Yellowstone Bison Gain Reprieve
If you haven't heard by now, a temporary solution has been reached between the state of Montana and Yellowstone National Park officials over some 300 bison that have moved west of the park.
Rather than trucking the bison off to slaughter, the animals will instead be trucked back into the park to the Stephens Creek area.
While the folks over at the Buffalo Field Campaign are celebrating this perceived "victory," in truth it's merely a stopgap measure. What this week's events have demonstrated is that there is not yet a workable, mutually satisfactory plan for managing Yellowstone's bison.
What the long-running bison saga demonstrates is that you can't artificially draw lines around a species' habitat. If that's what the powers-that-be insist on doing, then it would seem the only politically approved way to deal with bison that leave the park is to kill them in one fashion or another, whether that be via hunting or trucking them to slaughter, or truck them back into the park, a laughable proposition if made permanent policy.
The problem has been long in making. It started with the park's boundaries, which don't reflect biological realities. It continued when cattle transmitted brucellosis to bison decades ago. It blossomed into rage back during the winter of 1996-97 when more than 1,000 bison were gunned down in Montana after leaving Yellowstone's because their forage was locked out of reach beneath thick, hoary layers of ice and snow.
To some, the bison are no more Yellowstone's than are the other wildlife that migrate in and out of the park. And there's a measure of truth in that. Unfortunately, over the decades Yellowstone has evolved into a bison, and elk, sanctuary of sorts and so the view persists, particularly with the bison, that they are unique to the park and so should be protected wherever they range.
And range they will. Bison and elk are hard-wired to leave Yellowstone in winter in a search of more survivable climates and forage in the relative lowlands of Montana and Wyoming.
Beyond that, and many hate to hear this, but to some extent parks such as Yellowstone are akin to open-air zoos, sanctuaries where some species -- elk and bison -- have been allowed to grow in populations that the park's range wouldn't normally accommodate.
Indeed, in Wyoming bison by and large are relegated to the safety of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. While the shaggy beasts are marveled at within that context, few appreciate it when they wander beyond those preserves.
Park officials and biologists have struggled mightily to manage the park's wildlife almost from the beginning. Bison poaching in Yellowstone attracted national attention in the 1890s, leading to the first effective wildlife protection in the park. Wolves decades ago where driven -- exterminated, really -- from Yellowstone because they were viewed as carnivorous pests.
More recent attempts to "manage" Yellowstone's bison and keep the park's elk herds healthy contribute to this zoo view. When bison leave the park, efforts are made to haze them back into it. When elk leave Yellowstone in winter and head south into Wyoming, they can choose from a number of publicly financed feeding grounds to find nourishment.
Trying to keep Yellowstone's wildlife menagerie in a human view of harmonious balance is fraught with pitfalls.
When wolves were first driven from the park, their prey base -- elk -- exploded. So much so that in the early 1960s park officials resorted to an aerial assault to reduce the burgeoning elk herd on the northern range. The public backlash was explosive when stories flashed about the country, describing how helicopters herded thousands of elk to their deaths. Particularly inflammatory was the fact that some elk broke legs trying to flee the helicopters and had to be dispatched on the ground where they lay thrashing in pain.
"One wounded cow was squealing and the butchers, who were unarmed, had to dispatch the pitiful animals with a hand-ax," read one story in Sports Afield.
Today the public outcry arrives much more quickly, thanks to the Internet that allows words and pictures to circle the globe in minutes, not days.
So what do we do?
At the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, officials are willing to pay ranchers thousands of dollars not to graze their cattle in the West Yellowstone area until mid-June. Unfortunately, this is not a permanent solution, nor even one that might assuredly solve this year's predicament, as the bison might not head back into the park on their own by then and efforts to haze them back into Yellowstone might fail again.
Now, GYC does offer a long-range plan that it sees as a solution, one that involves obtaining more bison habitat outside of the park, altering cattle grazing schedules, building fences, and other measures. And I expect we'll hear more from Yellowstone and Montana officials, and even Congress, which earlier this spring held a hearing into the plight of Yellowstone's bison.
Whether any forthcoming proposal satisfactorily copes with the natural instincts of wildlife remains to be seen.
"The bison want to expand their range; they shouldn't be artificially trucked back to Yellowstone to eat more range," reader Jim Macdonald observed when he heard of the compromise hashed out yesterday by Yellowstone and Montana officials. "Bison live, but there will be consequences, first of which is that we still think we can play god and make everyone happy."