You may have heard how disease hit Yellowstone's buffalo population pretty hard, but it's worse than you think: Over half of Yellowstone's bison population is dead. Kaput. Gone. Over 1,600 were hunted or sent to slaughterhouses as part of the park service's controversial anti-brucellosis program. But another 700 starved or died within the park because of a particularly harsh winter.
All told, the park estimates its bison herd has dropped from 4,700 in November to about 2,300 as of today. As a reaction, the park service is halting its annual slaughter program, which seeks to prevent the spread of the disease to livestock in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Brucellosis can cause miscarriages, infertility and reduced milk production in domestic cattle, but some buffalo advocates say there's little evidence proving that bison can transmit brucellosis to cows.
"There has never been a slaughter like this of the bison since the 1800s in this country, and it's disgusting," said Mike Mease of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group seeking to stop the slaughter program for good.
Ranchers have little tolerance for bison outside the park, and have aggressively sought to manage the herds to protect the sale of Montana beef.
"Montana has spent millions of dollars over the years to get brucellosis eradicated from our livestock," said Martin Davis, who has a cattle ranch within roaming distance north of the park. "And to put that in jeopardy -- no one wants that to happen. (...) "Bottom line is, there's too many of them. They've got to be managed. They ran out of pasture. ... They're eating themselves out of house and home."
The park service, meanwhile, is caught in the middle.
"The plan requires all of us to do two things: protect a viable wild bison population and reduce the risk of transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle. We're required to keep bison and cattle separate," National Park Service spokesman Al Nash said. "Bison are bison. Bison are nomadic animals. Bison are looking for food. Food is difficult and scarce to come by at the end of the winter. They're leaving the interior of the park [and going] to lower places, in part, to look for food. There's limited tolerance for bison outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park."
Bison have shown resiliency in the past, so there's hope the Yellowstone population can bounce back. But the standoff between conservationists and ranchers is unlikely to be solved anytime in the near future.
— Ted Alvarez