Horse Butte, Montana – A monumental decision by Governor Steve Bullock today has changed the fate of the most important wild bison herd in the country. At long last, they will be permitted to safely wander new territory outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park in search of seasonal grazing and safe calving grounds, rather than face harassment and slaughter. At least for now.
Each year, controversial bison culls and hazing have ignited emotions on both sides of the American political spectrum. Ranchers in the west, as typified by Alan Redfield in today’s NPR story, fear that bison pose a threat to their very livelihood, out-competing their cattle for grazing, and spreading disease to privately-owned domestic herds. According to Wikipedia, “Brucellosis was originally imported to North America with non-native domestic cattle (Bos taurus), which transmitted the disease to wild bison (Bison bison) and elk (Cervus canadensis). No records exist of brucellosis in ungulates native to America until the early 19th century.” Redfield, for his part (even though no bison would be permitted to roam on his land due to this decision) supports culling more than half the herd, and feels both bison and elk are ‘overpopulated and overgrazing’. He told NPR, the cull should happen if the federal government people would just ‘do their part’.
Wildlife advocates, on the other hand, assert that native wildlife, especially on our public lands, should naturally take priority in the fight over resources. After all, they evolved here and are better adapted to, and live lighter on this land than introduced livestock. More, proponents point out that the brucellosis story shines a light on how domestic and imported animals pose a real threat to America’s ecosystems and indigenous wildlife.
The recovery of the American bison is one of the towering success stories in America. Having been hunted to near extinction, (and also decimated by disease introduced by rancher’s cattle), they managed to rebound once protection was granted in a handful of national parks and reserves. This group of bison holds dear some very genetically-valuable bloodlines, being descendants of the only continually free-roaming and migratory wild bison left in the USA. And, sadly, even now, they are not out of harm’s way. While not ‘endangered’, the genetic diversity of these populations is low due to the nature of the remnant herds that managed to survive in the face of wholesale slaughter. For this reason, culling of hundreds of bison, as has been going on each year, threatens the genetic integrity of this precious gene pool. Although, sadly, the current cull* continues in the park, at least lawmakers are considering alternatives. Is there hope for a change?
“A new plan for Yellowstone bison is in the works which could determine the fate of the species. This fall, the National Park Service will invite citizens around the country to weigh in.” said Amy Martin, in the NPR news audiocast.
As for today’s announcement, bison supporters are heartened by this decision by Governor Bullock to grant the iconic American bison some year-round habitat outside the park. “Horse Butte is the big one,” beams Stephany Seay of Buffalo Field Campaign in an email to the National Wildlife Conservation Examiner. It’s easy to see why she’s so excited. BFC’s ‘What is Horse Butte’ page begins, “To the west of Yellowstone lies a unique piece of land that separates two arms of Hebgen Lake. This area is known as the Horse Butte Peninsula. It sits in a basin surrounded by rugged mountains and the lake itself. Horse Butte provides rich habitat to a large community of species found nowhere else in the world.” Among these wonders, including trumpeter swans, bald eagles, moose, otters, grizzlies, cut-throat trout, lynx and gray wolves, the bison will now meander as in ancient times, dancing ever deeper to age-old music that, perhaps, only the truly wild can understand
*updated for clarity 2/5/16