THE buffalo grazing quietly in the idyllic setting of Yellowstone National Park will be photographed by thousands of tourists this summer. Once endangered, this icon of the American West has thrived in the park.
But when it strays from the federal sanctuary, as it often does to search for food in the winter months, the bison walks headlong into controversy.
In Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming, the Yellowstone buffalo are no longer the target of tourists' cameras - but of guns. This winter 297 bison have been shot and killed by Montana officials in West Yellowstone alone.
The buffalo are killed because state livestock officials say the animals can spread disease to cattle. While the "zero tolerance" policy of the three neighboring states is not new, the large number of shootings this year on public land, often within sight of homes and roadways, has some area residents bristling with anger.
Donna Lane, a resident of West Yellowstone, Wyo., first became aware of the problem in December while gazing at a herd of buffalo near her home. "I noticed three pickup trucks driving up. Then six men got out, walked 100 feet, knelt down and started shooting." Gunners from the Montana Department of Livestock shot 18 buffalo that day, Lane says.
Enraged and shocked, Lane started calling officials to find out what was going on. It was then that she learned of the buffalo-brucellosis controversy.
Because of its effect on cattle, the US Department of Agriculture has spent $3.5 billion since 1934 to eradicate brucellosis nationwide. Today 33 states are free of the disease, department officials say. They say the wildlife, in particular the buffalo herd, in Yellowstone National Park are the last stronghold of the disease.
Currently, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are considered "brucellosis free." If that status is revoked by the federal government, livestock producers will collectively face millions of dollars in increased annual costs for testing their herds for the disease, livestock officials say.
While there has been no documented case of bison transmitting the disease to cattle in a natural setting, state veterinarians contend the possibility exists and the risk is too great to ignore that possibility.
Four ranching operations in the Jackson Hole, Wyo. area were recently put out of business after the cattle became diseased. "It was an economic loss to those people," says Vernon Taylor, a Kelly, Wyo., rancher. "If you owned the land [and saw what bison do] you might feel differently.
Ironically, the Yellowstone buffalo herd is a good example of a species revived from near extinction. With a mere 25 animals left in the park by 1902, the herd today numbers at an estimated 4,000 animals.
The herd has grown to twice the size the park would naturally sustain, prompting the bison to leave in search of food, says Mary Meagher, field biologist at the National Biological Service in Yellowstone.
Critics of the states' zero tolerance policy, also note that it is contradictory. Elk in the region, which have also tested positive for brucellosis, are left untouched.
One explanation for the inconsistency could be that many ranchers are also hunting outfitters and "make money off elk, but not off bison," says Tom Thorne, wildlife veterinarian for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
John Kopec, staff veterinarian for the US Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service, says the government would also like to eradicate the disease from 100,000 elk in the area.
Currently, Montana officials say that about 300 buffalo are still roaming around the West Yellowstone area and will be shot in accordance with state law.
Lane and some other local residents argue that there are no cattle in the area during the winter. They are meeting with state officials to try to stop the shootings.