Early on a March morning, about 75 bison grazed peacefully inside a fenced enclosure at the Stephens Creek bison operations facility in Yellowstone National Park, unaware that their final journey was about to begin.
Towards the end of each winter the bison tire of shoveling snow with their massive heads in an effort to find a few morsels of dried out grasses, mostly devoid of nutrition, to munch upon. Often the snow is high enough to reach the bison’s belly and so they are moving several feet of cold, white stuff aside in order to graze in the cleared area. Then they repeat the process over and over again. At this point, the bison family groups typically begin their long trek out of the park to lower elevations where there is little to no snow, and they often end up outside of the park’s northern range, in Gardiner, Montana.
A large number of bison, nearly 40 percent, carry a disease that can be transmitted to domestic cattle -- brucellosis. To date there have been no documented cases of bison transmitting the disease to cattle, but that doesn’t mean it could not happen. Elk, however, have been linked to brucellosis outbreaks in cattle.
In 1995 the state of Montana, concerned that bison venturing out of the park near calving time could spread brucellosis to herds of cattle, sued the National Park Service. The judge presiding over the case required Montana and Yellowstone to come to an agreement of their own, rather than letting the court decide.
Over the course of the next five years the parties negotiated, returning to the judge multiple times to say that they could not agree. And the judge sent the two parties right back out to find a solution, which they did in 2000. This agreement states that Yellowstone must limit the number of bison that roam in the park to 3,000 animals.
Today, Yellowstone is home to approximately 5,000 bison and for the past several years park officials have tried to reduce the numbers to comply with their agreement with Montana.
According to Rick Wallen, the park's bison manager, the Park Service would prefer to use tribal and private hunting outside of the park to cull the bison herds, but that method is only minimally effective, with only 350 to 400 animals killed each year.
Bison have high survival rates, with few predators capable of killing them, and with calves born each spring, the herds increase by 12-17 percent each year. This means that if the park were to meet its 2016 goal of killing between 600 and 900 bison by March 31st, it is likely that there would be little to no reduction in the population.
However, we do not know how many pregnant cows are killed each year, and the unborn calf is not counted when tallying the total number of bison killed. Five-hundred pregnant cows would mean eliminating close to 1,000 bison, depending on calf survival rates, so one could argue that if the remaining animals killed were bulls and they met the 900 goal, the total number removed from the population would be closer to 1,400 and we could still end up with 5,000 bison at the end of 2016 if a lot of “red dogs” were born to the remaining cows.
In an attempt to reduce the bison herds and comply with the agreement, Yellowstone is currently hauling several hundred animals to slaughter, after which the meat is distributed to different tribes. According to different Park Service personnel, the bison capture and slaughter operation is a "last-resort" kind of effort to comply with the lawsuit's settlement and to keep their numbers down; it's not at all preferred or looked forward to by the rangers that must do those jobs.
Waiting To Be Processed
Seventy-five bison cows, calves and bulls grazed peacefully in the nearby fenced pasture, unaware that their serenity, and their lives, were about to end. Not far away, four horsemen and a white Ford Bronco began making their way to the north end of the pasture. The bison, which had been lured into the pasture with feed, gave them passing glances but had no reason to believe that humans, horse, or cars would harm them.
The horsemen and Bronco entered the pasture. Some of the bison, those closest to the intruders, began to twitch their tails in irritation, while others barely noticed.
Horses and Bronco in position, the gate to the pasture closed and the horses lunged forward, their riders waving their hands, yelling and whistling. Not all of the bison reacted right away, but when they did it was a mad rush to get through the only opening in front of them, taking them to the next pen and closer to their deaths.
One-by-one the bison were herded by rangers on catwalks overhead through the bull pen and into the wooden chute where they waited their turn for processing. As one cow, calf, or bull left, another was prodded into the “squeeze chute,” which, until squeezed upon the animal, was large enough for the orneriest of them to do some bucking and jumping with their tails raised like flags on the battlefield.
The clanging and banging of the metal chute as the bison fought their trap echoed through the picturesque park valley below Electric Peak. Once their head fit through the opening at the end of the chute, it was squeezed in on them and held the animals fairly still while the biologists gave them numbers, drew their blood, put ear tags on their right ears, and weighed them. From a distance, it seemed, that some of the animals reacted calmly to the biologist and it was easy to imagine him talking in soothing tones to the bison. The calves, nearly a year-old, were so tiny in the chute, most of them weighing 300 to 400 pounds, and it was not difficult to think how unfair that they do not get to live their life. Or, of the unborn calves that get no life at all.
A wrangler shouted "800" from the other side of the squeeze chute, meaning pounds on the first cow, and that signaled that she was done, the processing finished, and she would have a few more hours to stand around with the rest of the herd.
Once they left the squeeze chute, the bison traveled down a long, narrow hallway of sorts, until they reached a gate that blocked their path, directing them to their home for the night. Calves in one pen, their mothers across the hallway in a pen of their own. The bulls further down, in several pens, to prevent fighting and injury.
All of the pens are surrounded by tall sheets of wood so that the bison are not distracted and upset by anything going on around them. The pens are designed to make the animals feel safe and stay calm, with fewer chances of injury, until time to be loaded up and hauled away to slaughter.
Approximately 150 bison have walked into the traps and been captured at the Stephens Creek facility through early March, far short of the 300 to 500 bison that the park would like to capture in order to reduce the herd size. Winter has been mild in Yellowstone and so many of the bison have wandered towards the park boundaries, only to turn around and go right back into the park. Yet, as we left the facility, a small group was making its way west and towards the hay that awaited them.
Few Options For National Park Service
The Park Service has few options. It is bound by law to reduce the herd size in Yellowstone. Because of the difficulty in getting ranchers and the state to agree to creating disease-free herds in other areas of Montana, their only option is hauling bison off for slaughter, with the meat feeding the families of native tribes.
Yellowstone’s bison management plan is 15 years old and outdated by the staff's own admission. Currently, efforts are under way on a new plan that will encompass all that has been learned over the years. The park hopes to quarantine disease-free animals for a period of time and then move them to areas throughout the Montana where they might be permitted.
The tribal hunt outside of the park, which is horrifically controversial due to the way it is carried out, under the noses of park visitors and residents, will continue.
No one likes to see bison, the true icon of the West, gunned down as they calmly walk by men with rifles, unaware that danger exists right under their noses. Nor do they like to watch the beautiful animals amble towards their deaths, when approaching Yellowstone's North Entrance and then on to the corrals, when their only crime is trying to find food at the end of winter. Or, to look out their window, early in the morning, and see the silver trailers, pulled by Park Service trucks, taking the bison on their final journey.
But, what few understand, is that the Park Service has no choice in the matter. It must comply with the law. If the bison are to be saved and given more areas to roam, then it is the State of Montana that must allow that. But, yelling at the Park Service and the individuals who must do their jobs does no good; their hands are tied and their options few.
If you love bison, as so many of you do, then get involved and support the park in their quest for a new management plan with innovative solutions that will save our bison.