Last Stand for Bison Herd At Yellowstone National Park?

Mike Finley is determined to save the bison population in Yellowstone National Park from collapse, even if he has to do it alone.

Mr. Finley, the park superintendent, has made his stand at a simple corral near Stevens Creek, along the northern border of Yellowstone. Here, he and his rangers are guarding 147 bison that had crossed the park boundary. By doing so, they are defying a legal agreement with the state of Montana that calls for all such bison to be shot or shipped to slaughter.

Finley is protecting them from being killed because he fears their survival may be vital to the survival of the whole Yellowstone herd. More than 900 bison, representing nearly a third of Yellowstone's total population, have already been killed because they were either diseased or wandered off park land and were shot. Now, a second third are in danger of starvation because of an unusually harsh winter.

"We may need them after this winter is over to recover the herd," Finley says.

When the park's senior bison scientist, Mary Meagher, analyzed the state of Yellowstone's bison population in early January she predicted, "my best-case scenario was a major population crash and my worst-case is a system collapse."

Although it will take weeks yet before the full magnitude of the bison toll is known, one thing looms as a certainty for park visitors: The Yellowstone of recent memory, whose image in the minds of many tourists was synonymous with rangy bison, has profoundly changed.

Steven Fuller, a heralded nature photographer who has lived in Yellowstone for a quarter century as the winter keeper at Canyon Village, says the episode of starvation he's witnessing is unprecedented. The large number of dead bison he has encountered on cross-country skis and the condition of survivors portends a disaster, he says. "You don't usually see bison looking like this until April, but with the heaviest snowfall still lying ahead, we could be in trouble. Over the last 25 years I've never been prone to worrying, but this year I am."

Indeed, the starvation is so bad that some environmentalists are urging park officials to defy their longstanding policy of "natural regulation" and bring in food for the bison.

"While debate continues on the outrageous policy of shooting the buffalo on the borders of Yellowstone National Park, the forgotten victims of this winter's unusually severe weather are the buffalo in the park's interior," said Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), in a letter this week. "We fear that without swift and direct intervention, we could be witnessing the beginning of the end of the bison herd in portions of the park's interior."

The NPCA is calling for a massive relief effort to rescue Yellowstone's bison from peril, but it has been met with internal disagreement even among park administrators. Purists say the Park Service should allow nature to run its course, though the agency's regional science chief supports a relief plan.

Normally vehemently opposed to the notion of artificially feeding park wildlife, the NPCA has implored Finley to temporarily suspend the prohibition and start hauling in hay to save the survivors struggling against the heavy snowpack. "Extraordinary circumstances such as these occurring this year warrant extraordinary measures to save the core of the Yellowstone herd," Mr. Pritchard said.

Others disagree. Despite her own prediction of disaster, Ms. Meagher says she would "absolutely not" support any artificial feeding program. Not only would supplemental feeding cause a host of problems, she says, but it is probably too late. "You won't accomplish anything over the short term because the animals in trouble are already too far down," she says.

Today, superintendent Finley is to meet with Interior Department officials in Denver to weigh various options. President Clinton also is interested in resolving what has become one of the most heated controversies affecting the National Park Service.

No matter what occurs, Mr. Fuller is trying to prepare himself for the worst, which means exploring a landscape that is a whole lot emptier in the years ahead.

"For the last few summers you've been able to explore Hayden Valley and see bison scattered from horizon to horizon," he says. "It was like a scene from a Bierstadt or Miller painting lifted out of the last century. My great regret is that I didn't capture it on film. I may never have the chance to witness it again in my lifetime."

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