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They Shoot Bison, Don't They?
Not if Congressman Nick Joe Rahall has his way about how Yellowstone's bison are managed.
And as chairman of the House Resources Committee, the West Virginia Democrat who back in 2003 narrowly saw his legislative effort to halt the slaughter of Yellowstone bison rejected just might get his way this time around.
During the House parks subcommittee oversight hearing today into the management of bison in Yellowstone the congressman made it perfectly clear where he stands on the matter of seeing Yellowstone bison slaughtered as a means to control brucellosis, a disease that can cause domestic cattle to abort their fetuses.
The slaughter of bison is not required in order to manage the threat of disease. Slaughter is not management, Rahall said in prepared comments. It is an approach from a bygone era and has no place in a time of rapid scientific and economic progress. We are capable of more ingenuity and more compassion if we are willing to try.
The grappling over ways to manage brucellosis in Yellowstone's bison herds has been going on for years. Ironically, it's generally accepted that the bison picked up the disease from ... dairy cattle back in 1917. Over the years, bison have been shot, trucked off to slaughter, and even drowned in the name of brucellosis control.
Just a year ago the folks at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility called, tongue-in-cheek, for a new logo for the Interior Department, saying the ongoing killing of Yellowstone bison made it no longer fitting for the existing logo to sport a bison.
The emotions over the killing of Yellowstone bison are such that there was a packed house at today's hearing, which saw testimony from a range of witnesses that included Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and a representative of the Montana Stockgrowers Association as well as a professor from Utah State University's Institute of Political Economy and the director of the Government Accountability Office's natural resources and environment division.
Things are going to get very interesting in Yellowstone this year thanks to the oversight of Representative Rahall's committee, oversight that has been lacking the past seven years under the Bush administration. While today's topic was bison management, don't be surprised if in the not-too-distant future Representative Rahall calls for hearings on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and perhaps even fee increases across the national park system.
Now, on the bison issue Rahall doesn't want to minimize the importance of the livestock industries in Wyoming, Montana or Idaho. Rather, he hopes the outcome of the oversight hearings will be "a path that values both the bison and the cattle."
One of the interesting points made by Robin Nazzaro, who heads the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment branch, was that officials from the park and the three surrounding states are at least four years behind the schedule they established in the Interagency Bison Management Plan.
"A key condition for the partner agencies to progress further under the plan requires that cattle no longer graze in the winter on certain private lands north of Yellowstone National Park and west of the Yellowstone River to minimize the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle; the agencies anticipated meeting this condition by the winter of 2002/2003," she wrote in her report to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
A key point made by both Representative Rahall and Ms. Nazzaro is that there has never been a documented case in the wild of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle.
Just the same, Governor Schweitzer pointed out that both Idaho and Wyoming recently lost their "brucellosis free" status (Wyoming since regained its status) and as a result their livestock industries must conduct "time-consuming and costly measures when they ship cattle from their states."
"My priority is to protect Montana's brucellosis-free status," the governor testified.
To that extent, Governor Schweitzer expressed his frustrations with the federal government's inability to come up with a workable solution.
"I have taken on this issue not because I have in mind a quick fix, or because I have all the answers, but because sustainable solutions are long overdue," he said.
Some of what I would suggest was the most interesting testimony today came from Dr. Charles Kay, a senior research scientist at Utah State University's Institute of Political Economy. He testified not only that there are more bison (roughly 3,600 at last count) and elk in Yellowstone than there have been "at any point in the last 10,000 years," but that the park's northern range simply has become overgrazed.
"As bison numbers have grown, the animals have steadily overgrazed the range," he pointed out. "It should come as no surprise then that bison are simply leaving Yellowstone because the animals are looking for something to eat.
"... My own research has shown that Yellowstone contains some of the worst over-grazed riparian areas of the West," Dr. Kay added a minute later.
As for solutions to this over-population of bison and elk, he suggested the federal government "revisit the Treaties of 1851 and 1868, which predate the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, and under which various tribes already claim hunting rights in Yellowstone. Thus, one way to reduce over-grazing and to keep bison from leaving the park would be to honor the United States' previous commitment to Yellowstone's original owners and allow them to hunt in the park."
Dr. Kay also dismissed suggestions that more grazing land be found for bison north of Yellowstone's border, saying that would simply lead to an even greater bison population, one still carrying brucellosis.
"...During some future winter, instead of 5,000 bison coming out of the park, we would have 10,000 or 15,000 bison heading for Ennis, Livingston and Helena -- bison that would still be infected with brucellosis. This would mean killing even larger numbers of bison or never ending calls for additional land," he predicted.
Also testifying was Tim Stevens, the Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, which sees a four-pronged approach to dealing with bison, brucellosis, and cattle. That approach includes additional bison range north of Yellowstone on land owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant; creating a "brucellosis classification 'sub-region' within the greater Yellowstone region; doing a better job of separating cattle and bison that move out of Yellowstone, and; developing an effective brucellosis vaccine for cattle and bison.
"All four elements are designed to protect the livestock industry while restoring critical bison habitats outside the park, thereby re-establishing a healthy, free-ranging Yellowstone bison population," Stevens testified. "In and around Yellowstone National Park, we still have a chance to restore those habitats before our options close, as they have in so many other national parks across the country."
(Oddly: The testimony of all these witnesses was available at one point this afternoon at the House Resource Committee's website, but it later was taken down. You might keep checking to see if it's reposted.)