If the winter of 2008-09 is as severe as this slowly retreating winter, will it matter that 25 Yellowstone National Park bison have been saved from slaughter while another 1,200 or so are trucked to their death? Those paying $2.8 million to gain grazing rights to a ranch just north of Yellowstone think so.
"We see this as a huge, significant step to build off of," Tim Stevens, who runs the Yellowstone field office for the National Parks Conservation Association, told me Thursday after the deal was announced. "This opens the door to bison moving onto thousands of acres of public and private land that they haven't had access to for many, many years."
Twenty-five bison get to pass through that door next year, and perhaps 100, maybe more, in each of the succeeding years under the 30-year deal that pays the Church Universal and Triumphant nearly $100,000 a year to watch grass grow on land that fed roughly 200 cattle this past year. At the same time, during winters as long, cold, and snowy as this past one, 1,200 or more bison could be loaded onto trucks at Yellowstone's Stephens Creek bison capture facility and shipped to slaughter because of unsubstantiated fears.
The fears that Yellowstone bison might spread brucellosis, an infectious disease that can cause livestock to abort their fetuses, are unsubstantiated because there has yet to be a documented case of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle in the wild. Scientists disagree on whether it's even possible, as the following from Yellowstone's background materials on brucellosis points out.
Scientists and researchers disagree on even some of the most basic factors influencing the risk of transmission. These include whether studies on cattle are applicable to bison, whether controlled studies are applicable in the field, and the best ways to conduct additional research to determine the risk of transmission.
These disagreements and a paucity of information on brucellosis in bison make it impossible to quantify the risk of B. abortus transmission from bison (and elk, although the environmental impact statement does not analyze brucellosis in elk) in the Yellowstone area to domestic livestock.
Despite those uncertainties, the transmission concern in part was deemed significant enough to write the church a check for nearly $3 million with hopes it would buy bison, sometime during the not-too-distant future, the ability to resume their traditional, genetically instilled, migratory habits.
"This is a significant step forward for Yellowstone bison," Amy McNamara, the national parks program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, told me. "It doesn't solve everything at once, but it moves us forward."
Twenty-five bison will pass through that door next year... once their blood has been tested to ensure they're not carrying brucellosis, and once the cows have been fitted with "vaginal telemetry devices," whatever those might be. Doesn't sound comfortable.
At Yellowstone, spokesman Al Nash too called the deal with the church "a step forward."
"It's an important step forward, but this is not the end game," Mr. Nash added. "And we're not going to suggest that it's the end game. But frankly, we've been stalled for eight years moving this plan forward, and we've been asked when we're going to move the plan forward, and that day is today."
But is it? It comes roughly eight years after the Interagency Bison Management Plan was agreed upon by the National Park Service, the state of Montana, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service as the preferred management tool for ensuring that the park's bison don't transmit brucellosis to Montana's cattle.
Negotiated by the state of Montana, (which had a decidedly vested interest in the matter and yet is not digging terribly deep into its own pockets to help make this deal happen), the deal announced Thursday costs the cash-strapped National Park Service $1.5 million while the Forest Service and APHIS contribute ... nothing. A coalition of non-governmental organizations -- the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the NPCA, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Montana Wildlife Federation -- has agreed to somehow pony up another million by fall. The state of Montana presumably will toss in the difference.
As for other components of Thursday's announcement that brought Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis to Bozeman -- requirements for bison-proof fencing to separate bison from cattle, allowances for bison heading west out of the park, a requirement that the three states surrounding Yellowstone work collaboratively to develop a brucellosis immunization for livestock -- well, there are none. It's simply cash on the barrel head.
"It's important to point out it's 25 bison the first year, the second year it could be up to 100," said NPCA's Stevens. "And in ensuing years we're hopeful that it will be significant numbers more than that."
The same message was voiced by Ms. McNamara at Greater Yellowstone.
"We aren't claiming this will bring the slaughter to an end," she said. "With this deal, we will begin with a small number and move up."
Among those not sharing the optimism is the Buffalo Field Campaign, which believes the deal is atrocious. This group, which long has argued against the way Yellowstone's bison are managed, believes, among other things, that the Montana Department of Livestock should "develop brucellosis-proof management plans for all domestic cattle that continue to graze in the (Greater Yellowstone Area) including the provision of wildlife proof fencing if necessary" and that "Governor Schweitzer, together with the governors of Idaho and Wyoming, must petition USDA-APHIS to modify the federal brucellosis classification system to allow more flexible management of wildlife and cattle in the GYA."
In the long run, the organization wants to see an effective brucellosis vaccine developed for cattle and mandated for use within greater Yellowstone, and that "public lands currently designated for livestock grazing should be reclassified to give priority to native wildlife species, including wild buffalo."
"The current property tax structure in Montana encourages livestock production by providing tax breaks for agricultural use. Landowners who allow wild buffalo to access their land should be provided with similar incentives through the Habitat Montana program," the group adds.
Those endorsing the deal say it will open the door to a wild, free-roaming Yellowstone bison herd. Perhaps in the years down the road, but not in the near-term. While bison will continue to freely roam Yellowstone, only a lucky few will get their ears punched -- literally, for tagging purposes -- to move north out of the park when winter's deep snows tell them it's time to head to the low country. That vast, vast majority of others will be shipped to slaughter, as were 1,276 from Stevens Creek this past winter.
The agreement also does nothing to address the matter of elk transmitting brucellosis to livestock, instances of which some suspect have already occurred. Of course, it must be remembered that this deal was negotiated under the auspices of the "Interagency Bison Management Plan," not a "brucellosis management plan." And that's a crucial flaw with this whole process.
Thursday's deal will be criticized. One has to question its prudence, particularly in light of the low number of bison that will be allowed onto the Royal Teton Ranch next winter while hundreds and hundreds more very possibly, if not almost certainly, will be trucked off to the slaughterhouse. And let's not forget what the Government Accountability Office said earlier this month in picking apart progress, or lack thereof, on the bison management plan these past eight years:
Even if the agencies improve their management and fully implement the current plan through step three, we believe the controversies will continue, in part because critical underlying differences among agency mandates, management philosophies, and political interests have not been resolved," the GAO says. "In addition, the plan lacks clearly defined, measurable objectives to guide the agencies bison management actions, and the agencies are not adequately applying an adaptive management approach in implementing the plan.
Moreover, the agencies’ implementation of the plan has remained fragmented, because no single entity is accountable for coordinating and steering the management, research, and resolution of these bison-related issues. In addition, the agencies’ management lacks the accountability and transparency expected by the public and Congress. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to spend millions of dollars on uncoordinated management and research efforts, with no means to ensure that these efforts are focused on a common outcome that could help resolve the controversies.
Because the plan is not a brucellosis eradication plan, concerns about brucellosis transmission will still require the agencies to actively manage bison moving from the park into Montana, even if they fully implement all steps of the plan. Given these realities, improvements in the partner agencies’ implementation of the plan, including more systematic application of an adaptive management approach, could contribute greatly to helping address the larger brucellosis issue in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Multiple recent suspected transmissions of brucellosis from elk to cattle in the area have highlighted the importance of addressing this disease in its broader wildlife and ecological context, and doing so could have significant implications for the future management of Yellowstone bison.
Let's hope that those who signed off on that $2.8 million check to the Church Universal and Triumphant didn't do so largely because they so badly wanted some tangible evidence, no matter how small, of progress, and that once the slaughtering resumes next winter criticisms of the deal won't be deafening.
"I think we've been honest about what this deal does and what it doesn't do," said Ms. McNamara. "It's a step forward, and there are more steps to be taken. I think that we can sit here and say no to everything or we can say yes to progress. This is a positive step forward. There will be critics. Every deal has its critics. It's just the way it is. This is a good step."