Livingston, MT (April 10, 2008) – This has been a gruesome year for the buffalo of Yellowstone with nearly one third of the herd killed by state and federal authorities. The 1,465 animals slaughtered represent the largest death toll for Yellowstone’s buffalo since the 19th Century, when the species was nearly wiped off the planet. On the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report critical of the way that bison have been treated, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Buffalo Field Campaign, and Gallatin Wildlife Association have called for the Governor of Montana and administrators of the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) to immediately put a bold plan in place to stop the slaughter. The plan centers on a specific geographic area west of the park, where the factors that normally cloud the buffalo debate are not present. A moratorium on buffalo slaughter and harassment at Horse Butte will allow the herds time to recover while a more humane management plan can be put into place.
“There is a way out of this senseless slaughter,” said Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for the NRDC. “I think everyone recognizes that a change is needed here---but the same issues of conflict with cattle and property rights issues always short circuit public debate. Those issues do not apply at Horse Butte. This proposal gives the buffalo a chance to recover while the state and federal authorities get time to look at the criticism from community groups and the GAO report. I am confident we can find a better way to manage these national icons.”
In the coming weeks, Yellowstone buffalo will make their annual migration westward to calving grounds where they can find food and safely birth new calves. Many will head to the Horse Butte peninsula, located outside of Yellowstone’s western border in Montana. Typically, state and federal officials have attempted to aggressively force the animals back into the park for fear of potential disease transmission to cattle. This “hazing” of the animals has created some ugly and unfortunate situations with calves being trampled by the startled stampede.
However, in letters to Governor Schweitzer and administrators responsible for managing the buffalo, the groups have called for a moratorium on these techniques in Horse Butte, pointing out that they are brutal and unnecessary. The Horse Butte land is free of cattle, has new owners who welcome the buffalo, and is geographically isolated. These factors completely eliminate the alleged justification for harassing these animals. Simply put, there is no conflict here, so there should be no killing.
Additionally, NRDC and others echo many of the GAO report findings released this week in the call for an update to the IBMP. This document criticizes current policy for treatment and movement of the buffalo herds in the area. Conditions around the park and significant scientific research have made a relic of the plan since it was drafted in 2000. The time has come for a new strategy.
“There are no cattle on Horse Butte and local residents support wild bison being allowed to freely migrate, winter and calve on this critical habitat,” said Darrel Geist, habitat coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign. It is time that we sit down together and create alternatives to the current unfair, wasteful and harmful management practices. Governor Brian Schweitzer and the State Veterinarian Marty Zaluski can act to protect the most vulnerable animals left in the herds. There must be some safe harbor to protect newborn calves and bison who survived this bloody slaughter.”
“The act of corralling and sending animals to slaughter within Yellowstone is completely contrary to the basic idea of a national park---particularly as buffalo are the iconic logo of the U.S. Park Service,” said Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. “We are tired of the government needlessly taking bison, which we value as a Montana native big game species.”
“Taxpayer dollars can be put to far better use than slaughtering a national treasure,” said Willcox.
Horse Butte is a wildlife rich peninsula, mainly on the Gallatin National Forest, extending over 10,000 acres from the border of Yellowstone National Park to Hebgen Lake, just outside West Yellowstone, Montana. It is a traditional calving ground for the park’s buffalo herds where they return annually for spring green up. The area is free of cattle and under new private ownership. The new owners, the Galanis family, welcome the buffalo onto their ranch, the Yellowstone Ranch Preserve. The area is bordered by Hebgen Lake which creates a barrier limiting buffalo movement to other areas where cattle may be present during summer months. The Montana Department of Livestock operates a bison trap at Horse Butte, and recently asked the Gallatin National Forest to renew its permit to trap bison on public lands for 10 more years. A moratorium on buffalo harassment in this place is a simple action that should be an acceptable protection to all parties, despite the broader debate. It gives the herds a chance to recuperate after a difficult winter season while all interested parties can look into solutions throughout the year.
The state of Montana and the National Park Service claim that the slaughter of buffalo is justified because it prevents brucellosis, a disease that harms pregnant livestock and causes other health problems. In any given year, no more than 2,000 cattle range on lands where buffalo currently roam. Cattle ranchers do not even use most of the area around Yellowstone because of its harsh, winter climate. There are no documented cases of cattle contracting brucellosis from Yellowstone buffalo, and cattle in the vicinity have been vaccinated against the disease. Moreover, only some of the buffalo slaughtered this winter were even tested for exposure to brucellosis. And although some Yellowstone elk and other wildlife are infected with brucellosis, they are free to wander in and out of the park, despite the fact that they could transmit the disease to cattle. This double standard makes it clear that brucellosis is not the driving force behind buffalo control, but rather is being used as a weapon in Montana’s ongoing feud against the federal government’s role in wildlife management.
Yellowstone buffalo are central to the long-term conservation of the species as they are one of the last herds of American bison. The vast majority of buffalo in North America are hybrids, with some cow genes. The Yellowstone population of buffalo is the only continuously wild and free-roaming population in the U.S.
Buffalo play a central role in maintaining the health of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Their movements are essential for maintaining proper soil conditions in the prairie grasslands and they provide important food for imperiled species in the area such as wolves and bears. Yellowstone is one of the last remaining intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states, replete with the full complement of species that lived here at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. To maintain the long-term health of the ecosystem, including wide ranging species such as buffalo, we must conserve lands beyond the boundaries of the national park.