Yellowstone Bison

A small herd of bison bring a automobile to a stop as they cross the road near the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. 

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A few weeks ago, Bozeman resident Randy Newberg stood in the woods near Gardiner, watching his shaggy bison move in the wrong direction: back into Yellowstone National Park.

Earlier, Newberg had lucked into one of Montana’s 44 bison hunting licenses. Now he and two companions just had to wait for an animal to wander outside the park.

The hunt was filmed for Newberg’s television program, “On Your Own Adventures,” and he told faithful viewers his reasons for recording the episode.

“It really boils down to this: I am the producer of a hunting show that has a heavy conservation slant. If I am not going to talk about a very important conservation issue — bison, including the disease discussion — who in the hunting community is going to bring forth the conversation?” Newberg said.

In the past year, that discussion, previously limited to bison and brucellosis, has officially added another wildlife icon: elk.

Scientists have long known elk carry the disease, which was brought over from Europe by cattle. But recent research revealed that elk play the primary role in the spread of brucellosis in the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park.

Now, some brucellosis legislation has targeted elk, threatening to add hunters to a decades-old skirmish between wildlife advocates and ranchers over bison. One special group of hunters, Native Americans, is also adding its growing voice to the mix.

It has the potential of pitting one Montana heritage against another, but some condemn the politics, calling for calm and collaboration.

The debate over where bison can roam has raged so long that Montana Farm Bureau Federation vice president Jake Cummins feels like Sisyphus of Greek mythology. But instead of a boulder, he keeps trying to push bison back.

The Farm Bureau has always opposed letting bison step hoof out of the park, mainly because of brucellosis but also because of property damage and human safety.

For ranchers, brucellosis endangers the cattle world: an infectious disease that is contracted through physical contact with diseased aborted fetuses. The disease makes females abort their first calves and lose weight.

To reduce the disease in states with infected herds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture once had strict limits on cattle sales between states. Restrictions began in 1934, so ranchers’ worries are deeply engrained.

“My dear friend Larry Bourett from the Wyoming Farm Bureau warned me when I started this job,” Cummins said. “He said a lot of the same arguments would keep coming around. We just keep going over the same ground.”

Livestock groups drew their anti-bison line in that ground and refuse to move it, even though the landscape is not quite the same.

In fact, significant change has occurred just since 2008, the last time Montana lost its brucellosis-free status due to two herds being infected near the park.

To reduce statewide restrictions, agencies created a disease-surveillance area around the park, which is considered a brucellosis hot spot. If cattle are infected in that area, the penalties for the affected rancher are far less than before 2008, and ranchers elsewhere are unaffected.

Also, it’s now proven that elk are the likely culprits.

A USDA laboratory used DNA to analyze the brucellosis bacteria that caused cattle infections in Idaho in 2002, Montana in 2008 and 2011, and Wyoming in 2010.

In March 2012, they published their results, showing that the bacteria belonged to a strain that came from elk. No cases have been linked to bison.

“This study indicates that elk play a predominant role in the transmission of B. abortus to cattle located in the (Greater Yellowstone area),” the authors concluded.

But until this Legislature, livestock producers didn’t seem as concerned about the brucellosis threat posed by elk.

While wild bison are confined to the park for most of the year in the name of brucellosis prevention, elk roam widely through the tri-state area of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

Some elk congregate in Wyoming’s many feeding areas, where they are more likely to catch brucellosis. They’ve then been shown to migrate to other states, bringing the disease with them.

Elk migration is part of what makes brucellosis eradication almost impossible. But some livestock producers still insist on it.

After the confirmation that elk infected cattle in 2008, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks created an elk-brucellosis working group to study the issue.

Ranchers, wildlife advocates, hunters and landowners met for six months during 2012, working long hours to come up with recommendations all could agree on.

A few weeks ago, FWP commissioners approved the recommendations, which would reduce disease transmission to cattle and other elk by adjusting elk herd distribution. Hazing or spring hunting may occur, but district citizen groups will decide what’s best in their area.

For the most part, elk will be left alone, unlike bison.

Some wildlife advocates grumble that bison are penalized for brucellosis while the proven culprits roam free.

“How can we manage bison as wildlife in Montana? I wish FWP would say we can manage them as elk,” said Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. “The livestock groups use brucellosis to keep bison in the park. But we’ve produced brucellosis-free bison, and they still don’t want them.”

Cummins insisted that brucellosis would persist until the Park Service takes steps to control the disease in bison. He said elk present less risk because wolves have reduced the number of elk, even though FWP issued a statement at the beginning of the hunting season that most elk populations are in good shape.

“People think that since elk infected cattle, that negates our concerns,” Cummins said.

FWP chief Quentin Kujala said FWP would probably continue to treat the two species differently, partly because of where they exist.

Bison existed only in the park when the bison management plan was put in place, while elk roam free. Changing the situation of either species is harder than leaving them where they are.

“There’s a whole bunch of things in the mix, but elk are deep in the hearts of a lot of people. Elk are closer to us than bison are,” Kujala said.

Kujala, who oversaw the elk-brucellosis working group, said some methods that continue to be used with bison — slaughter, large-scale hazing

won’t be used with elk.

But some lawmakers don’t appear to agree.

So far, five bills that would further limit bison have been introduced in the Fish and Game committees.

A collection of hunters, conservationists and Native Americans, who previously haven’t banded together much, stood in opposition to bills that would mandate the killing of bison that step outside the park.

But a brucellosis bill in the Agriculture committee last week consolidated those groups into a new force.

Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, proposed a bill that would require FWP to pay for more wildlife surveillance and reduce the prevalence of the disease in wildlife, including elk.

Livestock producers spoke in support, but opponents dominated the hearing, objecting to several items but mostly to the focus on disease testing.

Veterinarian Mark Albrecht said the presence of the disease doesn’t equal infection. Animals can carry the disease without symptoms and without infecting other animals. But they would test positive for the disease.

“(Redfield) said this isn’t a test-and-slaughter bill,” Albrecht said this week. “But since there is no elk vaccine, there’s no way to reduce prevalence other than killing them.”

That’s what had hunters charged up as each stepped to the microphone. Afterward, Newberg and hunters’ groups were thrilled with their solidarity.

“This forces a greater discussion,” Newberg said. “If legislators got a bill passed that said fewer elk or manage elk like they manage bison, then they’d be dealing with 180,000 elk hunters. That’s a whole different dynamic than an animal that has only 44 tags.”

The groups obviously have different perspectives on bison, elk and disease, but all agree on one surprising thing: They want to work the problem out themselves.

“I think if we talked more with each other, and let go of the emotion, we can try to solve problems,” Cummins said. “I don’t know of a single farmer who doesn’t love wildlife, but there’s also practical issues that have to be dealt with.”

Albrecht, a member of the elk-brucellosis working group, wants the group’s recommendations to have time to work.

“This bill is premature and it will take us off track,” Albrecht said.

Hockett was on the bison working group a few years ago and prefers the collaborative process to legislation.

“I’m not asking the governor to be a bison advocate; I’m asking him to be a public process advocate if these bills reach his desk,” Hockett said.

Newberg knows it will take time to increase tolerance of bison enough to make bison hunting more like elk hunting.

But even after bagging dozens of elk in his lifetime, he was still as thrilled as a teenager after dropping his bull bison with a shot through the heart. Even the time-consuming process of packing the meat out couldn’t dull his enthusiasm.

“I only wish we had 10 times as many bison in Montana, so 10 times as many guys could go and experience what we did today. The bison deserves to be treated as wildlife and not livestock,” Newberg said.

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