Defenders Decries Montana's Yellowstone Bison Slaughter

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Conservationists Provide Scientific Analysis

(01/26/1999) - Defenders of Wildlife, a science-based conservation organization, today called on the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) to manage the state's bison based on the facts rather than on "cow-chip science". Defenders charges the department with using "such false" science to attempt to justify its recent slaughter of 13 bison that wandered out of Yellowstone National Park.

"The Department of Livestock is using cow chip science. There is no other way to characterize what they are doing," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen. "Their scientific claims have serious errors and are not at all factual."

In the last three years under DOL's management more than 1,100 Yellowstone bison have been killed unnecessarily because of exaggerated fears that bison will transmit the disease brucellosis to cattle. Brucellosis is a disease that can cause spontaneous abortion in cattle, but its transmission from bison to cattle has never been proved. Ironically, no cattle are permitted on the public grazing allotments until June and, therefore, there is no chance that bison and cattle would intermingle in this area. Defenders has spent nearly five years fighting to ensure that Yellowstone bison are managed according to the low level of documented risk the wild animals pose. Continued hazing, capture, and testing of Yellowstone bison, is destroying the species' free-roaming character, says Defenders.

"The proof is in the pudding," said Bob Ferris, director of Species Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. "If DOL is so concerned about brucellosis transmission why don't they require people who process bison meat to wear gloves? And why do they allow bison carcasses to be disposed in public waste facilities where sanitation workers could come into contact with carcasses and be exposed to infection? In these cases, actions do truly speak louder than words. These actions shout that they don't believe there is a real risk themselves."

Defenders says that intensive management of wild bison on public lands is neither appropriate nor necessary, because Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) provides leniency for low-risk bison (bulls, yearlings, calves, and nonpregnant females). Yet 11 of the 13 bison sent to slaughter this season were bulls.

Despite scientific evidence, the DOL disagrees with the APHIS that bulls, calves, and yearlings pose no risk. Late last week the Montana Board of Livestock refused to honor a request by APHIS to officially reconsider the agency's low-risk definition.

State veterinarian Arnold Gertonson stated that he expects that construction of the controversial Horse Butte facility, which will greatly increase the number of bison captured and tested, will begin next week. However an existing permit to operate that facility expires next Monday, February 1, a U.S. Forest Service decision on wether to approve an extension to operate this facility is not expected until Wednesday or Thursday, but apparently the DOL is presuming approval will be granted. Given the DOL's refusal to accept low-risk bison in public lands, many more bison will subsequently be shipped to slaughter.

Attached is a detailed scientific analysis by Defenders of Wildlife of points made in DOL's press release.

B-roll footage of free-roaming bison in Yellowstone National Park as well as capturing and shipment to slaughter are available from Defenders of Wildlife. MONTANA DEPARTMENT OF LIVESTOCK PRACTICES COW CHIP SCIENCE: A line-by-line analysis of the January 20 Department of Livestock (DOL) press release explaining the rationale for slaughtering 13 Yellowstone bison

"Sixty-eight percent of the bison tested in past several weeks by the Montana Department of Livestock have tested positive for the disease brucellosis."

The serologic tests used by DOL do not indicate the presence of the disease brucellosis within the herd. These blood tests only detect the presence of antibodies which are produced as a result of prior exposure. Tissue culture tests are a much more reliable testing method for identifying active infection: When 213 bison killed during the winter of 1991-92 were tested using tissue cultures, only 12 percent tested positive for brucellosis. The DOL should refrain from characterizing the bison herd as diseased.

"These test results are sobering in light of the fact that any state in the nation could ban Montana cattle if we have a renewed brucellosis problem here, coupled with the National Academy of Sciences conclusion that the presence of Yellowstone bison does pose a serious risk of disease transmission."

The National Academy of Sciences study referred to by the DOL does not consider the risk of transmission from bison to cattle as "serious." Instead the report states that "The current risk of transmission from Yellowstone National Park bison is low." (Page 80).

"The bison have been emigrating from the Park because its forage resources can't support the herd at its current size under current conditions."

A more likely and documented reason that bison have increasingly left the park in recent years is that they have learned to follow snowpacked roads groomed for snowmobile use. Unlike domestic cattle, bison move constantly as they graze. Research conducted so far indicates that groomed roads provide energy-efficient travel routes for bison, resulting in increased winter survival by allowing migration to lower elevations with superior foraging areas. The excellent physical condition of bison killed during the winter of 1991-92 does not support the DOL's claims that poor range condition is a reason for bison leaving the park.

"Over 50 percent of Yellowstone National Park's bison have been known to carry brucellosis, a disease which has been eradicated virtually everywhere in the Yellowstone area through a national program first begun over 60 years ago at a cost of nearly $11 billion in 1997."

The national brucellosis eradication program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) was designed to eliminate brucellosis in cattle and captive bison. The NAS study states that, "Total eradication of brucellosis as a goal is more a statement of principle than a workable program as present; neither sufficient information nor technical capability is available to implement a brucellosis-eradication program in the Greater Yellowstone Area." Currently four cattle herds and one captive bison herd are infected at this time. Brucellosis in cattle has been nearly eliminated in the United States through a combination of vaccination and extensive test and slaughter of domestic---not wild---animals. The DOL ignores the fact that the vast elk herds in the Yellowstone region also test positive for Brucella abortus antibodies. By applying the tenets of cow-chip science, all of the Yellowstone bison could be killed and the risk of transmission would still exist because of the presence of the bacteria in elk and other wildlife. Are these the next species to be targeted by the DOL?

"In Montana, it took over 50 years to become brucellosis-free...The (NAS) report found that the bison definitely do pose a serious risk of disease transmission, and that even the perception of a renewed brucellosis eradication problem in Montana could cripple the state's cattle businesses on a statewide basis. One factor that complicates the problem is the fact that every state has the individual power to ban Montana cattle if they believe there may be a brucellosis transmission risk in Montana."

Despite this allocation of federal funding and resources to eliminate brucellosis from cattle, incredibly the Montana state veterinarian encouraged other states in 1994 to impose restrictions on Montana livestock in order to develop the necessary political pressure within Montana to pass legislation transferring management authority of bison from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to the DOL.

Defenders of Wildlife maintains that cow-chip science mischaracterizes the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, ignores sound science that indicates the risk of transmission of brucellosis from wild bison to livestock is virtually impossible, and liberally applies the results of research performed on domestic animals to wildlife. Governor Racicot should heed public sentiment and credible scientific evidence and return bison management wildlife professionals so that traditional and acceptable management will be employed.

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Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270

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