Homeless on the Range
In the northern Rockies, it's not unusual to see bison ambling about in a roadside pasture. So to a passerby, the herd near Yankee Jim Canyon, about 10 miles north of Yellowstone, probably doesn't merit a second glance. It just looks like twenty-odd female bison and their calves, milling about in a field.
But these bison are special -- and what makes them distinct has put them at the epicenter of an emotional controversy that has divided Montanans and raised troubling questions about wildlife management in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Most of the bison that you see in roadside pens are domestic livestock, and many of them were crossbred with cattle long ago. The largest remaining herd of wild bison in the United States, and the majority of the genetically pure bison alive today, can be found in Yellowstone National Park.
The bison in this pasture are part of two larger groups of about 100 animals each that were captured as they wandered north from Yellowstone beginning in 2005. Under policies designed to protect ranchers' livestock from brucellosis, which causes females to spontaneously abort their calves, the wanderers would ordinarily have faced slaughter -- despite a lack of evidence that wild bison have ever transmitted the disease to cattle.
But instead of killing them, wildlife officials spared this group and rounded them up to take part in a disease study.
The goal was to create a healthy herd of Yellowstone bison that could be used to repopulate the West. But finding a home for the animals has been harder than anticipated. Concerns about undocumented disease, transportation and management costs, and the general ability to properly care for the bison have left officials struggling to find a suitable option for relocating the herd from the federal quarantine facility.
Enter billionaire mogul Ted Turner, North America's largest private owner of bison with some 50,000 animals in his keep, who has offered to shelter the herd at his Flying-D Ranch outside Bozeman -- but with a catch. In return for housing, feeding and caring for the animals for five years, Turner wants to keep the majority of their offspring.
On Thursday, the head of Montana's wildlife agency issued a preliminary approval of the plan to move some or all of the quarantined bison -- 14 could go to a Wyoming state park -- to Turner's ranch early next year. An environmental study must be done first, and then the public will have 30 days to comment on the plan.
For some wildlife officials and conservationists who had hoped to see these animals flourish on public lands, sending them to Turner's ranch represents a letdown -- and, some argue, a slippery slope toward privatizing public resources.
But others argue that it's the only feasible solution, and that the alternative is slaughter. No one else has come up with the cash and a solid plan to house the bison, which still need a home, on the range or otherwise.
AN ALTERNATIVE TO SLAUGHTER
Several hundred years ago, tens of millions of American buffalo roamed the plains. But by the end of the 19th century, only about a thousand of them remained, mostly in captivity. At the low point, just 23 wild bison survived, all in Yellowstone National Park.
Today, there are roughly half a million bison in North America, but 96 percent are privately owned domestic livestock. Many of rest exist in small, intensively managed herds, unable to freely roam. Cattle DNA mixed with the bison bloodline in the early 20th century as the result of a misguided effort to create a "beefalo" with the hardiness of bison and the meat-production properties of cattle.
The untainted Yellowstone herd now numbers about 3,300, and these wild bison are vitally important for the conservation of the species. It's the largest genetically pure herd left in the country, and the only one that has remained continuously wild.
In the early 20th century, brucellosis made its way into Yellowstone's wildlife, courtesy of cattle. Today, the U.S. cattle herd is brucellosis-free, and the disease has also disappeared from most wildlife populations, save for the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
While the actual risk of bison transmitting the disease to cattle -- and what to do about that risk -- is a subject of intense debate (conservation groups maintain that there's no evidence it has ever happened), one thing is certain: Montana's ranchers consider these iconic animals an economic threat.
If the state were to lose its brucellosis-free status, ranchers would have a harder time selling their cattle, causing problems for Montana's $1.5 billion livestock industry. That's why managing Yellowstone's booming bison herd -- whose members are leaving the park in greater numbers to search for winter and spring forage -- has become a quagmire, involving five separate state and federal agencies.
Officials spend days quibbling over minutiae such as how many animals can stand on a particular parcel of land on which specific days of the year. The agencies share responsibility for dealing with bison that "breach" the arcane boundaries drawn on the map. When that happens, the animals are slaughtered or "hazed" back into the park by men with guns on horseback and in helicopters.
Nevertheless, everyone involved agrees that the Yellowstone bison are highly important for conservation of the species. So scientists and bureaucrats began to wonder: What if you could develop a quarantine protocol that would ensure bison were free of brucellosis?
NRDC's Matt Skoglund, a wildlife advocate in the group's Livingston office, explains the plan this way: "There's lots of available suitable bison habitat, so instead of slaughtering them, what if we capture and quarantine them and then send them somewhere to reestablish a native herd?" That was the impetus for the disease study.
Brucella abortus -- the bacteria that causes brucellosis -- can sometimes produce a latent infection, which remains hidden until the animals abort their calves. That makes bison particularly frightening to cattle ranchers, who fear that even buffalo that appear to be disease-free could be secretly harboring the bacteria.
So two scientists -- one from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and the other from USDA's Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service -- devised a quarantine experiment.
The study involved capturing two groups of young bison that migrated across the park boundary and testing them for the bacteria. Those that tested positive for the antibodies to the bacteria -- meaning their bodies were trying to fend off infection -- were killed. Those that tested negative were brought to the pastures on the edge of Yankee Jim canyon. There, they were repeatedly tested until the females had gone through at least one pregnancy cycle of 9.5 months.
The study has largely been a success, at least as far as the quarantine is concerned. Although the disease turned up in some animals within five months of their capture, it did not appear beyond that.
To complete the study, the animals need to be monitored annually for five additional years. If their test results are negative, said Jack Rhyan, the USDA wildlife pathologist who designed the study, "then it demonstrates that quarantine could be utilized to get the bison genetics out of Yellowstone and establish other herds that are pure bison with widely diverse genetics."
In other words, it's possible to create a brucellosis-free herd that could be used to seed other parts of the West with genetically pure wild bison. This spring, 88 bison will be ready for that final phase of the study, which calls for finding a larger habitat.
"We always had our little mantra: These will go to public and tribal herds," said Rhyan, who is based in Fort Collins, Colo. "What we'd love to see is another area like the Henry Mountain region in southern Utah." There, another wild herd, relocated from Yellowstone in the 1940s, is brucellosis-free thanks to a program that tagged infected animals and let hunters pick them off.
The Henry Mountain herd is "a free-ranging herd that's hunted and treated as wildlife," said Rhyan. "That's our ideal."
SEARCHING FOR A SUITABLE HOME
That ideal met harsh reality earlier this year when Montana's wildlife agency called for proposals to relocate the quarantined bison. Only four came in.
Fort Belknap, a tribal reservation in eastern Montana, wanted the buffalo. So did Guernsey State Park in Wyoming and a consortium of zoos led by the Wildlife Conservation Society. And then there was Ted Turner.
An advisory committee made up of representatives from the five bison management agencies reviewed the proposals. Fort Belknap's was too vague, the officials decided. So was the one from the zoos. And the state park proposal was only suitable for a small number of bison -- just 14 out of the 88.
The rest, according to a near-unanimous recommendation of the committee, would go to Turner. The lone dissenting voice on the committee was USDA's Jack Rhyan, who sat in via conference call.
"Turner had the best proposal if you're just grading proposals," Rhyan said. But he felt the animals should go to Fort Belknap, in keeping with the mission to repopulate public or tribal herds.
The committee did decide to give the reservation first dibs on the next group of bison, which will be ready in the spring of 2011. But the current crop must be moved from the quarantine facility by the end of March 2010.
"The bison that have to go this spring will go to Turner," said Marty Zaluski, the state veterinarian for the Montana Department of Livestock, who served on the committee. "Then we're committing the next ones to Fort Belknap. That gives them a year and a half to get ready."
The Turner proposal called for housing the 88 bison on a 12,000-acre parcel southwest of Bozeman, where the Madison River would naturally segregate them from the rest of the 113,000-acre Flying-D ranch.
Russ Miller, general manager for Turner Enterprises, estimates that housing and monitoring the bison for five years would cost roughly $480,000. To offset those costs, the company wants to keep about 190 offspring at the end of that period. The rest would go back to the public.
Under the original Turner plan, Miller said, "They start off with 88 animals with which they can do nothing, and they end up with 150 animals that are free for distribution to wherever they determine toward the best conservation purposes."
Miller said the offspring might be kept completely separate from Turner's commercial bison, or they could be used to increase the genetic diversity of those livestock herds -- or mixed with animals from another pure bison herd that Turner owns, to augment the genes of both populations. Those decisions would be up to geneticists from Texas A&M University, he said. "We recognize the value and uniqueness of these genetics."
Zaluski, the state veterinarian, described Turner's ranch as "a temporary holding area" for the bison that will return to the public domain. "Everyone in that room agreed that the top priority is the completion of the study," he said. "We need to be able to prove we don't have Brucella hiding out in female bison. The conservation value would be negated if we couldn't finish it."
But some Montanans aren't buying it. Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, a local group representing hunters and conservationists, worries that letting Turner keep any of the bison amounts to the "selling of wildlife" that should belong to everyone, not just wealthy landowners.
"We've been talking about reintroducing bighorn sheep," Hockett said during a board meeting at a Bozeman bakery. "People could say, you can do the reintroduction on my land if you give me some of the offspring."
As an alternative, the group has suggested that the state house the bison on designated wildlife management areas currently used to graze cattle.
In a letter to the Casper Star-Tribune, Robert Hoskins, a Wyoming conservationist, argued that the Turner plan was illegal because the government's request for proposals required that the successful applicant agree to specific provisions -- notably, that neither the bison nor their offspring can be used for commercial purposes and that both must remain in the public domain.
In the Bozeman offices of Turner Enterprises, Miller maintained that conservation, like anything else, must be paid for. "We're fronting all the costs and assuming all of the risks," he said, calling the plan a "rational blend of conservation with capitalism."
"If conservation is solely reliant on either philanthropy or tax dollars," he said, "I don't think it's as secure as if it has some ability to pay for itself."
Until the Montana wildlife agency conducts its environmental assessment and reviews public comments, the fate of the quarantined bison remains uncertain.
"The original objective was to determine if this quarantine process is feasible for addressing some of the bison coming out of Yellowstone," said Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife for the agency. "But it's only a valid process if you have somewhere to put them. Now we have these bison we have to have a home for.
"In hindsight, that probably should have been addressed beforehand."