What to do when the buffalo roam -- too far

Yellowstone's skies may occasionally be cloudy, but these days the national park is definitely a home where more and more buffalo roam.

In fact, the wild bison's comeback -- considered a major wildlife conservation success story -- coupled with the shaggy and stoic beasts' tendency to wander off the park, is currently the cause of some controversy both locally and nationally.

Because of this success, the Montana state wildlife agency may ask the state Legislature to declare the bison a game animal.

After almost being wiped out around the turn of the century, Yellowstone's buffalo herd has now grown to about 2,000. This is the only place in the United States where a wild buffalo population has survived. As a result, tourists visiting the 2.2 million acre park are encountering an increasing number of bison roaming the roads, meadows, and picnic grounds. And, despite park ranger's attempts at ''boundary control,'' more and more buffalo are ambling off the park in search of greener pastures.

Earlier this month a herd of nine bison created quite a stir as it ambled through the tourist town of West Yellowstone. While tourists tend to be thrilled at such sights, the area's ranchers view the vagabond buffalo as a threat because they've been known to carry a disease communicable to cattle.

Declaring the bison a game animal is necessary for the state to establish the first legal hunting season for buffalo in almost a century. The parties involved -- the ranchers, Park Service, and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks -- agree this is the easiest way to handle the problem.

If this measure is adopted, however, it is likely to create a certain amount of controversy. It was, after all, hunting and trapping which decimated the buffalo herds in the early 1800s. Even after Yellowstone Park was established in 1872, buffalo hunting was permitted. But the buffalo's destruction became so wanton that hunting was outlawed in the park and surrounding states by 1884.

This was just in the nick of time. By 1902 only 22 mountain buffalo remained in the park. To assure their survival, the park service introduced a herd of smaller, lighter plains buffalo which interbred with the mountain buffalo.

Although the Yellowstone bison herd's population was ''controlled'' by selective shooting of animals from 1931 to 1966, the Park Service's current management philosophy is to let nature take its course to the greatest extent possible. Chief Ranger Thomas Hobbs argues that Yellowstone is an intact enough ecosystem so that natural forces will control the size of the buffalo herd. But, in trying to implement this management philosophy, the Park Service recently incurred the scorn of the syndicated radio and TV news commentator Paul Harvey.

It seems that on Feb. 2 a hapless buffalo fell through the ice over the Yellowstone River and could not get out. Because this was a natural accident, Park Service employees let the buffalo alone. A cameraman filmed the buffalo's life-and-death struggle as part of a nature movie that was being shot in the area.

However, some Wyoming snowmobilers happened by and were moved by the animal's plight. They got angry at a young woman at the site, a member of the Young Adult Conservation Corps, when she explained the park's policy. The snowmobilers later detailed this incident in a letter to Mr. Harvey, who used it to criticize the Park Service for a lack of compassion.

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