Saturday, November 1, 1997

766 and counting: Yellowstone buffalo dying to be free

by Terri Crawford Hansen
News from Indian Country
Bureau Chief/Pacific Northwest Bureau

Yellowstone National Park, Montana—Severe winter conditions at Yellowstone National Park have caused starvation among this countries last free-ranging buffalo. Unable to forage, hundreds are following snowmobile tracks to lower elevations in search of food. For those who make it to the park's boundary, it's a collision with butchery.

The slaughter stems from a fear that brucellosis, a bacterium that causes cows to abort, could spread to area cattle. About half of the park's buffalo have tested positive for brucellosis in past years, and ten percent are infectious.

An Interim Bison Management Plan between Montana and the federal government calls for the slaughter of all buffalo who reach the park's boundary. Over 700 buffalo have been killed this year.

"The plan was meant to restrict migration to areas grazed by cattle in the spring and summer," said Paul C. Pritchard, president of the 78-year-old National Parks and Conservation Association. "The bison do not come within miles of cattle." NPCA advocates vaccination and proper land management to prevent buffalo and cattle contact.

Critics say the park and the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have caved in to Montana's demands. "ADAPHIS is not allowing any animal from this herd to be shipped even though they are testing negative," said NPCA spokesman Mark Peterson. "They have a zero-tolerance policy, but it does not address the 100,000 elk in the park, some of which carry brucellosis."

Dedicated to restoring the buffalo in the spiritual and cultural ways of the people, the 40 tribes that make up the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative are turning their efforts to populating tribal lands with disease-free buffalo from Yellowstone.

"We are making an effort to get those buffalo out of there alive," declared executive director Mark Heckert. "We are shocked and dismayed that this goes on. The buffalo is sacred to most tribes in the country -- every native culture has a word for buffalo."

A joint agreement between ITBC and the 61-year-old National Wildlife Federation to advocate the quarantine of buffalo under accepted disease management protocols would move disease-free buffalo onto Indian lands.

Montana Governor Marc Racicot rejected any alternative to slaughter, but he later indicated cooperation with the ITBC agreement.

"Not so," said Montana's state veterinarian, Dr. Clarence Siroky. "These animals are from an infected herd. State vets in the 49 other states will determine whether that happens."

Siroky admits brucellosis is transmitted only by close contact, but does not agree that the animals should re-populate tribal lands. "Can you imagine if these animals went to a reservation? They would jeopardize (the tribes') ability to market their cattle."

Those at the scene say the buffalo are being slaughtered without honor. "The scene is tragic," said Pritchard. "Animals goring one another as they are crammed into pens and trucks for slaughter. Three calves had their horns broken off and were bleeding profusely. An adult female was badly gored with broken ribs. Meanwhile, more bison are stacking up near the pens."

Killed buffalo go to participating Indian nations, who must pick up the animals where they were shot. That meant 300 miles for Ken Morin, buffalo manager at the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. The tribe received 27 buffalo this year.

"We do the sweetgrass ceremony and thank Creator before taking the buffalo," said Morin. Every part of the buffalo is distributed to tribal members, and they make use of "all the animal, every part, even the intestines."

On January 31, Heckert confirmed that Racicot agreed to cooperate with the ITBC/NWF proposal to "capture and quarantine buffalo under accepted disease management protocols; bison that pass quarantine will then be made available to the tribes for reintroduction to tribal lands."

Concurrently, spokeswoman Stacy Churchwill said that the park's policy of slaughtering all stray buffalo was still in place.

The Fund for Animals and a number of other organizations around the country are now calling for a boycott of Montana tourism to protest the policy.

Yellowstone's herd numbered 3,500, not including this winter's natural mortality. At January's end, almost 600 of those buffalo had perished, according to five well-known organizations.