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Bison Hazing Operations Inside Yellowstone National Park Fuel Controversy


Bison, young and old, are forced by hazing operations to swim the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. Buffalo Field Campaign photo.

Friday could mark the last day this season of bison hazing operations in Yellowstone National Park, although controversy over the hazing likely will linger much longer.

The operations are being conducted under the terms of a 9-year-old agreement that included preparation of an environmental impact statement. Nevertheless, is the National Park Service adhering to its guiding mission of preserving natural resources unimpaired by participating in a project that has led to injured bison and which tries to overcome the animals' migratory instincts?

The hazing is authorized under the Interagency Bison Management Plan that federal, state and local authorities hashed out back in 2000. Under that plan, brokered by the state of Montana, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the goal was to come up with a way to prevent Yellowstone bison from spreading brucellosis to cattle beyond the park's borders. (There has, however, been no documented case of such a transmission, although there have been suspected transmissions from elk to livestock.)

That agreement hasn't been overly successful over its life. It was about a year ago when the federal Government Accountability Office said the state and federal governments had exhibited a poor record in their efforts to battle brucellosis. Specifically, the GAO noted that the Interagency Bison Management Plan had been a failure on numerous fronts and the involved agencies needed to develop a better solution.

The GAO report not only said the various agencies were at times dysfunctional, but also noted that the management plan was just that -- a management plan, not an eradication plan. "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," the report said.

Which brings us to this year's hazing, which sounds vaguely reminiscent of operations on Yellowstone's Northern Range back in the early 1960s to manage the park's burgeoning elk herd. Those efforts involved helicopters herding thousands of elk to their deaths. The story caught wind nationally, in part because of the fact that some elk broke legs trying to flee the helicopters and had to be killed 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 animal with a hand-ax," read one account in Sports Afield. John Varley, now retired from his job as Yellowstone's chief of research, in 1997 vividly recalled the images that fanned public outrage.

"It had a real Vietnam look to it," he said at the time. "A lot of helicopters, a lot of rifles. After that started getting televised, I think every school in America wrote their congressmen."

Today's bison hazing is not anywhere close to being on the same scale, but the scenes still are troubling in that they are coming from inside the world's first national park, a park that presumably is a sanctuary for wildlife. Helicopters from the state of Montana at times are flying as low as 20 feet or so above ground inside the park to push herds of bison ranging in size from 200-250 animals as much as a dozen miles into the park's interior, according to Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.

The bison, young and old, are forced to cross the Madison River, which is running high with snow melt.

The park spokesman maintains nothing improper is being done.

“As we have for several years, there is nothing new about our hazing operations on the west side of the park this year. It is in conjunction with our interagency partners under the Interagency Bison Management Plan," Mr. Nash said Friday morning. "Nothing different than we’ve done for several years. Moving bison from outside to inside. And moving them to locations inside the park where we believe that there is good forage that will keep them within the park boundaries.”

He would not, however, respond specifically to whether these operations conflict with the Park Service's mission under the National Park Service Organic Act.

“This is part of our agreement under the 2000 EIS with our interagency partners, whose goals are to conserve a viable wild bison population, and mitigate the risks for transmission of brucellosis,” replied Mr. Nash. "There is limited tolerance for bison outside the park. We entered into this agreement several years ago after years of acrimony and legal challenges.”

In trying to see the hazing end, the Buffalo Field Campaign focuses on vividly portraying the ground operations. In a release Thursday the group's executive director, Dan Brister, says Yellowstone officials are allowing "agents on horseback and the (Montana Department of Livestock's) helicopter to force wild bison off the ground they choose to be on, right in front of the eyes of park visitors."

"Buffalo have been run for miles without rest, water, or time to nurse; chased across swollen rivers, through thick mud flats, fallen timber, paved roads, and dusty trails," he adds. In some cases, calves have suffered broken legs.

Mr. Nash had no information of calves being injured, though he did say a cow with a broken leg was spotted Thursday on U.S. Forest Service land outside the park in Montana. But he added that bison break their legs under natural conditions, as well.

“I ... see animals in the Lamar Valley with broken legs. I saw a couple there a couple of weeks ago, bison. We haven’t done any hazing in the Lamar Valley," he said.

Back at the Buffalo Field Campaign, officials see nothing normal about the hazing operations on the park's west side.

"It is a centuries-old, cattle industry driven war against wildlife," they say.


Madcow ranchers "cannot cleanup their own act with Madcow Disease"  All across the West, ranchers
have been trashing streams and native vegetation on public lands  claiming "their rights through
wealthy Republican congressional lobbying" and
decimating many forms of wildlife.  Exotic cattle and domestic sheep have introduced diseases to our
native species including myriad weed seeds all across the West. Consider how cheat grass
now dominates all disturbed public and private lands.  The Yellowstone Bison need extensive
winter range and there needs to be a serious effort to acquire these habitats since the NPS
clearly has no interest in protecting national park wildlife from the Almighty Rancher Interests.
It is tragic how The NPS does not defend its own natural resources from outside park
boundary neighborhood rancher bullys and thugs.

As much as I want to weigh in in righteous indignation, the fact is I eat beef.   I don't GET to have an opinion in this matter in the same way people who don't VOTE don't get to have a credible opinion about politics.   I eat hamburgers and therefore I DIRECTLY support the bison hazing.  I am a part of the problem.  I directly support the greedy, redneck rancher leeches who talk out of both sides of their entitled mouths to get what they want.   Yeeech!.  I am in bed with those people... But at the end of the day..."Welcome to McDonald's may I take your order?"Me-I'll have a number #1 and supersize me.

montana ranchers,sta out of yellowstone,how much do you pay the gov. for grazing rights on fed land...get over it,and leave the buffalo alone,you rats.....

These ranchers get all kinds of breaks to the detriment of the environment. The get subsidies from state and federal governments, and are allowed to move their herds on public land wherever there's grass. It's the cattle that are the invasive species, not the native bison who actually belong there. Just because park officials have been doing their hazing "for several years" doesn't make it a sound practice. If the ranchers want to control disease it might be wise to better control their cattle. I stopped eating beef some time ago and I don't regret it.

I agree. The farmers are my VERY LAST concern.

Brucellosis is trasmitted to cattle through ingestion of placentas and/or a newborn. Unless those cattle care munching on bison calves there isn't much danger of the disease being transmitted. Only 5% of our nation's beef comes from cattle in the west. It wouldn't really have a huge impact on our beef industry. Besides, bison is healthier to eat. Those ranchers should just let the bison wander over and raise them instead!

1. Even if the cattle industry arguments had any merit (they don't, but that's a longer discussion), there are no cattle on Horse Butte any time of the year. It's a freaking peninsula; there are no cattle owners. Private property owners repeatedly have their space invaded by the Department of Livestock to remove bison they don't mind having on their property.

2. A lot of hazing goes on within Yellowstone National Park; the state issue is used as a convenient excuse for their own crimes against buffalo. When Yellowstone National Park is serious about protecting wild buffalo, they will withdraw from the IBMP, they will stop operating their Stephens Creek capture facility in the north, they will stop capturing calves and shipping them to quarantine, they will stop hazing within national park boundaries. Until then, their victim card that they like to play (if we don't do it, Montana will slaughter buffalo) rings hollow.

I have a lot more to say but no time now to say it.

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

I may be wrong, but aren't our national parks created for the land and wildlife to be able to revert back to it's natural undisturbed past. It's kinda like the wolves, farmers fought to keep them from coming back and the same for other species across the country. Farmers should be the last to be concerned for, let them get their livestock vaccined. As for the wolf problem....what would the real farmers 100 years ago done, watch their herds and manage their risks???? Seems like the solution to me...maybe I'm crazy! It only took how many years to get the Bison to come back from the brink of gone for good...which was done by farmers turned fur traders...Hum????

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