No Need for Buffalo Body Count: New Brucellosis Rules Should Force Adaption of Yellowstone Bison Management

LIVINGSTON, MT (February 7, 2011) - The controversy surrounding Yellowstone buffalo recently captured and set for slaughter in Montana illustrates the need to revisit management of the biologically valuable Yellowstone population, particularly in light of new national brucellosis regulations. Movement of the Park's buffalo has been limited by overblown fears that the animals might transmit the disease to domestic cattle, which previously would have forced livestock producers to eliminate their entire herd if any animals tested positive for the disease. With the removal of heavy-handed brucellosis regulations, among other changes, there is little justification for similarly heavy-handed slaughter of buffalo straying outside the Park in search of food.

“I’m flabbergasted that the recent sweeping changes made to the nation’s brucellosis regulations by the Department of Agriculture have not led to increased tolerance for bison outside the Park,” said Matt Skoglund, wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Montana. “The draconian regulatory balloon associated with brucellosis has been rightfully popped, and, as such, it’s time to do away with the haze, capture, test, and slaughter policy for these iconic animals. At a time when all governments -- federal, state, and local -- are looking to cut costs, we’re needlessly wasting tax dollars and giving Montana a big black eye along the way.”

In the midst of heavy snows, the captured buffalo followed their natural migration path into Montana in search of food. With little tolerance for buffalo in Montana, the government unsuccessfully tried hazing the animals back into the Park and later decided to capture nearly 400 wandering buffalo, with those that test positive for exposure to brucellosis slated to be sent to slaughter and the rest held in captivity indefinitely.

Despite the extremely low risk of brucellosis transmission from buffalo to cattle (something that’s never been documented in the wild), fear of the disease and the harsh regulatory burden it carried have trumped buffalo conservation needs. However, as of last December, in a game-changing development, federal rules regarding brucellosis have been rightly eased so that:

  • Livestock producers are no longer required to slaughter their entire herd if one of their animals tests positive for brucellosis.
  • Under new regulations, the herd with infected animals must be quarantined and tested. Only infected animals are slaughtered.
  • States no longer automatically lose their brucellosis-free status if the disease shows up in two or more herds in a two-year period.

Five state and federal agencies and three tribal entities are responsible for the “adaptive management” of Yellowstone’s bison herds. Per the plan that directs Yellowstone bison management, they are required to change their strategies in response to conditions in the area, though little has changed despite this recent sea change in the regulatory landscape.

More information can be found on Skoglund’s most recent blog entry on NRDC’s Switchboard blog and Huffington Post:

More information on the brucellosis regulation changes at: