You are here

Bison Slaughter In Yellowstone National Park Draws Protest Against Park Service


More than 200 Yellowstone National Park bison have been killed this winter to prevent possible transmission of a deadly disease to Montana's cattle industry. Photo by Jim Macdonald.

Editor's note: More than 200 Yellowstone National Park bison have been killed so far this winter. Why? Ostensibly to prevent the spread of brucellosis, a disease that can cause livestock to spontaneously abort fetuses. This past weekend the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group organized to oppose the killings, held a protest in West Yellowstone, Montana, to draw attention to the killings. Jim Macdonald attended the protest and files this story.

This Saturday, in West Yellowstone, Montana, members of Buffalo Field Campaign rallied outside of Yellowstone National Park's West Entrance to call attention to and protest the ongoing hazing and killing of Yellowstone bison by the National Park Service and Montana's Department of Livestock.

As part of a week of action, Buffalo Field Campaign rallied, marched, and performed street theater. As snowmobiles and snowcoaches entered and left the park, they were greeted by a puppet dressed as the grim reaper pinned with an identifying sign that simply said "Park Service."

In the past week, at least 127 bison have been shipped to slaughter by the Park Service, which captured the bison at the Stephens Creek facility near Yellowstone's North Entrance. Another 17 were to have been shipped to slaughter Saturday. The numbers of bison shipped to slaughter have surpassed the numbers (112) killed in Montana's bison hunt, which ended Saturday.

According to a Park Service press release, the bison herd had moved "toward or across the park boundary, where cattle graze on private land. Under the (Interagency Bison Management Plan]), the park works with other agencies to conserve a viable, wild bison population while cooperating to protect Montana’s brucellosis-free status."

However, the Buffalo Field Campaign claims that there "has never been a documented case of a wild, free-roaming buffalo infecting domestic cattle with brucellosis." Instead, the group argues that "public lands currently designated for livestock grazing should be reclassified to give priority to native wildlife species, including wild buffalo."

At the rally, there was some interaction with Yellowstone visitors and Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers. Some posed for pictures with Buffalo Field Campaign while some questioned what the rally was about. One man on a snowmobile inquired about the buffalo masks. He asked if the volunteers put them on whether he'd be permitted to shoot one of them. In retort, a volunteer quipped, "Do you work for the government?"

It's not clear how many Yellowstone visitors are aware that the National Park Service is engaged in hazing and slaughtering buffalo inside of Yellowstone.

As the bison hunt ends, Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers are beginning to transition into the next phase in the season, where the Montana Department of Livestock hazes and slaughters buffalo, usually west of the park at its Horse Butte facility. According to a volunteer, the Department of Livestock had not yet prepared the facility.

Bison numbers were estimated this past fall at 4,700. To date, this winter, 239-256 have been killed by hunts and by slaughter. The total killed already surpasses the 69 killed last winter and is on its way toward approaching the 2005-06 total of 1,016 and the 1996-97 total of 1,084, which still ranks as the highest number of bison killed during a single season.

Since 1985, more than 5,200 bison have been killed.


From what I have read the bacterium Brucella abortus came to Yellowstone NP around 1917 and now infects a significant fraction of the Yellowstone bison. For the bison it seems to produce little illness or disability. In fact the symptoms in cattle are pretty mild but does cause some infected cows to abort and therefore slow down their milk production. Of course for the low profit margin in raising beef, this is a concern. The brucellosis free designation of Montana cattle means they can ship them outside the state without the quarantine step (expensive.)
Yes, it is theoretical that bison can transmit brucellosis in the wild. It has happened in captivity when cattle and bison were kept in close captivity, but a cow would have to be licking the afterbirth material from a bison within 48 hours of birth.
Then what about Yellowstone's one hundred thousand elk, most of which also carry B. abortus? There have been documented cases from Wyoming and Idaho of elk transmitting B. abortus to cattle. Of course Montana receives lots of the almighty dollar from elk hunters.
The Interagency Bison Management Plan allows up to one hundred B. abortus free bison to roam outside Yellowstone's western and northern boundaries. Any bison that can not be chased back into Yellowstone and elude capture for testing are shot. I believe this plan is just to pacify the ranchers and fog the greater issue that the Montana has no tolerance for bison outside Yellowstone's boundaries.
Some of the Yellowstone bison are altitudinal migratory critters. especially during heavy snowfall winters when the larger slaughters get attention. Bison do not pay much attention to boundaries or even to being chased by helicopters, snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles and humans on horseback so most of these are murdered.
All animals (even humans) are born to roam. Stifling this freedom is counterproductive to the preservation of and will result in Our NP's becoming nothing more than micromanaged “wild” animal parks and zoos. Lets give them room to roam.

Excerpt From:

Montana will kill bison despite disease report
Tests show that 82 percent of slaughtered buffalo not infected by brucellosis.
By Rachel Odell, Jackson Hole News 12-23-99

The Montana Department of Livestock will continue to kill bison that test positive for brucellosis antibodies despite evidence that the agency is killing scores of uninfected animals.
Montana state veterinarian Arnold Gertonson said Monday that the Department of Livestock will continue to send bison that test positive to slaughter in an effort to eliminate the risk of brucellosis transmission to domestic livestock.

Last week the National Veterinary Services Laboratory revealed results of tissue sampling of bison that had tested positive in the field and been sent to slaughter. The analysis showed that of 144 bison, 117 were not infected with brucellosis.

That suggests that about 82 percent of the 1,189 bison killed in the past three years were not infected.

Still the state will not alter its policy which calls for trapping bison that leave Yellowstone National Park, testing them for exposure to brucellosis and sending positive-testing ones to slaughter, Gertonson said. Montana operates under an interim bison management plan that will be in place until the National Park Service endorses a permanent plan. The Park Service is expected to release a final environmental impact statement on bison management this spring.

Environmentalists and federal officials said the findings suggest the brucellosis field tests used on the bison are unreliable and encouraged the DOL to find alternatives to slaughter. Those tests search for brucellosis antibodies and cannot distinguish between a bison that is infected and one that has developed immunity, said Patrick Collins of the federal Animal Plant and Health Inspection Agency. To avoid killing uninfected bison, the DOL should focus more on flexible management that would keep the wild ungulates away from domestic ones, he said.

"This raises some real concerns," Collins said. "It seems to suggest that the field test is maybe not the tool we should rely on completely. Not to say there is no risk, but it suggests we could be more flexible."

Environmentalists were more adamant. The state agency has egregiously erred, at the expense of America's last free-roaming, wild buffalo herd, said Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "This is sad news and it confirms ... that Montana's Department of Livestock is killing buffalo unnecessarily," he said. "If you consider that 1,189 Yellowstone buffalo have been killed in the past three winters, this science, coming from the best lab in the country, indicates that as many as 966 of those buffalo died without ever posing a risk to cattle."

Gertonson defended Montana, saying that although 117 buffalo tissue samples tested negative, the animals could have still been infected. Collins from APHIS said the DOL was skirting the issue. "They are being a little disingenuous," he said. "It is clear that bison need to be managed and we are not suggesting we don't manage. But we can manage effectively without lethal control."
APHIS has proposed to Montana governor Marc Racicot to aid the state in getting away from killing bison and has offered to pay expenses and to intercede if other states threaten to boycott Montana livestock, Collins said.

"Unfortunately we cannot get Montana to cooperate in good faith," Collins said.

I want to let you all know that in addition to this article, I've also posted an introspective essay that looks not so much at the rally but rather the context of my meeting Buffalo Field Campaign again after so many years. I attended a rally in Washington, DC, in April 2002 (and actually again in 2003, but it was raining so hard, and I barely felt as though I was there). From April 2002 on, the world and my life became very different. It was both the most joyous time of my life and the most tumultuous, filled with the most failure.

Between the place where those meet, I kept thinking about the buffalo and the paradox of the joy and the failure there. Where I tried to keep to the facts in the article above, this is a much richer, more defiant essay that shows where I am coming from and what has brought me to the place where the article above resides.

Please read: Meeting up with Buffalo Field Campaign in Yellowstone: The paradox of joy and failure

And, if anyone is interested in discussing activism against the hazing and slaughter of buffalo, this is a great thread to do so. More than complaining about NPS or discussing the ideological divide (for instance, I do not believe for a minute that the slaughter of buffalo has anything at all to do with brucellosis), I'm more interested in the kinds of things that will actually give buffalo room to roam.


Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I have a big problem with the use of the word "slaughter". You have already made your point. To use brucellosis as a reason to harvest American bison is absolutly ludicrous. Don't think I'd like to vacinate one though! Sure did lots of cows.

According to any press release you read when a bison is sent to be killed, they ship it "to slaughter." You can find that language in the government's own words on the press release I linked to in the article. They prefer to use the sanitized phrase "Management Operations" to describe what they are doing.

"Harvest" is a loaded term as well, that suggests that what the Park Service is doing is something akin to raising crops. That's not what's going on. Rather, like domestic livestock, they are rounding them up and shipping them to slaughter. That there is a double meaning to the "word" slaughter is not accidental, but in a winter where 5% of the supposedly wild buffalo have been killed in a single week, I'm not sure there's an objectively better word for it. It's both the accurate description of what happens and a truthful description of the amount of death in a week. The word needs to capture the scope as well as the actual "what" (just as when someone wins an election by a large amount, it is called a "landslide.") In this case, the use of the word "slaughter" is actually far more justified since it is not only true metaphorically, it is literally what they are doing to the bison.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

My question is, How big of a herd do we want? 4500, 45,000, 45,000,000? If you think we kill alot of buffalo now, wait till we are managing a herd of 1,000,000 or so. Also, I want to know why it is better for a buffalo to be killed by wolves than to be killed by man?

A few of you have mentioned the real issue here. The Montana beef industry spends millions of dollars lobbying their industry as they should. However they have made themselves so powerful that they can influence what a federal organization (the Yellowstone NPS) does or doesn't do with their management practices. The park service is understandably in a predicament as they have to juggle the demands of the neighboring ranchers, public visitors, and overall management within the park. The sole reason for this issue lies with the ranchers/beef industry. Why else would the park service actively "harvest/slaughter" one species within the park when the mission for the entire park is to leave it wild and let nature do as it does? (Ok so they revised that plan slightly for wild fire management.) The pressure put on the park service from the beef industry is too great. I agree that organizations like the Buffalo Field Campaign need to bring these issues to the attention of Joe Public, however they have focused their energy on the wrong group of people. They need to set up camp in the parking lots of the beef industry, and walk the halls of Washington DC and rub shoulders with Joe Beef. That is where they will have the most influence. Leave the park service alone, they are not the enemy here. Everyone loves to hate the government. We need voices to attack the real problem here, the almighty all powerful beef industry. Oh and by the way I love my steak just like the next guy or gal, so my issues don't involve killing cattle or bison. My issues deal with an industry who thinks they can get what they want (be it bison control or wolf control) by throwing money and irrational theory at the problem and not science and cooperation.

I want to take a shot at answering the last couple of comments, particularly eric's, since he raises some very important ethical questions.

eric asked about the proper size of the buffalo herd, and he asked whether it was better for a buffalo to be killed by wolves than by man.

I do not think it is up to us to determine how big of a herd that we want, and the key to my answer to your question is that we have to rid ourselves of the belief that we are here to "manage" wildlife. The idea that the role of human society is to manage resources is I think a mistaken one. I don't think we have the knowledge to know how to do this while at the same time grasping all the consequences of our actions. The "management" ethics is based on an atomistic understanding of the world. It doesn't matter whether the atom is managing a particular animal, a particular disease, or even a particular ecosystem, the attempt to make moral decisions regarding what to do about buffalo and other animals is not a closed system. It is not possible to know the variables. So, we cannot really answer how many buffalo absolutely we would want, and we shouldn't even try. The question shouldn't be how many bison should there be but rather why we think we are right to control the number of bison within a certain number. And, more than control that number, why we think we are right to control the movements of these animals.

In Yellowstone, from what I have read from range scientists, Yellowstone National Park historically supported a herd of about 1,000 bison. In the past, before the so called natural regulation theory took hold in the late 1960s, the National Park Service culled ungulate populations (notably elk populations) in order to maintain the quality of Yellowstone's Northern Range. As the bison population grows, there has been a tendency of bison to leave the national park boundaries. Now, the Park Service could try to regulate the numbers of buffalo so that they will be less likely to leave the park (by slaughtering buffalo), or they could let them wander out and try to reclaim a small piece of their historic range. No matter what, there are consequences in the choice that go well beyond humans' ability to manage the full scope of the situation. Yellowstone National Park is simply not an intact ecosystem (and an ecosystem is never a closed system, anyhow). The question for me again is by what reason does the National Park Service or any other entity justify stopping bison from reclaiming their range. By what right does it set up these boundaries and these numbers, which when push comes to shove, are arbitrary and based only on values placed on the range science.

So, however you count the proper numbers, there is no rationale that justifies the killing of buffalo. Of course, you might challenge my premises, and we can continue that conversation (and probably should to move this conversation forward).

Secondly, you asked about whether it's better for a buffalo to be killed by a human or by a wolf. Obviously, it makes no difference to the buffalo as far as any of us know. I don't know how we could ask each one to find out. Seriously, though, the question in terms of human action isn't whether one kind of dying is better than another, but whether one type of killing makes more sense than another. Why is it that we kill buffalo? Is that rationale coherent? We don't kill buffalo in order to survive, we don't kill them because we find ourselves with little choice, we do so in order to protect a certain social order that we've set up. We are protecting certain value judgments about that social order. Does that social order, whether we are talking about the livestock industry or whether we are talking about the Department of Livestock or about the National Park Service make any sense at all? In other places, I have argued that it does not. The burden, though, is still to show why the rationale for government-sponsored killing of buffalo is justified. We are talking about our actions here, and to the extent that our actions don't make sense, it is evident that we are harming ourselves (that's an argument one can find in Plato). And, in harming ourselves, we are also prematurely hurting buffalo, and we are not living up to our potential.

That's how I would answer eric.

And, that really also suggests how I would begin to answer the Anonymous comment that follows it. In Anonymous's piece, there is a criticism of Buffalo Field Campaign for going after the National Park Service instead of the beef industry. While that's not even true - Buffalo Field Campaign in fact has called for a boycott of beef - on the face of it, the criticism is merely one of strategy and not principle. However, looking deeper, the person here suggests that the livestock industry is the only real enemy of the buffalo and that the Park Service is merely a victim of circumstances. That's ludicrous. As the people actually carrying out and participating in the process of policy making, the National Park Service has absolutely no mandate to kill buffalo, and the people who wear the uniforms of the Park Service - as individuals - have even less so. If the real target is the livestock industry, then one way you go about pressuring a change is to pressure those who are in partnership with that industry to make that partnership less palatable. The National Park Service has always been seen as something of a bad partner in brucellosis management; they are therefore the lowest hanging fruit in the corrupt partnership to go after. And, it's all the more outrageous when they find themselves in league with these people. In fact, it's groups like the National Park Service which are giving the policy teeth whenever they kill a buffalo. One wouldn't expect USDA or the livestock industry to change their stance after so many decades of zealous efforts to rid brucellosis from cattle. They would be the hardest group to move; they can only be moved by pressure. However, the National Park Service has a mandate to protect wildlife.

And, on that note, though what I say may not be popular, eating beef is also enabling the slaughter of buffalo. While I doubt any boycott of beef will work (unless there are a lot more episodes like we have seen in the news over the past couple of days), it does make it easier for the livestock industry to press their case so long as their coffers are being fed by those who eat beef (at least beef from those tied to the industry). But, I think many of our agricultural practices have been tied to the same sense of entitlement that people take for granted (just as they take for granted the notion that everything on earth is here for humans to "manage.") As Gandhi said, the cow is also sacred. By that, I mean that the animals stuck in our agricultural system are just as much victims as are the wildlife in Yellowstone. It's very hard to call for free-ranging bison without at the same time recognizing the fundamental problem within the industry. That doesn't mean that we should be quick to throw farmers out on their ass; in fact, if anything I said should be clear, we shouldn't be trying to figure everything out. We cannot possibly do that. What we can do is in a situation that presents itself to us, recognize when there is no justification for our actions. And, there is no justification for the National Park Service slaughter of buffalo.

Strategically, there may be a reason to direct more action against the livestock industry. Certainly, the connections are necessary. The National Park Service, however, is culpable. That they are stuck in a bureaucracy does not make it less so; it does suggest that there are fundamental problems with the systems of "management" with public lands. The only way I know to take that on is in the local context; for me, free roaming buffalo is part of that context.

There's so much more to say; this has opened a pandora's box. But, eric is essentially right about one thing, as I interpret the context of his questions. There are radical implications in criticizing the slaughter of buffalo. At a basic level, most people recognize the contradiction in what the NPS is doing in killing animals they are supposed to be protecting. But, when we see the full context of the contradiction, what it calls for is something much more than simply stopping the slaughter. Are we willing to embrace where reason leads us? Are we ready to roam?

In any event, stopping the slaughter would be a nice start.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments