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In Montana, bison plan paused

Ranchers and conservationists are increasingly at odds, as Yellowstone herd numbers plunge.

By Todd WilkinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2008

Straying out: A bison herd near Stephens Creek in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

Yellowstone National Park


Gardiner, Mont.

On a knoll rising above this quaint Yellowstone gateway town, a pregnant bison, only weeks from giving birth to her calf, straddles an invisible boundary and feasts tranquilly upon a profusion of spring grass.

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Although it’s early in the tourist season for America’s first national park, a carload of visitors halts and eagerly snaps photos of the great American wildlife icon.

In their exuberance, few onlookers seem to realize that the woolly beast is actually a survivor. More than half the park’s herd of 4,700 buffalo have perished over the last six months – the largest kill-off since the 19th century.

Some were hunted; others didn’t survive a bad winter. But most were captured and trucked to slaughter under a controversial plan aimed at preventing them from mingling with beef cattle once they wander beyond the park’s fenceless border into Montana.

Now the high death toll is prompting public outrage. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and park officials abruptly suspended the killing two weeks ago. The governor says a compromise on the issue – a political quagmire that reaches back decades – is in the offing, one that would give the bison more room to wander. The cattle industry, however, vows to fight.

“What we’re witnessing are the battle lines of bison conservation in the New West,” says Tim Reid, Yellowstone’s deputy chief ranger. “It’s very contentious and very complicated. No victories for bison are ever easily won.”

The controversy stems from brucellosis, a disease that Yellowstone bison can carry and which affects fertility in domestic female cattle. If spread, it could jeopardize the Western ranchers’ ability to ship their animals to market.

The Yellowstone bison population is world-renowned, says Michael Scott, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group. Not only are they direct descendants of the last wild buffalo herds that once populated the Great Plains, they are much beloved by the public and are the emblem for the US Interior Department.

Conservationists complain that even when no beef cattle have been near Yellowstone and the risk of disease transmission was very low, Montana under two Republican governors resorted to bison slayings as a primary management option.

Governor Schweitzer, a Democrat and the first cattleman-turned-Montana governor since 1915, shares the beef industry’s worries about disease, but he also has a soft spot for buffalo. “I favor a commonsense solution and frankly it’s common sense that has been lacking,” he says in an interview.