Yellowstone Bison
Bison graze next to the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park in June 2010.

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At a public hearing in Bozeman Monday, a skeptical crowd questioned the wisdom shooting Yellowstone National Park bison with darts carrying brucellosis vaccines, with many saying the plan would have little benefit for wildlife.

The Park Service has pitched the idea as a way to decrease the chance bison will spread brucellosis - which causes animals to abort - to domestic cattle. In turn, the bison may enjoy more tolerance outside the park.

It would be an expensive effort. Park officials estimate "remote vaccination" would cost about $300,000 a year, or $9 million over the 30 years the vaccines would be delivered to bison. That marks a 20 percent increase in the amount of money Yellowstone spends per year on managing bison for disease.

Also, biologists say the plan would not wipe brucellosis out in the Yellowstone bison. Its most aggressive proposal would have calves and all females vaccinated, which park scientists predict would lead to a 66 percent reduction in disease prevalence. The vaccine is not 100 percent effective with bison, and it will be difficult to vaccinate every animal in a herd of thousands.

And while an agreement between several agencies obliges Yellowstone to look into this type of vaccination program in exchange for more tolerance for bison, it is hazy what that increased tolerance might look like.

"As part of the (Interagency Bison Management Plan), there's supposed to be more tolerance if we decide to initiate remote vaccinations. What that tolerance will be is yet to be seen," said PJ White, a biologist with park.

But many at the hearing wanted more assurance that bison would benefit from the vaccination program.

"My big concern is, what is the benefit going to be?" asked Mark Pearson with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

"This isn't going to change anything," said another man at the hearing. "There will be no increase in tolerance. You guys need to say that."

Yellowstone already gives vaccinations by hand to some calves captured along the park's northern border. But in the last 10 years, fewer than 200 vaccines have been given. The proposed plan would ramp that number up.

Under the more aggressive plan, between 600 and 800 vaccines may be used each year, said Rick Wallen, another biologist with the park. Park biologists did limited testing on the effect shooting bison with darts on domestic bison at the Red Rock Ranch, owned by Ted Turner.

Among the handful of people who came out for the evening hearing, comments ranged from skeptical to outright opposition.

"To me it's absurd to vaccinated wild herds of animals," said Glenn Monahan. "Let the livestock industry develop a 100 percent vaccination."

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.

The proposal to vaccinate bison is open for comment until July 26. A copy of the draft environmental impact statement and a comment form can be found at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/yell.


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