Yellowstone bison slaughter resumes
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MARCH 23, 2001

Bison meat carrying a rare yet persistent disease is destined for a tribal organization, said the Montana Department of Livestock on Thursday.

But even though the disease can cause humans to suffer from chronic fevers, muscle aches, weight loss, headaches, and fatigue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it poses little risk to the willing Indian recipients. As long as the meat is handled and cooked properly, the CDC says it can be safely consumed.

Still, the disease -- known as brucellosis -- is at the center of an enormous debate over future of the bison in Yellowstone National Park, descendants of the last wild, free-ranging herd in the United States. Once a plentiful resource to tribes who still revere the creature as sacred and powerful, the bison were driven to extinction by human encroachment at the turn of the 20th century.

Today, the herd population in the park numbers about 3,000. Yet they face death should they carry the disease and make the mistake of wandering out of park boundaries and into Montana, where officials say they pose a threat to livestock.

Livestock owners fear the bison will transmit brucellosis to cattle, which can cause abortion of calves. But as environmentalists point out, and which Marsha Karle of the National Park Service acknowledges, no such case has ever been recorded.

"We have said all along that there's never been a proven case of transmission from bison to cattle in the wild," said Karle. But she added: "We understand that any risk is too much of a risk. You have people's livelihood at risk."

In order to protect the livelihood of Montana's cattle industry, more than 3,000 bison have been slaughtered since 1984, said Karle. Due to public outcry from tribes, environmentalists, and organizations like Honor The Earth and the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, none had been killed since the winter of 1998-1999, however.

That has changed this winter. Yesterday, three were sent to sent to be slaughtered, in addition to two which previously tested positive. So far, the Montana Department of Livestock has captured and tested 14 bison, setting nine free.

Not surprisingly, the resumption comes after the federal government and Montana, after years of litigation and debate, in December finalized their bison agreement. Among other provisions, it caps the bison population at around 3,000 and even though its not intended to eradicate brucellosis, vaccination of cattle and bison are a major part of the effort.

The agreement also calls for hazing bison that wander out of Yellowstone back into park boundaries. But "lethal controls" are still permitted, to the horror of activists like Faye Brown of Honor The Earth.

"There's absolutely no reason these buffalo should be killed," said Brown. "There's no scientific evidence that proves buffalo pose a transmission risk to cattle. Its political maneuvering, not anything based in scientific fact."

In addition to the bison meat, the Montana Department of Livestock will be donating the hide and head of any slaughtered bison to tribal and charity organizations.

Yellowstone Bison Documents:
Draft Environmental Impact Statement (1998)
Final Environmental Impact Statement (2000)
Record of Decision [pdf] (December 2000)

Relevant Links:
Honor the Earth -
The Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative -
Montana Department of Livestock -
Yellowstone National Park -

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