Yellowstone's Buffalo Herd Must Be Protected, Not Slaughtered

The National Park Service estimates that the Yellowstone National Park buffalo herd has grown to more than 4,000, the most that have roamed the area since the park was created in 1872. That's the good news. The bad news is that as much as a quarter of the herd likely will try to venture outside the park boundary this winter in search of food, and the Montana Department of Livestock is killing them with the assistance of the National Park Service. Why? The Department of Livestock claims that the buffalo could transmit a disease to cattle in the area.

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) argues that slaughtering bison violates the National Park Service's mandate to protect park resources for future generations. The buffalo population level, the group says, should be controlled naturally by wolf and grizzly bear predation, not interference from state and federal government agencies. Moreover, there are no documented cases of cattle contracting the disease, brucellosis, from Yellowstone buffalo, and all cattle in the vicinity have been vaccinated against the disease, which causes buffalo and cattle to spontaneously abort their young.

NRDC maintains that Montana and federal agencies must protect the herd and allow it to do what it does naturally -- roam.

During the winter of 1996-'97, the Montana Department of Livestock invoked the threat of brucellosis to justify killing some 1,000 buffalo that wandered out of Yellowstone to search for food at lower elevations. At that time, the National Park Service estimated the park's buffalo population at 3,500.

Since then, the killing has continued. From the first of January through March 11, the National Park Service shot three buffalo that wandered outside Yellowstone's boundary, captured and slaughtered 150 other wayward animals that tested positive for brucellosis -- which is not an indication of present infection -- and will hold another 154 buffalo that tested negative in a corral until spring, according to eyewitness accounts by the Buffalo Field Campaign, a local advocacy group. If the agency captures more buffalo, it will test them for brucellosis, and ship those that test positive to slaughter.

NRDC says the rationale for killing buffalo this winter is even less credible than it was seven years ago. The group points out that:

  • Cattle ranchers do not use most of the area around Yellowstone during the winter that the buffalo need for winter habitat.
  • Cattle grazing leases on two several thousand-acre allotments of acquired public land outside the northwest corner of the park expired last year and the Gallatin National Forest of the Forest Service does not plan to reissue them. Even in summer, when the buffalo are in the park, there are only 300 head of cattle grazing in the affected area.
  • Some Yellowstone elk and other wildlife are infected with brucellosis, but 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.

While the threat of brucellosis from buffalo has been wildly exaggerated, the benefits of protecting the herd have largely been ignored. Buffalo play a critical role supporting the health of grassland ecosystems. Their hooves keep grasses healthy by breaking up roots and dead vegetation, and recycling nutrients in the soil. They also provide an important food source for imperiled wolves and bears. Recovery of the threatened Yellowstone bear population could be set back if buffalo numbers are reduced significantly, according to the federal Inter-Agency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

Buffalo also have a celebrated history. At one time, they were an integral part of the culture and history of the American West, and central to the lives and religion of Native American tribes. In the early 19th century, several million buffalo roamed the Great Plains, but by the mid-1890s, only a few dozen remained. The near extinction of the buffalo prompted the creation of one of the first conservation groups in the country, the American Bison Society, founded in 1905. The society bought private buffalo herds and helped purchase rangeland to provide buffalo habitat.

Yellowstone National Park is the only place in America that has continuously provided habitat for wild, free-roaming buffalo. The park provided sanctuary to 23 buffalo that survived the mass eradication in the 19th century. Today the Yellowstone herd comprises the largest remaining population of genetically pure bison, and the species' recovery from near extinction is considered one of the greatest conservation success stories in American history.

In November 2000, a number of state and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Montana Department of Livestock, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and Wyoming Game and Fish Department, established the Interagency Bison Management Plan to protect cattle from brucellosis and buffalo from slaughter. The plan accomplished the first goal, but not the second. The plan calls for the Montana Department of Livestock to capture, vaccinate and release the buffalo that wander outside of the park. Scientists estimate that the park can sustainably support only 3,000 animals without additional winter habitat outside the park. If the Yellowstone herd exceeds 3,000, the plan specifically says that the department can either quarantine or slaughter buffalo to reduce the herd's size.

NRDC says there is a better way to manage the herd without resorting to killing buffalo. The group recommends that state and federal authorities:

  • Allow buffalo to roam freely on the easement lands purchased by the U.S. Forest Service from the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious group that owns 7800 acres of prime buffalo winter habitat outside the park. The Forest Service specifically bought this easement for wildlife habitat protection.
  • Allow buffalo to utilize unused cattle allotments west of Yellowstone Park.
  • Phase out cattle grazing on public land north and west of Yellowstone, which would provide additional winter habitat for Yellowstone buffalo.

Action Needed to Save the Yellowstone Buffalo

The Bush administration should stop the killing by making the federal land outside the park available to the herd, and acquire remaining private rights on property that provides key winter habitat for the buffalo. In the short run, the administration could refuse to allow the National Park Service to hand animals over to the Montana Department of Livestock for slaughter.

Given the administration's inaction and the continuing slaughter, members of Congress late last year introduced the Yellowstone Buffalo Preservation Act (H.R. 3446), which would place a three-year moratorium on the capture and slaughter of Yellowstone buffalo, dismantle the holding corral within the park near the town of Gardiner, and allow buffalo unfettered access to public lands immediately adjacent to the park. As of March 11, the House bill had 72 cosponsors.