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Brucellosis Solution: Kill All Elk and Bison in Yellowstone National Park


AN Oklahoma newspaper believes all of Yellowstone's elk and bison should be killed in the name of brucellosis eradication.

Here's a novel solution to the woes Montana's livestock industry suffers from elk and bison in Yellowstone National Park: Kill them all. Yup, that's the panacea being promoted by an Oklahoma newspaper.

In an editorial published Monday, the Norman Transcript says the slaughter of the park's elk and bison is a logical solution to the spread of brucellosis, which can cause infected cattle to abort their fetuses. While the newspaper's scribes say the domestic livestock industry has come close to eradicating the disease, it adds that "the biggest impediment to total eradication is the presence of disease in the elk and bison herds in Yellowstone Park."

"If these wild beasts were miraculously turned into cattle, privately owned, there is no doubt we collectively, would require that the herds be eradicated ... slaughtered. Matter of fact, the law would demand it."

And then there's this passage:

No one disputes the grandeur, tradition and emotional connection of these mighty beasts to the West, but they have now become sickened. Typhoid Marys of the Range. Beautiful Yellowstone Park now stands as a pustule disseminating disease like Old Faithful spewing its sulfurous water, every time an infected cow elk or buffalo drops an aborted fetus.

Now, the newspaper doesn't mention that domestic cattle transmitted brucellosis to the park's elk and bison in the first place. And it doesn't touch on the elk and bison in nearby Grand Teton National Park. Nor does it detail how such a killing program would be carried out. After all, many of the estimated 30,000 elk that summer in Yellowstone also disperse into the surrounding forests in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. How would anyone know when all the brucellosis-infected elk are dead?

Nor does the paper mention any cost estimates of such a slaughter, nor any that might involve keeping domestic cattle out of elk and bison grazing areas or tied to development of a workable vaccine. And the paper doesn't mention how, once all the elk and bison are killed and replaced with disease-free elk and bison, brucellosis would not be retransmitted to them from cattle.

No, without fretting the details the paper sees this solution as a no-brainer, a cure-all. Once the slaughter is complete, the park could be repopulated with healthy bison and elk, it says.

"So in 10 years or so, the USDA might be able to say with some credibility, that the United States is Brucellosis Free. And all of us would say, "It's about time." it concludes.


Kyle, Yellowstone wolves began killing bison about two years after their reintroduction and have since killed quite a few. In fact, some wolves have become specialists in the task of killing bison during winter when they are most vulnerable. They do not just kill injured bison.

The bison are not prey of the wolf the only bison the wolves eat are the ones that winter kill or are already severly injured i would love to see a pack of wolves take on a herd of healthy bison and actually kill one.

yeah you are right those cattle are grazing on fedral lands but those cattle are what are keeping your costs at your local grocery store down not only that fedral lands are set up for ranchers because in the 30s those were the lands that were not good enough to make a living on. and the government is not supposed to own land anyway.

well i guess i figure if it can be transmitted to humans then it must be safe to say it can be transmitted to cattle. not only that yellowstone national park was only supposed to have 350-450 bison on it and now there is over 3000 there, so why not get rid of the ones that test postive and have a clean healthy bunch that dont have to starve to death because of over population.

Not to mention, when we are killing all these elk and bison, what exactly are the bears, wolves, mountain lions, eagles and coyotes going to be eating? My guess would be cattle. Then the demand will come up: we must kill all the predators! Soon the greatest intact temperate ecosystem remaining in North America will be no more. Only a memory. A story to tell our grandchildren. Yellowstone will stand, much like the Monument Geyser Basin, as a great shadow of what once was. Slowly the economies of three states will start to dry up, as hunters, wildlife watchers and photographers will no longer swarm to Yellowstone with their millions of eco-tourist dollars. Some will still come for Old Faithful, but for most people facing ever increasing travel costs, Yellowstone will just be another of many pretty places, one that is somewhat out of the way.
Every year they slaughter hundreds of bison that leave the park and send the meat off to food banks and Native Americans WITHOUT TESTING IT! This shows clearly just how big a danger to humans brucellosis really is in the modern world (not very). There is a logical solution to this problem. It lies with APHIS and in changing their antiquated, outdated rules.
Regarding Yellowstone herds being too large: I spent a couple days in the Tetons recently. On my way down there (and back) I drove from the north gate of Yellowstone to the south (early AM on the way down, late afternoon/evening on the way back). With the exception of a dozen or so elk in among the buildings in Mammoth, I saw a grand total of six bison (down and back...4 and 2). That's wildlife. In the Tetons I saw about 2-300 bison, several herds of elk, 6 moose, one grizzly bear, one beaver, three bald eagles and a herd of pronghorn. I spoke with an outfitter I ran into down there (eco-tourism) and he told me that they no longer even offer wildlife tours of Yellowstone anymore, because they can't find any wildlife to show their clients. All such tours are now in the Tetons, he said.
As for bison hunting: Montana already has bison hunting. Now all we need is year around bison HABITAT. Then we can actually have bison to hunt, in a legitimate, fair chase. Not a stand-on-the-border-of the-park-and-shoot-any-animal-that-crosses-the-line-looking-for-food-not buried-under-the-ice-hunt.

Jim Macdonald et al;

We will know that the buffalo have recovered and are safe, when they take their place beside other large herbivores in the State Hunting Regulations. As the animal spreads from its present restricted locations it will become a valued & sought-after big-game species.

Indeed, experience in Yellowstone shows that it is important to thin & control buffalo, to forestall several problems. Their instinct to form into large, dense herds makes them extra-picturesque, but it also exacerbates a range of issues that naturally arise with large grazing animals. Heavy trampling-impact, over-grazing, disease-transmission, among other challenges ... most of which can be readily ameliorated by hunting.

I realize that many who read The National Parks Traveler are not hunters, and some oppose hunting on philosophical grounds. However, to reach the goal we all share, of expanding the habitat available to maintain or restore especially the larger species which have been excessively reduced or extirpated, it is crucial to integrate multi-purpose lands into a broader & larger habitat-management perspective. It is unrealistic to expect that as a general case, such expanded management practices will entail any Park-like ban on hunting. Indeed, hunting remains under discussion even for some Park situations.

There is an Alaska buffalo hunt. Their herd is maintained at 400-500 head. It was established in the 1920s, in the vicinity of Delta Junction. Later (1970s), an agricultural development of some 10s of thousands of acres was created in the same area (for much the same reasons it was selected for the buffalo herd). Conflicts between the herd and the barley farmers have lead to valuable experience with the challenge of maintaining such a commanding species in the presence of economic & infrastructure assets. The Delta herd also shows that a population of Plains Buffalo can be maintained within a designated area, and not spread elsewhere. These are important precedents, for those who would like to see buffalo more-widely reintroduced.

It may be a significant side-thread of this topic, that Alaska is actively investigating the prospect of re-introducing Wood Buffalo (extirpated there). This species is still available in Canada. They differ from Plains Buffalo in lacking the strong herding instinct. They scatter on the land, and are better-adapted to use brushy & forested habitat ('the woods'). They are also significantly larger than the Plains variety.

It is probably worth bearing in mind that in most of the potential habitat that we have available for bison, Wood Buffalo would be a better natural bet than the Plains type, and would probably pose less of a management challenge.

Good timing on this - there's an extremely thorough analysis of the brucellosis issue by Patrick Klemz in the Missoula Independent. Having not been a fan of Patrick's last effort on this earlier this year, I think this piece is a far more balanced view on the controversy and all the ins and outs of it from a wide variety of perspectives.

See Bigger game: The state’s livestock industry wants to eradicate brucellosis from Yellowstone, but more than the bison stand in the way. How far will Montana ultimately go for healthy cows?, published on September 4, 2008. My friend Glenn is used extensively as a resource on the wildlife advocate side of things.

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

I've been away on vacation camping in Grand Teton and Yellowstone; this is the first chance I've commented on this. As someone who is an activist on this issue, is allied with friends in Buffalo Field Campaign, and has started a group this year in Bozeman, I feel the need to weigh in on the issue. Obviously, the editorial itself is built on a fallacy so obvious I don't feel the need to comment, but I do feel the need to react to Ted's comments above and in a general way to some of the other comments below.

First of all, to the general tenor of remarks about buffalo as a food source, I have to point out that what we in this area promote is the idea that buffalo are wildlife, i.e., not domestic. What Ted Turner does nearby does not fit the model of what most buffalo advocates here want because Turner's buffalo are raised like cattle and then marketed for consumption. The idea is that a restored bison population is one that is more than a restoration of numbers. It is a restoration of habitat, a restoration of respect for buffalo as wildlife, and that comes with a lot of consequences to the way that land is currently used in places like Montana. It's not an anti-hunting agenda; it is, however, against (there are individuals exceptions to this view amongst advocates) accepting what Ted Turner is doing as a viable alternative to a wild and free ranging buffalo population.

Now, I want to turn to Ted.

It's tricky to be sure what we are actually dealing with, and what the possible choices are with regard to Brucellosis in Yellowstone, because both sides in the debate are untrustworthy & devious on the topic.

Ted, I'm not sure what you mean by this. At our tables, for instance, I try my best always to point people to the sources of information on brucellosis that don't come simply from groups like Buffalo Field Campaign. There is a wide ranging discussion on this and not consensus on every fine particular of the debate. As a whole, it is safe to say that buffalo advocates regard brucellosis as a red herring issue, that we believe that given bison management in practice, that brucellosis is not the reason for the persecution of buffalo (given that buffalo are killed in areas where there are no cattle, where the public in areas want the buffalo, that elk in fact are not controlled and kept from cattle in most areas, etc.) In as much as brucellosis is an issue for some ranchers, we believe that the onus is on them to protect their livestock and not on everyone else to control wildlife as though it is domesticated. In fact, many argue that this can be done at much lower cost than current management plans. Brucellosis is the cost of doing business. If it were such an egregious cost, you wouldn't still have so many ranchers. If it were such an egregious cost, then none of them would allow elk to feed with their cattle. Yet, they do. I could go on and on.

Wikipedia's Brucellosis entry emphasizes that the disease transmits to humans and is serious. By inference, the more-fundamental threat to the cattle industry than the direct effects of the disease on cattle, is that infected herds would have to be destroyed, to forestall the threat of transmission to consumers.

Well, this isn't accurate as it currently exists. The easiest counter-example I can draw from is from this year where cattle in the Paradise Valley got brucellosis. Livestock officials - not wildlife advocates - were quick to point out how safe the meat was, even meat that may have been infected with brucellosis. Here is a quote from an AP story: "Brucellosis persists in wild animals including bison and elk in the greater Yellowstone area. It can cause pregnant cows to abort their calves, but transmission to humans is rare. Consuming animals with the disease is not considered dangerous, state officials said." Schweitzer says the same thing in another article. The television news had a long story about how the meat was safe and that the only people at risk potentially were meat handlers. Here is another counter-example. Many bison sent to slaughter are never tested at all for brucellosis - they are not tested before or after the slaughter. However, the meat is given to Indian tribes as well as to food banks. No one requires a test for brucellosis for elk that are hunted in Montana. I haven't heard of a single case of undulant fever caused by brucellosis.

Herds are destroyed en toto because of outdated APHIS rules, not because of any realistic threat.

But, even if there were ... well, let's move on ...

There is a large U.S. Centers for Disease Control Brucellosis FAQ, which shows that the situation with this disease is broader & more complex than the Yellowstone Park dispute.

Will killing all elk & buffalo in Yellowstone free humanity (or even America) from the Brucella germ? No. It is a diverse problem, and global.

There has been a long war against brucellosis; and yes, eradicating brucellosis in Yellowstone wouldn't end the problem.

Are the herds of Yellowstone too large? By a large margin. "Ridiculous", if the mission is to preserve a 'natural habitat'. Instead, we have effectively the "Yellowstone Elk & Buffalo Ranch".

I don't disagree with this; however, this is something that's in wide dispute outside and inside the buffalo advocacy community. For instance, consider this. The National Park Service has said repeatedly since the late 1960s that they didn't believe that Yellowstone was overgrazed by elk, bison, and everything else. They argued that if it were, you would see an irruption of the species followed by a steep decline. Since that never happened, then they argued that Yellowstone never reached its carrying capacity. I have been heavily influenced by an ecological scientist named Frederic Wagner, however, who argues that the northern range (the only part of Yellowstone where there has been significant study on this issue) has been overgrazed by elk - not by bison, because their numbers have never been allowed to get very high.

Now, this is where this gets us nowhere in settling the argument. The Park Service isn't killing elk at all (unless one considers the reintroduction of wolves to be an elk reduction program, which is not what they say it was). They are killing lots of bison, but they don't do so because of range management considerations but because of brucellosis. Some buffalo advocates accept the NPS argument about range and suggest that as one less reason to be killing buffalo. The argument goes that buffalo are nearly extinct and reducing numbers makes no sense for an endangered herd on a range that could support more buffalo. However, I and others like me who are buffalo advocates think that Yellowstone is completely out of whack when it comes to the wildlife restricted to such a small area. The answer for me is to allow buffalo to increase into their historic range and to manage them (if "manage" is even the right word) as wildlife as we do any other species that wanders out of the park. Then, you can have hunts or whatever, but you stop treating them like people treat cattle. The lack of range, then, is an argument not to cull herds, but to allow herds to expand. So, no matter where you stand on the range issue, it doesn't make sense to kill Yellowstone buffalo.

Would some like to see the ranching outside Yellowstone reduced or ended, so that overly-large populations of animals can be better-supported by having exclusive access to non-Park grazing lands? It does seem so.

Yes, of course. This is an argument first and only about grass and who gets it. Domestic abuse of cows on range land as commodity for slaughter is no rationale to keep bison off the grass. And, the livestock industry, who has a completely different idea on the use of grass and its purpose, see bison as direct competitors. They also see elk that way, but they cannot get traction on that because people in Montana value having their wildlife - and no one will deny that elk are wildlife; they get confused by buffalo (in part because operations like Ted Turner's).

Grass is the issue; ideology over the use of grass and who owns the grass ... it's not at all about brucellosis. But, it's a lot of smoke to clear up.

Are the picturesque buffalo & elk herds being managed with a view firstly to tourism-values, and only secondarily in accordance with solid wildlife science? Sure. Many visitors report that their priority in coming to the Park, is to see the elk & buffalo. More normal population levels would be more-dispersed and much less visible. People see them readily, only because they are over-crowded.

And, that's an improvement over the Albright years when buffalo were kept in a fence close to the road and fed hay so that people could see them. People complain on blogs every day if they see too many or too few buffalo -- if the buffalo in the road keeps them from getting somewhere else or if there aren't enough wildlife to capture with a picture. I read them every single day as I read dozens and dozens of blogs that people put out about their travels to Yellowstone.

But, we have to note something that the philosopher Alston Chase noted years ago when he wrote Playing God in Yellowstone, namely that Yellowstone is not an intact ecosystem. And, even if it were, ecosystems themselves are not closed systems. We cannot pretend that Yellowstone National Park is intact; the boundaries are arbitrary. There is no reason to put up a border to stop and control their movements and their numbers.

The dominant token on this game-board appears to be the hope that by having over-large populations of these major herbivores, the chronic feed-shortage will disperse them seasonally into more & larger areas surrounding the Park, maintaining an implied pressure to treat regions surround the Park as though they are extensions of the Park ... when actually, they're not.

I actually hope they'll expand further and that they pose a never-ending challenge to our assumed land use ideology. However, if there is any place where areas outside the park are a lot like areas in the park, it's in Yellowstone because there are a lot of wilderness areas and areas that are nearly managed like wilderness areas. I have a friend in the Gallatin Wildlife Association named Glenn Hockett, who routinely travels with a map of the area. He knows the ranchers, he knows the allotments, and traveling with him is a treasure where I learn so much. Glenn makes a very convincing argument that there are some very natural boundaries of bison expansion in the area; he points out the natural "buffalo jump" in Tom Miner Basin, for instance. I think he's wrong, that buffalo would find ways beyond those boundaries, but he at least makes a case that in the interim that buffalo would be manageable wildlife with clear winter and summer ranges, that those of us who would rather deal in philosophical and ideological extremes might not need to do so. What's more, a lot of people in this area would like to see that.

Then, perhaps, the park would begin to look more like what's outside of it and vice versa. I don't want the place I love the most to be simply a zoo of curiosities. I know that it's much more than that, and we are caging it up.

This is an example of the 'halo' idea - that Parks need to be surrounded by an ever-widening 'halo'-zone which falls effectively under Park-management, even though they are not Park and may actually have long histories of other usage.

There's no need for this halo to be under park management. Geez. That's the last thing that most of us would want, whether extremists like me, or more middle of the road types.

The herds of Yellowstone ought to be a lot smaller than they are. That would greatly reduce the risk that diseased animals would travel far and thus expose domestic livestock to their disease. It would also take away a tourist-attraction (great masses of large animals in plain view), and disarm those who aim to use elk & bison to create an enlarged 'virtual' Yellowstone Park.

I'm not sure what you are getting at here. But, the shift in your argument from brucellosis to range management, I hope I have shown, has more to it than it seems. And, no matter what, there is no reason to keep wild buffalo from being wild - whatever boundaries happen to be in the way.

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

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