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Matt Skoglund’s Blog

With Yellowstone's Bison, Why Aren't the Times A-Changin'?

Matt Skoglund

Posted February 3, 2011

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With 300 wild bison captured earlier this week and many of them now awaiting slaughter, Yellowstone National Park’s annual wildlife tragedy is well underway.  And call me wishfully naïve, but I thought things would be different this year.

The last big slaughter came in 2008, when more than 1,400 bison from Yellowstone’s iconic population were captured and slaughtered.  That same year, the federal Government Accountability Office issued a lengthy report detailing the failings of the federal and state agencies that collectively manage Yellowstone’s bison.  The agencies were put on notice. 

The problem with the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), the multi-agency framework that governs Yellowstone’s bison population, is that its inert state has always been one of inherent conflict. Such conflict stems from the IBMP’s two main goals: conserve a wild, free-roaming bison population and minimize the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle. 

Because some of Yellowstone’s bison carry brucellosis, a bacterial disease that causes pregnant females to miscarry, the conventional wisdom has been that bringing Goal One (conserving a wild, free-roaming bison population) to fruition would detract from Goal Two (minimizing the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison cattle).  As such, one of the two IBMP goals essentially had to be chosen at the expense of the other.

And if you’ve been paying any attention to Yellowstone bison management over the past several years, you know that Goal Two has been – quite literally – kicking Goal One’s ass, as thousands of bison have been hazed back into the Park or slaughtered in the name of brucellosis since 2000.

Yet, as my grandmother used to say about conventional wisdom, you can’t trust it any more than you can a hungry badger.  (Okay, Nana never said that, but she should’ve, as hungry badgers are notoriously untrustworthy.)  Had my grandma said that, she’d have been right, as the conventional wisdom of picking one IBMP goal over the other makes no sense in light of the significant new developments in the Yellowstone bison world.

First, new science shows that a bison-to-cattle brucellosis transmission is extremely unlikely to ever occur.  Brucellosis is primarily transmitted through ingesting birthing materials from an infected animal.  This means there’s a limited window of transmission, the birthing season, which roughly amounts to late winter and spring.  Transmission-prevention practices (i.e., keeping wild bison and domestic cattle separate) are therefore only largely needed during this time.  And because the lands adjacent to Yellowstone remain fairly wintry well into the year, domestic cattle do not arrive for summer grazing until June or July, which constricts the transmission window even more.

Other environmental factors further narrow the transmission window.  The brucella bacteria, the transmission vehicle, is killed by UV rays from the sun.  And by the time cattle show up in June and July, the sun is an efficient brucella-killing machine (i.e., the later into the year you get, the longer and hotter the sun shines, the more quickly brucella gets zapped).  Also, the lands near Yellowstone National Park are crawling with carnivores and scavengers.  Available meat doesn’t last very long on this landscape, which means brucella-infected birthing material also doesn’t last very long.  Simply put, the risk of brucellosis transmission from wild bison to domestic cattle is extraordinarily small.

Second – and this one’s a whopper – the U.S. Department of Agriculture just recently overhauled its brucellosis regulations for the nation’s livestock producers.  Previously, the regulations mandated killing a rancher’s entire herd when an outbreak was discovered – even if only one cow was infected.  And two outbreaks in less than two years meant Montana (or any other state in the same position) lost its brucellosis-free status and thus faced increased red tape and restrictions.  Now that has all changed.

Following an outbreak, so-called “depopulation” of the entire herd is no longer required.  Quarantine, testing, and slaughter of infected animals (with their meat free to enter our food system) is the new protocol.  And states will no longer lose their brucellosis-free status if two outbreaks occur in less than two years.  Brucellosis will be treated like other diseases, with a case-by-case, performance-based approach.  With the bubble of the old brucellosis regulatory hell popped, we’re now in a whole new world for bison and brucellosis (yet, shockingly, the mainstream media articles covering the Yellowstone bison issue never mention this game-changing development).

Third, there are only a handful of cattle producers these days in the “conflict zones” near the Park, and some of these ranchers don’t buy into the whole brucellosis hysteria.  In fact, an article this week reported that neither of the two year-round ranchers on the north side of the Park is concerned about a brucellosis outbreak from bison.  One of the ranchers was even quoted as saying, “We can live with the animals.  Buffalo are part of the overall picture.  If you don't want them, go get a farm in Iowa."

Fourth (now for the “oh, yeah” moment), what about the tens of thousands of wild elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, some of whom also carry brucellosis and have been responsible for the only brucellosis transmissions to cattle in the region in the past decade.  Unlike bison, elk are allowed to roam freely, as they should, but it begs the question: why do we haze and slaughter Yellowstone bison while tens of thousands of elk wander as they please?

The time for increased tolerance for Yellowstone bison outside the Park has arrived.  Thousands of acres of public land are yearning for the return of the thundering hooves of North America’s largest land mammal.  Business owners, hunters and outfitters, Native Americans, landowners, and others want to see wild bison treated like other native wildlife in Montana.  And all governments – federal, state, and local – are looking for ways to cut costs in these dire economic times.

Don’t you think it’s time for your tax dollars to stop funding the needless harassment and slaughter of the icon of the West?


(Photo by Anthony Clark of NRDC.  This article originally appeared in The Bozeman Magpie.)

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MrKnowItAllFeb 3 2011 10:39 PM

Well written article! But why is the brucellosis fairy tale allowed to exist! Dr. Jack Schere, Head of APHIS, says a case of bison to cattle trsmission happened in North Dakota, no,no it was South Dakota, no, no, .......! Matthew Brown, of the Associated Press, prints these references that it coulda, woulda, shoulda, kinda, sorta, orta, like John Youngberg, of Montana Farm Bureau, who is quoted in articles that the timeline between exposure and disease outbreak is unknown! Not from exposure to bison with brucellosis!! The only time a cow produced a titer for brucellosis, from exposure to bison placentas, was in an experiment in 1990's, where the cow was force fed enough afterbirth to qualify her as a TRUE carnivore! There is enough evidence, since 1917, that no bison has given a cow brucellosis, EVER! Now, if we want to talk about FACTS, I am all ears! But everyone, and I mean everyone needs to take a step back, state their position and lets debate the facts. Non profits, for wildlife or cattle, are as much to fault as the Federal, State, and Local Officials. If you listen, you might find out that there is someone who knows why the brucellosis is such a problem at Yellowstone, why it pops up in places in the three states around, and most importantly how to FIX it, step by step, for the wildife and the cattle!!!!!!!

Brian ErtzFeb 3 2011 11:00 PM

brucellosis is the red herring livestock interests use to maintain political supremacy over public lands, public grass, and public wildlife.

rational, interest-based 'realism' has nothing to do with it.

AnnFeb 4 2011 09:32 AM

Hello Mr.K, good to see you!
The following is my comment not directed, but just put out there:

We now have a Brucella out break in Texas. They claim; if I understood it right, that the cows themselves infected themselves, (hick talk for saying no 'outside' host). I will ask again can we be so sure that these cattle around here aren't getting it the same way? Has there been any actual proof it WAS Elk? or is it just proven it was NOT Bison? I have not read anywhere one way or the other.

Very Good Article Matt. Thank you!!

MrKnowItAllFeb 4 2011 02:14 PM

Hey Ann! All of the data, information, or publication, of the sources of brucellosis transmitted to cattle or domesticated bison, around Yellowstone, has ALWAYS been from elk! I have been combing the publications, from the Texas outbreak, and so far no source has been implicated, so I cannot say. I will tell you that I have been blasted by the Texas "rednecks" for reminding them that the reason they did not lose their brucellosis status, is due to the ignorance in the GYA! I have also been on the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, take a look!!! Ha Ha

AnnFeb 4 2011 03:56 PM


I just wasn't sure they had actually, positively, scientifically, proven it was Elk. Thought maybe it was only proven NOT to be Bison so everyone just assumed.

MrKnowItAllFeb 4 2011 04:20 PM

Ann, I try and hold accountable those individuals that misrepresent the facts and make statements that could be considered misleading, As I brought up in my earlier post, when top federal officials do it, reporters from the AP do it, head of major non profit groups do it, then the general public assumes that it is fact. I you asked people across the country if bison could give cattle brucellosis, the overwhelming majority would say YES!

AnnFeb 4 2011 07:11 PM

I agree.
I can't and won't argue the differences in Snowflakes, because I don't know anyone that has lived nor will live for ever to test the theory no two are alike. BUT when it comes to something that CAN be checked, I want answers.
For years I've been asking questions, with no answers from any of the IBMP partners but at least they have changed their antiquated 'slaughter all in proximity' type attitude.
It might be because I have a simple mind, and look for the simple solution first, and to me that would be to keep 'inoculating/contaminating' the Domestic of which there is control. Once the cattle are fixed the wildlife won't matter. I'll still eat Elk and 'wild' bison over beef.

MrKnowItAllFeb 4 2011 11:41 PM

Ann, Ha Ha Ha! Asking questions of anyone from the IBMP is a waste of time! This crowd does not have a clue to what they are doing, period! Ann, what is wrong with a simple mind and simple solutions to complex problems? Such is the case with this brucellosis/bison/cattle, as I have said before. Arrogance and egos have kept this situation going for decades, and I am afraid for many more years to come! Did you read my response to montana rancher in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle? I am still waiting for him to apologize!!! HA HA If I can answer ANY more questions, just let me know!!!!

AnnFeb 5 2011 09:51 AM

YUPPER! I read your posts, and my money is on no appology. Too many are on the defensive, and, just like you say, egos get in the way of fixes. No matter what it is needs fixing.
Thus they 'fix' what isn't broke to keep up the facade.

I keep hoping with the more they are made 'red-faced' in the press, they may 'pony-up' but.....................

That is another reason I tip my hat to Mr. Rate, and Mr. Hoppe the two ranchers by Gardiner. They are not afraid to 'spit in the eye of the snake'.

Daniel (Bob) SnodgrassFeb 5 2011 01:54 PM

What would Teddy Roosevelt do?

A quiet voice from NH reading the many articles on the mismanagement of the bison.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle has a very local flavor, whereas, my comment, well...

I hope the voices of Hank Rate, Bill Hoppe, the Buffalo Field Campaign, the Montana Wildlife Federation and the NRDC prevail over the Montana Stock Growers Association.

Mr. Skoglund, I applaud the work that you do.

Dave ShowalterFeb 10 2011 09:06 AM

Thanks for continuing to shine a light on this outdated policy, Matt. I didn't know about the game changing new brucellosis policy or the ranchers willing to accept bison. Those folks are heroes. It's time to move past the folk tales and give Yellowstone bison freedom to roam.

Spence BenoitFeb 11 2011 10:40 PM

Ann and all others, DNA can be traced from the growth cultures, taken from the tissues, from the infected animal. The DNA then can tell you if the Brucellosis came from Bovinae, Elk, or Buffalo.This is a long process and is of course preformed in a lab. Bet the livestock boys never told any one about this. Also where is 13 million dollars spent on the winter access for the Buffalo, and where is the Gyc.

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