Farm bill spending pits Yellowstone bison against Montana beef

Conservationists who have fought to restore bison from near extinction decry spending that hunts or pens in the animals

Bison in Yellowstone. Officials are renewing their attention to bison as the source of the disease brucellosis after a string of infections in livestock.

In the frigid January of 1997, dozens of hunters for Montana’s Department of Livestock stalked the border of Yellowstone National Park looking for bison. Against the stark winter landscape, it was easy for the hunters to spot the giant, humpbacked beasts. As the animals crossed over the invisible park border, the hunters aimed Winchester Model 70 rifles at their lungs.

Shots snapped, and hundreds of bison dropped to the snow. Many, wounded in their guts and rumps, needed second and third slugs before they were killed. Although the meat was to be donated to local Native Americans, some members of those very tribes came to protest the slaughter. A park ranger described these grisly scenes as a “free fire.”

Behind the mass hunts were Montana’s cattle ranchers. The ranchers considered bison to be the biggest threat to what is today a $3 billion annual agribusiness industry in the state. Killing bison that left the park’s territory was the only way, they believed, to protect Montana’s famous beef cattle from a disease called brucellosis. That condition can cause cows to abort and lose weight (read: meat). As with any meat-borne bacteria, the least trace of brucellosis can tarnish the reputation of any state’s supply of beef. But the problem with killing the animals that are seen as its carriers, critics say, is that no Yellowstone bison has ever given brucellosis to a cow.

Nevertheless, on Feb. 12, days after passage of the latest farm bill, Yellowstone officials began shipping bison to slaughterhouses and said they will soon kill as many as 600 more, for the same reason as ever: to protect cattle from brucellosis. The version of the bill President Barack Obama signed on Feb. 7 bundles millions for brucellosis surveillance, testing and vaccine development — which animal activists fear could lead to more bison killings — into a larger pool for academic research. That amount is $3.5 billion, part of the astronomical $956 billion farm bill.  

Livestock officials believe the funding could lead to a breakthrough that helps all animals.

"The hope would be to move toward assuring that we effectively prevent brucellosis in livestock,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, “and control it in wildlife."

But wildlife advocates say that because so many Yellowstone bison have been killed under the dubious guise of protecting cattle from brucellosis, any new spending lobbied for by the cattle industry is a threat to wildlife. They say that brucellosis management is unfair and riddled with inconsistency. It is a waste, they say, to spend more money without reconsidering bison management.

“This is politics, this is not just dealing with a disease,” said Kathryn QannaYahu, a Montana hunter and environmental activist.

Since 1985, more than 7,000 Montana bison have been killed from a Yellowstone herd that now totals around 4,500. (Other animals, such as Wyoming elk, have been killed too.) This has infuriated environmentalists, who have watched bison numbers restored from virtual extinction.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., slipped $35 million for brucellosis work into the Senate’s version of the farm bill. The sum astounded some researchers. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association and others lobbied for the funds in part because brucellosis study slowed after Sept. 11, 2001. The Department of Homeland Security flagged the bacteria as a potential tool for terrorists. It can cause flulike symptoms in humans, though it is now rare in developed nations. It is less severe in wildlife, veterinarians say.

The farm bill as a whole was both praised and panned for upping agriculture insurance subsidies while cutting $8 billion from food stamps for the hungry.

Dan Head, a spokesman for Enzi, said the purpose of the investment is to find “better tools to combat the diseases in domestic livestock.”

When the Senate version of the farm bill merged with the House version, the brucellosis money became obscured. Now researchers may apply for grants, of unspecified size, that will come from the billions in the agricultural study pool. The farm bill as a whole was both praised and panned for upping agriculture insurance subsidies while cutting $8 billion from food stamps for the hungry.

Galvanized by the bill, a consortium of wildlife advocates, biologists and veterinarians warn that spending more on brucellosis without rethinking policy is naive, doomed to fail and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“We want clarity,” said Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association in Bozeman, Mont. “What’s this money really for?”

“It’s pissing in the wind,” said Thomas Roffe, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veterinarian who worked on brucellosis for three decades. “We’ve thrown multimillions of dollars at this issue, and what have we really achieved?” 

Back from extinction

Bison once numbered in the tens of millions across the American West, historians say. But in the 1880s the last great herd was slaughtered in the Montana Territory. By 1902, America’s last 23 known wild bison hid from poachers in a remote mountain valley deep inside Yellowstone, a 2.2 million-acre park spanning three Rocky Mountain states.

To keep the species from being wiped out, Yellowstone officials for decades raised bison on a ranch like domestic cattle. In this environment, a domestic cow infected with brucellosis, a disease native to Europe, first gave it to bison. After this, bison that tested positive for brucellosis antibodies were slaughtered, along with elk, starting in the early 1900s. But this did not stop the disease. 

View of Brucella melitensis colonies under a microscope.
Larry Stauffer/MediaforMedical/Getty Images

In the 1930s, the federal government launched a decades-long, multibillion-dollar campaign to eradicate brucellosis. It succeeded, officials say, everywhere but Yellowstone.

By the 1960s, the Yellowstone bison population had grown back to more than 1,000. New ecologists, some of whom were instrumental in the passage of the 1969 Wilderness Act, counseled that it is the duty of national parks to allow native animals to roam free, not fenced in or fed like livestock. Park officials agreed, and the bison ranch closed for good.

Yellowstone bison became prized for the strength of their genes, their heritage and their popularity with millions of visitors.

“They’re a unique resource,” said James A. Bailey, who taught wildlife biology at Colorado State University and wrote a book about bison. “And an irreplaceable one.”

But the park’s break from ranching enraged the cattle industry. Starting in the 1970s, livestock associations around Yellowstone passed resolutions demanding that the National Park Service eradicate brucellosis, something the ranchers said was possible only by capturing and testing bison like domestic cattle, and killing any that had the antibodies.

When Yellowstone’s bison count topped a few thousand in the 1980s, some reclaimed ancient migration routes, tromped along river channels and crossed the border into the state of Montana. There they were gunned down. Livestock officials said this was necessary because of the possible presence of brucellosis.

“I have seen grown men and families fallen because of brucellosis,” Jim Hagenbarth, 65, who ranches in Montana and Idaho, said of the financial burden. “This is a tough disease.”

A brucellosis outbreak in a domestic herd triggers tests from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The cost can cripple ranchers, officials say, because in the past entire cattle herds were slaughtered when an animal tested positive for the disease. Whatever the immediate costs, the threat to American beef markets is such that brucellosis “must be contained,” said Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Joelle R. Hayden. The last outbreak was in 2012 and was traced to an elk.

Even when an outbreak is stanched, livestock officials say, their industry is still hurt by stigma long afterward.

“Brucellosis affects the marketability of cattle coming out of Montana,” said Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

But in 2010, in an effort to balance conflicting interests, the federal government set new testing rules for the area around Yellowstone to better protect ranchers by requiring that only infected animals be slaughtered, instead of whole herds, and at the same time giving more leeway for park animals.

But wildlife advocates said it wasn’t enough.

“It still entrenches livestock management techniques to be used on native wildlife,” said Darrell Geist, habitat coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, an activist group that has protested Yellowstone bison slaughters since the 1990s.

Environmentalists like Geist are quick to cite veterinarians, who say wild animals develop natural immunity to brucellosis. And they add that the chance of a bison infecting a cow is close to zero.

“But it’s still a possibility,” said Vincent Smith, a visiting professor of economics at Montana State University who researched the brucellosis issue for the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute.

Indeed, state officials in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho insist that the only reason no bison has ever infected a cow is because of their zero-tolerance policy.

But environmentalists and some sportsmen suggest that a wiser approach would be to treat bison like all other big-game animals in Yellowstone and allow them to live not just in the park but along a buffer of public lands around the park where they could be managed through regulated hunts. The cattle industry has resisted this.

The result of this push-pull is that bison control has become more ad hoc in recent years. Now Native Americans hunt some, others are herded back into the park with helicopters, and others are tested and shipped to slaughterhouses — an echo of the bison-ranch era in Yellowstone from the early 1900s through the 1960s. The meat is still donated to Native American tribes.

In search of a vaccine

But not everyone has been appeased. In 2012 and 2013, healthy, live Yellowstone bison were shipped to two Montana Native American tribes with long cultural ties to the animal. The industry sued to try and stop this.

In January, park officials rejected an industry-backed proposal to shoot bison once a year for 30 years with nonlethal slugs called biobullets, packed with a brucellosis vaccine that has worked on domestic cows. A park report ruled that the idea didn’t justify its $9 million cost because the vaccine has not proved to be as effective in wildlife, and the effects on bison of being stalked and shot with biobullets were not known. The Montana Department of Livestock then voted unanimously against a plan to allow any more bison outside Yellowstone. 

Elk in the wild in Montana. Montana officials are turning new attention to elk as the source of brucellosis after a string of infections in livestock.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks/AP

Meanwhile, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in December, elk have spread brucellosis to domestic cattle 13 times since 2002. Montana officials say that elk, far more populous and popular with hunters than bison, still pose less of a disease threat to cattle. The percentage of elk exposed to brucellosis is less than that of bison.

“The differences in those species is so significant,” said Montana state veterinarian Marty Zaluski.

All sides agree that a better brucellosis vaccine for domestic cows would be a great thing. It’s too soon to tell if new research might also yield a vaccine, and a vaccine delivery method, that could work for wildlife too, said William Laegreid, who leads the veterinary science department at the University of Wyoming, a leading center for brucellosis research. 

“I’m an optimist,” he said, “and I think most disease problems are tractable.”

But Bruce Smith, a wildlife science manager who has worked at Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge, said the farm bill proves nothing has changed.

“I’m over 30 years working on brucellosis, and I hear the same arguments, the same type of proposals, the same misguided use of public funds,” he said. “If you don’t understand history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

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