Current DOL policy relies on combinations of hazing, testing and killing the buffalo - buffalo that are simply following their natural instinct to migrate to the lower elevations of Horse Butte from the harsh winters of the Yellowstone plateau.

As they have for eons, the buffalo leave the heavy snows in search of pastures where they can graze and bear their young peacefully. But the buffalo find no peace. Horse Butte, the preferred winter range for the buffalo, is also subjected to domestic livestock grazing on its public lands from June through October every year.

From national forest land, the DOL chases the buffalo mercilessly, across busy highways, heedless of running the animals into barbed-wire fences and other obstacles, until the bison cross back inside the invisible national park boundary.

Further mistreatment awaits the bison from the DOL's buffalo capture facility on public lands at Horse Butte. There, the wild bison are caged and tested for brucellosis.

Injuries from capture, testing and shipping are numerous. If buffalo test positive for brucellosis, they are shipped off to be slaughtered. Montana killed five wild bulls in the winter of 2000 after they tested positive in the Horse Butte facility.

No economic justification exists for this pogrom against the buffalo. Horse Butte comprises five grazing allotments on approximately 2,065 acres of public land. Only a few hundred cattle and horses are authorized to graze these allotments.

Grazing fees for Horse Butte generate minimal revenue - about $1,200 - for the U.S. Treasury.

The price to pay state and federal agents to haze and test the buffalo outside Yellowstone's boundaries is about $824,000 annually.

While these costs to taxpayers are arbitrary and outrageous, the greater price comes in the form of moral and ethical shame: The American government actively destroys the peaceful existence of an American icon.

The buffalo/livestock conflict is yet another instance of profiteering by extractive interests at the expense of the American public and its wildlife. For more than a century, the livestock industry in Montana has enforced its will over the rule-making of federal agencies.

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope that the public can change the "cows-before-others" mentality in Montana. Conservation groups have filed lawsuits against Gallatin National Forest over buffalo hazing in West Yellowstone and buffalo slaughter on Horse Butte.

Spurred by these lawsuits, the Forest Service accepted public comments this fall on a proposal to renew grazing permits on Horse Butte. The agency is preparing an EIS to address the effects of continued grazing on wildlife and habitat in the area.

Western Watersheds actively opposes the renewal of these grazing permits and will appeal any decision other than a "no-grazing" alternative. Destructive livestock grazing makes no sense on these public lands, where wild buffalo are sacrificed for the sake of domestic livestock operations that are run by subsidized special interests.

Debra Ellers is a WWP board member from Boise, Idaho.

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