During the mid to late 1800s, government agents orchestrated one of the most aggressive and wanton animal massacres in history, killing bison indiscriminately in an attempt to subjugate Native Americans. With the addition of market hunters and settlers killing bison for profit and for fun, America's wild bison herds were reduced from an estimated 60 million to perhaps as few as 100.
With the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the National Park Service in 1916, the 25 bison remaining in the Park finally were afforded some protection. Initially, management policies allowed for the active manipulation of populations by culling what was perceived as "surplus" animals. But eventually, the management strategy evolved to an approach which permitted natural regulation to occur, for the most part letting nature take its course rather than relying on human intervention.
This was good news for the bison, but sadly their fortune was short lived. Since the mid 1980s, over 2,200 bison have been massacred under the supervision of government officials bowing to the pressures of the livestock industry and its cohorts.
In 1917, officials discovered that some Yellowstone bison tested positive for Brucella abortus, the bacteria which causes the disease brucellosis in domestic cattle. Later tests showed that the bison WERE NOT infected, but had merely been exposed, and had developed anti-bodies. Unfortunately, the tests performed on the bison were designed for cattle and showed "erroneous positive results" for the bison tested, because of the anti-bodies they had developed.
In cattle, the disease produces spontaneous abortions, but bison do not appear to be similarly affected. In fact, over the past 75 years in the entire Greater Yellowstone Area, there have been only four documented bison abortions, which may or may not have been caused by the bacteria.
Over the past decade, bison have been emigrating from the Park over its northern and western boundaries into the state of Montana during winter months. Because of several mild winters, and the National Park Service's continued grooming of snowmobile trails which makes it easier for bison to exit the Park, more and more bison have been stepping hoof over Park boundaries.
The livestock industry and federal and state livestock agencies contend that bison can transmit the Brucella abortus bacteria to cattle under natural conditions. In reality, there has never been a documented case of this occurring. Despite this fact, they continue to wage a war against Yellowstone bison.
The primary route of transmission is direct contact of susceptible animals with infected reproductive products, such as fetuses and afterbirth, or with contaminated feed, which has to be consumed to be transmitted. Given that bison abortions are extremely rare, the risk is remote at best. Bull bison and calves pose absolutely no threat of transmitting the bacteria -- because males and juveniles obviously do not give birth or have abortions -- yet shockingly hundreds have been killed. Of the blood and tissue samples taken from 218 of the bison slaughtered during the winter of 1991-92, not a single bison was infectious at the time of death.
In the event a bison abortion were to occur, the bacteria is sensitive to sunlight and heat, and in all likelihood, would die quickly outside the body, although it is possible for it to remain viable for longer periods of time if frozen. Nevertheless, in nature, aborted fetuses are consumed either by the bison themselves or by scavengers almost immediately. In addition, abortions probably would happen during January through June, a period of time a vast majority of which cattle are not permitted on public lands and do not come into contact with wild bison. The bison, by nature, are very protective, and a domestic cow would not be allowed to approach the newborn, /(fetus).
The US Forest Service issues grazing permits on lands adjoining Yellowstone National Park, generally for the months of June through October. Cattle grazing is even allowed in Grand Teton National Park. The Fund for Animals argues that the interests of wildlife, and not cattle, should take precedence on public lands. The grazing allotments should be either closed or modified to minimize any contact between bison and cattle. Also, mandatory vaccination of domestic calves against brucellosis within the counties surrounding the Park could further reduce the risk, if any risk exits at all, of infection. Currently, vaccinations are not mandatory in Montana or Wyoming.
With increased bison migrations into Montana, the Montana Legislature listed bison as a game animal in 1985, giving the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks authority to initiate a public hunt. During the winter or 1988-89, sport hunters shot 570 bison at point-blank range. Due to national media coverage, this cruel fiasco generated outrage across the country. Shortly thereafter, the Legislature decided to no longer issue bison permits to sport hunters, although state officials retained the right to implement lethal control.
Today, control has been vested in the Montana Department of Livestock, an agency which views bison as nothing more than brucellosis-infected pests who must be controlled to maintain Montana's brucellosis-free status. With the cooperative services of Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and National Park Service officials, government officials continue to gun down hundreds of bison each year. During the winter of 1995-96, approximately 450 bison were killed.
Much of the hysteria derives from the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the agency responsible for brucellosis eradication in domestic livestock. APHIS, without legal authority, has threatened to revoke the brucellosis-free status of both Montana and Wyoming if measures aren't taken to eliminate Brucella abortus in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Brucellosis-free status permits cattle producers to market their cattle without being subject to disease testing requirements. Recently, Wyoming capitulated to these threats by establishing a bison sport hunt outside the eastern boundaries of Yellowstone National Park where a small number of bison occasionally exit.
The APHIS brucellosis eradication program launched in the 1930s was intended to apply only to domestic livestock, but it appears that APHIS and other industry interests will not be satisfied until the Brucella abortus organism is eliminated in all domestic animals and wildlife.
There is also the budgetary consideration of APHIS. Unless they are waging this expensive campaign against an imaginary and contrived "bison threat", they will lose millions, now being alloted for that purpose, thus the lies and misrepresentation continue.
In addition to bison, elk can also be infected with the bacteria and can carry the disease. With more than 90,000 elk in the Greater Yellowstone Area, the likelihood of eliminating the bacteria using available technologies is virtually nonexistent. Moreover, if all infected bison were destroyed, exposure to elk would result in re-exposure to the remainder.
This is particularly a problem in Wyoming where over 23,000 elk congregate on artificial feedgrounds, creating prime conditions for bacteria transmission. In fact, bison from Grand Teton National Park, just south of Yellowstone, have discovered the "free meals" being provided on the National Elk Refuge each winter in the Jackson Hole area. It is speculated that this herd of bison contracted the bacteria from elk on the feedground.
State officials rarely admit that elk may also carry the disease. Elk, of course, are a prime money maker for Montana and Wyoming state officials, who encourage propagation of elk herds so they can profit from the sale of hunting licenses.
Ironically, bison are being targeted allegedly to protect the livestock industry, but the general consensus among scientists is that cattle probably introduced the bacteria into the Yellowstone bison herd shortly before 1917. Victims then and victims now.
As with most all issues of this nature, the determining factor, will not be the "right or wrong" of the issue, but in the number of "votes" that demand a change. Morality has little to do with politicians decisions, however "re-election" is paramount.
Write, call, Fax, or e-mail not one, but several representatives from congress, senate, the president, the first lady, Socks the first cat.
Send reports to your local newspaper and TV, get them to cover this story. Search the internet under "Yellowstone Bison" and gather facts about this deplorable and disgraceful situation. Inform others of what is taking place and ask for their help, as I am asking for yours.
What is happening with the bison is symbolic and representative of the attitude that has ravaged the First Nation People and their land for the last five hundred years. Don't be a part of it by allowing it to continue.
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