Blood, Guts and Gore – Montana Investigates Bison Slaughter
Over recent weeks the Gardiner, Montana area, in the heart of “Big Sky County”, has been the center of a wildlife controversy that divides the tiny mountain community. The discovery in mid-May of bison carcasses north of Yellowstone Park railed new concerns about the increase in illegal wildlife slaughter and the potential of the spread of disease from wildlife to domestic livestock. Because the bison carcasses were found in an area frequented by people, the slaughter is especially concerning for local residents. Officials reported 2 to 4 bison were killed. The bison slaughter was the latest in a lengthy series of poaching and animal cruelty incidents under investigation by local law enforcement.
Dr. Ralph Maughan, a professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University notes, “The area recently had an unpleasant incident of wolf killing following the placement of 30 domestic sheep on a ranch located almost next to the Park. Wildlife supporters said the sheep placement was deliberately done to cause controversy or provoke a wolf attack. Non-park wolves were soon credited with attacking the sheep. For years the area has been scene of Yellowstone Park wildlife poaching, bison slaughters, heated controversy over elk numbers (too high or too low), Yellowstone Park wildlife migration routes, and what some see as excessive wolf hunting so as to decimate the population of Park wolves. The winter just past also saw the first evidence of controversy over a growing Native American bison hunt that left a large number of bison entrails (8000 pounds) that would attract grizzly bears. They were cleaned up by Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.”
Moving the sheep into normal habitat of the buffalo earned the ire of environmentalists concerned with protecting the health and safety of the Yellowstone National Park bison herd, Activists voiced concern that Park bison would contract malignant catarrhal fever (MCF), an infectious disease carried by the majority of domestic sheep. Sheep are not affected by MCF, but MCF is very dangerous to bison, which can die within days of acute infection. In some cases symptoms may not manifest for a month or longer. MCF is the number 1 infectious disease in bison.
Although it is common for an occasional bison to succumb to the rigors of winter, the citizens of Gardenier were quite concerned when the carcasses of three additional bison were discovered floating in the Yellowstone River near the area where the sheep were penned. The results of autopsy and lab tests calmed fears when scientist announced that the animals did not die from MCF.
On May 28th, 2013, as reported in the Independent, “Lab tests on tissue samples taken from one of three dead bison recently found in the Yellowstone River didn’t turn up malignant catarrhal fever. While the exact cause of death on the first bison couldn’t be determined from the tissue samples, there was no sign of disease and the only evidence of abnormality was trauma to the animal’s pelvis”.
“This bison did not die from malignant catarrhal fever,” Fish, Wildlife and Parks veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey said on Tuesday. “The tissues we got were in pretty darn good shape. I thought there would be pretty significant decay, but because they were in the cold water they were remarkably fresh.” Poaching was indicated in that the head of one of the bison had been removed.
Bison are the largest terrestrial animal in North America or Europe. Nomadic by nature, bison graze over wide areas and travel in herds. Excellent swimmers, bison have been known to ford torrential rivers in pursuit of “greener grass.” Young bulls leave the herd at about 2 to 3 years of age and quickly join a male herd. Male herds are typically smaller than female herds. During the late summer and fall mating season, nature prompts the herds to comingle. Hunted to the brink of extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries, buffalo are progressively making a comeback and are no longer on the endangered species list.
Adding fuel to the fire of unrest surrounding the bison of Yellowstone National Park, Buffalo Field Campaign, in a June, 6, 2013 field update report stated, “After spending week after week harassing hundreds of wild bison from their chosen ground repeatedly, abusive actions that have continued to take place every day this week, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) yesterday deemed two bull buffalo “unhazeable” and shot them both. Unhazeable means the bulls didn’t respond with enough fear as the livestock agents thought they should. They stood up for themselves and the ground they wanted to be on. They didn’t have families with young to defend, and with only themselves to protect, bulls typically don’t accept being pushed around so easily. That is the nature of bull buffalo; it is within their social makeup to be “unhazeable,” or at least put up more of a fight to defend themselves. The DOL flippantly uses this term “unhazeable” as an excuse to kill the big burly boys every year. They have no reason, no justification for hazing or killing them. Bull buffalo pose zero brucellosis risk, and with any buffalo the risk is only theoretical. Unlike wild bison, elk have been blamed for transmitting brucellosis to cattle, yet they are free to roam the same landscape.”
The bison of Yellowstone National Park sometimes descended to lower elevations outside the park in pursuit of winter forage. The presence of wild bison located outside the confines of the national park is viewed as a threat by cattle ranchers. The ranchers and farmers fear that the tiny percentage of bison that carry brucellosis will infect their livestock and cause cows to abort their spring calves. In fact, there has never been a single documented case of brucellosis transmitted to cattle from wild bison. The heated controversy that began in the early 1980s continues to this very day. Bison advocacy organizations argue that the Yellowstone herd should be protected as a distinct population segment under the Endangered Species Act.
Local residents and ranchers living in close proximity to Yellowstone, voice concern over bison that wander outside the confines of the park: bison are dangerous and can become violently aggressive, especially during the mating season. With a temperament that is unpredictable by nature, bison typically appear serene and calm. However, they may attack without provocation. Bison can run at speeds of up to 35mph and cover great distances at a bolting gallop. Adult bulls often weigh in excess of 2,000 pounds.
While both male and female bison have destructive horns, they also use their heads as battering rams and hind legs to kill or main predators. During the opening of the American west, at a time when bison ran wild, the bison was considered a potential killer, more dangerous than the wolves or grizzles that shared their territory.
Scientific research indicates bison originated in Eurasia then crossed over the Bering Strait land bridge that once connected the Asian and North American continents. In ancient times, massive herds literally darkened the face of the earth as they roamed and foraged. During several centuries the bison slowly wandered southward until the mighty creatures inhabited the majority of the lush grasslands of what is now the United States. Vast seas of bison herds stretched across the horizon from Canada to Mexico and from the northwestern Pacific coast in Oregon southeast as far as the beaches of Florida. Where there once were many, today there are a pitiful few.
Montana is home to the last wild bison population in America. Wildlife experts estimate there are fewer than 4,200 bison living in and surrounding Yellowstone National Park. This herd is directly descended from a remnant population of 23 individual buffalo that survived the mass annihilation of the 1800s by hiding out in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone Park.
The National Bison Range, located near Glacier National Park, endeavors to protect and preserve our proud symbol of historic heritage. Wild bison are now ecologically extinct throughout North America. Montana officials continue to investigate the bison slaughter that prompted headlines and heated debates.
In the State of Montana, public herds require culling to control the target bison population. To accomplish that goal hunting was re-established in 2005.
Bison typically live 15 to 20 years in the wild. The average lifespan is dependent upon wild predators, hunting pressures and natural disasters. In captivity, bison have been known to live up to 40 years.
The bison or buffalo as it is often erroneously called, remains an icon of American culture. Sadly, our past treatment of this majestic animal is shameful. Hopefully, an informed and cooperative public will consider how to ensure an ecological future for the bison and all wild creatures that still inhabit our precious planet.
By: Marlene Affeld
Advocacy For Animals