Dear Governor Bullock

I received a letter from the National Wildlife Federation recently, encouraging me to write a letter to our Governor, Steve Bullock.  He can be reached at PO Box 200801 Helena, MT 59620.  If you’re interested in wild bison, you might wish to send him a letter.

Montana is nearing the final stages of developing a plan for managing bison.  The practical side of the matter is that the Yellowstone herd consistently outgrows its wintering ground, in that is has none.  Historic, lower elevation areas outside the park are not public land, and have been built up.  The park itself, gifted with massive snowfall and long summer days, feeds many bison well every summer.  Thus, they procreate and the resultant herd pushes more forcefully outside the park every winter.

Many people do not like this.  Bison smash conventional barbed wire fences with little thought.  They carry brucellosis, a disease which causes cattle to abort.  Whether they often transmit it to cattle is another question.  Elk also carry brucellosis, but the disease is passed via cattle eating the afterbirth of the offending species, and elk tend to not calve in areas frequented by cattle.  More than all that, there is a great ideological objection to the prospect of free-ranging bison outside federal lands.  Bison are big, and not controllable in the way which elk, deer, and even bears are.  The current debate correctly leads to the spectre of an increasing bison herd spreading across much of the state, in a way which humans would doubtlessly find hard to control.

The above link details several options.  The first is no action; specifically no restoration of bison on federal and state land outside Yellowstone (various tribes have been taking this into their own hands in recent years, on large fenced compounds).  The second is the introduce a small, experimental population.  The National Wildlife Federation bought up a bunch of grazing leases on the east side of the Gallatins (NW of Yellowstone), and suggests that bison be allowed to naturally establish themselves in that area under this alternative.  The third and fourth alternatives specify introducing various numbers (400 and 1000) of bison elsewhere in the state.

These last options are quite scintillating.  Suggested area include the greater Missouri River Breaks and CM Russell Wildlife Management Area, the Rocky Mountain Front, some small mountain ranges near Helena, and the areas west and north of Yellowstone.  What is exciting about these ideas is both that they are ideally suited to supporting a substantial herd of wild bison as they exist today, and that bison would surely not confine themselves to those areas for long.

What would happen if wild bison were as free as elk in Montana?  There is a truly wild herd of bison in the lower 48, in the Henry Mountains of south-central Utah, but these bison are contained by geography, in that they are surrounded by impassable-to-bison desert.  In Montana, a lot would depend on the extent to which they were hunted.  Experience in the Henry’s suggests that once they receive regular hunting pressure, bison become exceptionally wily.  That said, hunting in Montana would have to have some restrictions, as even in places like the eastern Bob and the Breaks bison couldn’t hide that well, due to size and habit.  What would be done with their tendency to smash fences, and what would be done about disease?

The answer to the latter is simple.  Bison can be tested and inoculated while in captivity.  If these new populations are to be seeded with bison caught in the winter outside Yellowstone, doing so would be simple.  What is less simple is the issue of fences.  It may take a long time, but what we are seeing in this debate is a significant step towards the decline of ranching in the American west.  It’s not a uniformly positive development (ranchland sold tends to turn into wildlife-unfriendly suburbs), but the economically and agriculturally absurd practice of ranching this side of the 100th meridian is long overdue for reform.  A multi-generational abberation should not be immune to critique.

This is no doubt why the livestock associations are fighting any attempts at reintroduction with everything they have.  They want bison qualified as livestock, an idea as false as it is morally offensive.

Hunters, and by economic extension the state division of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (whose budget is funded by hunting licenses), are largely in favor of reintroduction.  Beyond the desire to have another (very tasty) creature to hunt, I like to think that any proper hunter wants the landscape as ecologically complete as possible.  And that means free-ranging bison.

For my part, seeing wild bison calving in the North Fork of the Sun River before I die would make me very, very happy.  If you agree, mail that letter.


9 responses to “Dear Governor Bullock”

  1. That would definitely be cool to see. Hopefully it doesn’t create the kind of drama we had with wolves. Here’s what I’d like to see.
    1. No Federal involvement, at least in advocating for buffalo, they’ll obviously have a role in managing things on Federal Lands. Ideally it would be nice to debate the merits of buffalo and not the role of the federal government.
    2. I also hope groups like the Sierra Club exercise some tactical restraint. Ranchers aren’t going to see eye to eye with Earth First no matter what. On the other and if the pro-buffalo group is more hunter dominated (at least in appearance) there might be more mutual respect, theoretically buffalo hunting could be a money maker.

  2. Tsk, tsk, you know the topic of “…ranching this side of the 100th meridian is long overdue for reform.” is off limits in this state. But on topic I’m intrigued by a wild bison herd to be installed by Helena. As Luke already mentioned, getting the sportsman on board would go a long way to making that happen.

  3. Thanks for writing on this cool topic. As a wild ruminant veterinarian, I take exception to your assertion that the “answer to [what can be done about disease] is simple.” While testing for brucellosis is straightforward, vaccination of bison for brucellosis is by no means “simple.” Efficacy, both financial and biological, of existing vaccination protocols in bison is still very much under debate. Specifically, your notion that vaccination could be done while in transport from outside the park to some other locale is misleading, as it implies that a single injection would lend immunity–this is unlikely. A recent challenge study (Olsen and Johnson, 2012) done by the USDA showed no difference in several key disease parameters between bison vaccinated once with RB51 (via hand or dart) and unvaccinated bison; it was only with a booster that a difference relative to unvaccinated controls was observed. Animals might have to be recaptured and revaccinated to realize any biological efficacy. Finally, though your account of the clinical signs and transmission of brucellosis in cattle is well written, you fail to mention a very real danger of brucellosis–it is a zoonotic disease, that is, it causes severe disease in humans and is readily transmitted from animals to humans. To me, this is far more meaningful than the “ideological objections” you mention.

    To be sure, I’m all for bison moving up and out of YNP, and I support your sentiment. Let’s just be clear and aware of the financial and epidemiological costs of our meddling.

    1. Thanks Daniel, I appreciate your knowledge. What is the incubation period between the vaccination and the booster? Could that for instance occur over a matter of months (during the winter in the existing pens north of Gardiner, MT), or would bison need to be recaptured or redarted?

      1. About 13 months is what they shot for in the USDA study. I think at least 8 would be needed, and this would likely necessitate recapture or redarting.

        1. That’s a pretty huge logistical obstacle. Not practical for herds in the more far-flung areas discussed above. A seed herd established as brucellosis free outside the park might be the way to go.

    2. Is brucellosis common in Bison? I ask, as a small town near where I live, Delta Junction Alaska, is a small (~900 bison) introduced population of plains bison. I believe the herd has been in place since the early 20s, and there are (small) dairy and beef cattle herds in the area, and I don’t seem to recall any controversy. We don’t have “ranchers” per say (all cattle is required to be on private land), but farmers & people raising cattle seem to like the herd, as they sell access to hunters in the hunting season.

  4. If the disease is readily transmitted to humans is eating bison dangerous? How about camping around piles of bison poo in Yellowstone?

    1. Eating wild, undercooked bison is dangerous, yes. As is camping around piles of bison afterbirth in Yellowstone. Bison poo carries a myriad of other baddies; brucellosis is not transmitted through feces.

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