Sparing Yellowstone Bison: An Update
Air Date: Week of November 13, 1998
In winter, the migratory bison herds which reside in Yellowstone Park often follow snowmobile trails out of park boundaries foraging for grass away from the snowy plateaus. In recent years, bison that wander off park grounds have been shot by Montana State rangers, fearing the animals might spread the disease brucellosis (broo-cell-LOW-sis) to cattle. After much protesting and controversy, this year the government plans instead to capture wandering bison, shoot those that test positive, and quarantine the rest before shipping them to Indian reservations. Laura Knoy speaks with Jeffrey St. Clair, the environmental editor for Counterpunch magazine who has been covering the bison controversy at Yellowstone for years.
KNOY: Winter's coming, and that means the annual migration of hungry bison down from the snowy plateau of Yellowstone Park. In recent years the Federal Government has shot bison that wander off park grounds, fearing the animals might spread the disease brucellosis to cattle. The slaughter, though, proved to be a public relations nightmare for wildlife officials, so this year the government plans instead to capture wandering bison, shoot only those that test positive, and quarantine the rest before shipping them to Indian reservations. Jeffrey St. Clair, the environmental editor for Counterpunch magazine, has been covering the bison controversy at Yellowstone for years. He says ecologists are now proposing an alternative plan, one that doesn't kill any bison.
ST. CLAIR: They call it Plan B for the bison. And it's a very simple one. You vaccinate the cattle in the area against brucellosis. There is a vaccine, and this would cost maybe $4-$5 per shot. It would be very easy to vaccinate all the cattle, and then there would be a long-term plan of vaccinating the bison inside the park. Virginia Ravendale, who is probably the foremost expert on bison in the United States, has estimated that within 15 years brucellosis could be eradicated from Yellowstone.
KNOY: What's the concern about brucellosis? Is it a legitimate concern?
ST. CLAIR: I don't think it's a legitimate concern. Brucellosis is a disease which the Yellowstone bison contracted from cattle about 80 years ago. But there's been no evidence that the disease has been transmitted from bison to cattle grazing around Yellowstone. What brucellosis does is it causes the fetuses of pregnant cows and pregnant bison to abort. And it's been used by the livestock industry in Montana as a kind of scare tactic, I think, ushering up specters of kind of cow AIDS or a kind of a mad cow disease for bison. In Grand Teton National Park, which is just south of Yellowstone, cattle and bison have been grazing together for I believe 40 years, and there's never been an instance of brucellosis being transmitted to cattle from bison.
KNOY: Supposedly, the people who would be most affected by any spread of this disease would be the cattle ranchers. What's been their reaction to all this?
ST. CLAIR: Well, I think there's a division between the cattle ranchers. Some of the long-time people in Yellowstone like the notion of having bison out there. Some of the others want to use the bison and the issue of brucellosis to preserve, I think, their own political power. And you have an added factor, which is that the price of beef is at an all-time low, and there's kind of protectionism going on. For example, here on Oregon, the cattle ranchers are saying, "We don't want any Montana beef coming into Oregon if it's got brucellosis." And it's a way of, really, for the Oregon cattle ranchers to keep their prices up, by keeping Montana beef out of Oregon. That same trend has happened in Alabama, Mississippi, and Colorado, where those ranchers are saying, "We don't want that brucellosis-contaminated meat coming in." It shows you that the conflict is really more at a political level than it is at a scientific level, or at a geographic level.
KNOY: What does this conflict say to you, Jeffrey, about the future of wildlife management in Yellowstone and other National parks?
ST. CLAIR: This is really not about bison and brucellosis, this conflict. It's really a conflict between the old West, which is dependent on the ranching, the mining, and the timber industries, and the new West, which is dependent more on tourism and recreational activities. And Yellowstone has become the symbol for this ongoing conflict between the new West and the old West. And the very symbol of Yellowstone, of course, is the bison, and that's why it has become the sort of rope in this grisly tug-of-war.
KNOY: Jeffrey St. Clair is the environmental editor of Counterpunch magazine. He's based in Oregon. Jeffrey, thanks a lot.
ST. CLAIR: Thank you very much.
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