Facing the largest slaughter of wild bison in this century, Yellowstone National Park officials are meeting today with cattle industry and Montana state officials in an urgent attempt to bring a halt to the killing.
So far this winter, some 630 bison - representing more than one-fifth of the park's entire bison population - have been destroyed or are awaiting shipment to slaughterhouses.
Emergency talks were initiated this week by Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley after he received field reports that the park's famous bison herds could be on the brink of a population collapse.
"When people describe what's happening here as a 'national tragedy,' I don't disagree with them," Mr. Finley says. "The National Park Service is very uncomfortable with the position it finds itself in. We are participating in something that is totally unpalatable to the American people, and it's something we are not convinced that science justifies."
The source of Finley's angst is an interim bison management plan drafted by the federal government and the state of Montana. The plan calls for Yellowstone rangers to assist in corralling bison inside the park, shipping diseased animals to slaughter, and killing those that stray beyond the park boundary.
The contentious pact was signed reluctantly by the park service as part of a court settlement won by the state of Montana on behalf of cattle ranchers. It requires Yellowstone to prevent the 13 percent of bison believed to be infected with the disease brucellosis from coming in contact with cattle. The actual risk of disease transmission is disputed. No case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle has ever been documented in the wild.
Although more than 2,300 Yellowstone bison have been killed since 1988, the situation this winter has reached a crisis because of deep snows and arctic weather conditions. A layer of impenetrable ice on the ground is preventing wildlife from getting to nutrients and grasses vital to survival.
The phenomenon has caused more than half of the park's estimated 3,200 bison, many of them now showing early signs of starvation, to mass along Yellowstone's northern and western boundary. Descendants of the last of their species, which survived the purge of the 19th century, these animals are oblivious to the fact that the moment they cross the invisible park boundary they will either be shot or sent to the slaughterhouse.
Last week Yellowstone biologist Mary Meagher, considered the world's premier authority on bison, said the weather conditions alone are likely to spur a large natural die off of bison. But add to that the growing human-caused toll, and Meagher said there is the possibility of a "system collapse."
The interim control program, which remains in effect until an environmental impact statement is completed on bison management, has been criticized by environmentalists. "For eight years, it has been a continual, incremental massacre of this herd," says Jeanne-Marie Souvigney of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Mont. "It raises the fundamental question: Is Yellowstone a sanctuary for wildlife, or are we going to allow the livestock industry to turn it into a livestock yard and zoo?"
In December, environmental groups sued the Park Service, claiming it was violating its own obligation to protect wildlife. Although a federal judge rejected those claims, the groups in recent days have filed an emergency appeal for a temporary injunction barring any more killing.
But another solution may be at hand. Federal and state officials hope to hash out the details of several nonlethal alternatives that, for the rest of this winter, would alleviate the fears of ranchers. Still, reaching an agreement over how to halt the exodus of bison from the park may be difficult. Montana Gov. Marc Racicot favors a plan of supplemental feeding inside Yellowstone, which contradicts park regulations.
Meanwhile, park officials are considering such options as trucking bison to quarantine corrals on Indian reservations. "Our preferred option is not to harvest bison, but it is virtually the only alternative we are left with," Racicot says. "For me, it is terribly anguishing."
But clearly his sentiments lie with the cattle ranchers whose livelihoods are at stake. Racicot blames the Park Service for failing to keep the bison in the park.
Montana livestock department director Larry Petersen says the beef industry is under intense pressure from federal agricultural officials to avoid contact between bison and cattle or have its "disease-free" status revoked. Losing the classification could jeopardize Montana's billion-dollar-a-year trade in cattle, requiring livestock to sit in expensive quarantine.