Why the Buffalo Can’t Roam
In front of Karrie Taggart's tidy, red-roofed Montana house, half a dozen bison relax in the spring sun. Others amble slowly along the road, graze in yards, or doze in driveways, untroubled by the occasional passing car, pedestrian, or dog. Their distinctive profiles, with sloping shoulders and furry, horned heads, create a bizarre picture beside the hot tubs and satellite dishes.
Each spring, in search of fresh pastures and calving grounds, several hundred bison migrate out of Yellowstone National Park to graze near Taggart's home in the jagged southwest corner of Montana, just west of the Wyoming border. For Taggart and her neighbors on Horse Butte Peninsula, the bison are as regular -- and welcome -- this time of year as the 8 p.m. sunsets. Surrounded on three sides by a lake, Horse Butte, with about 50 year-round human residents, is a rare place: one of the only spots in the country where wild bison roam the neighborhood.
"They have their babies here," Taggart says. "It's so beautiful to see them walking around. It's a blessing to get to see that."
But on May 15 of each year, Taggart's beloved bison become outlaws. State regulations designed to protect cattle from brucellosis, a dreaded disease carried by elk, cattle, bison, and their relatives, restrict Yellowstone's bison to the boundaries of the national park. Yet bison can't read maps or rule books, and they're natural wanderers, having once roamed across the western prairie in giant herds. So each spring, just before the cattle-grazing season begins, armed livestock officials in helicopters and on horseback and ATVs sweep across Horse Butte and other areas near Yellowstone in a ritual known as "hazing," chasing the errant bison back into the park.
The process is stressful to the bison, and sometimes fatal. More than 3,700 Yellowstone bison -- more than currently exist -- have been killed by federal and state officials since 2000 during hazing and disease control efforts. The herd was culled by almost 40 percent two years ago.
A new round of hazing began this week. As of Tuesday, there were no reports of deaths. But spurred by the outrage of residents like Taggart and a wave of support for large-scale conservation projects, state officials and wildlife groups have launched new, promising efforts to restore the wild bison to some of its former range, both around Yellowstone and farther afield. If successful, their efforts could reduce the fear of brucellosis and change attitudes toward this iconic American animal, eventually allowing bison to remain on Horse Butte year round. More importantly for the preservation of the species, they could also allow free-roaming bison from Yellowstone to re-colonize larger swaths of Montana and the rest of the plains.
The 3,000 or so bison that make their home in Yellowstone are special, after all. Out of the tens of millions that once roamed from northern Mexico to the Alaskan interior, only about 500,000 plains bison remain. (By comparison, there are more than 2.5 million head of cattle in Montana alone.) Most of the remaining bison are livestock, raised on ranches for low-fat burgers. Just 20,000 or so live in "conservation herds," like the one in Yellowstone, intended to help the species survive.
Yet even in those herds, the plains bison is a vestige of what it once was. Most bison DNA has been tainted by cattle genes, thanks to early-20th-century efforts to breed a hybrid "beefalo" that would be rugged but docile. Yellowstone's herd is genetically pure, making the animals vital to the species' future. But confined to the park, they're hardly fulfilling the role that bison once played across the American West.
Bison were what scientists call a keystone species -- one whose absence fundamentally alters the ecosystem. Migrating, grazing bison created habitat for prairie dogs and birds; they carried seeds and pollen for hundreds of miles; they generated mini-wetlands by wallowing in the dirt; and they provided meals for carnivores at all levels of the food chain. Today, bison herds are too small, and their range too limited, to play any real ecological role. They are, from a biologist's perspective, "ecologically extinct."
It doesn't have to be that way. Many endangered species around the world have seen their habitat vanish under pavement, or their forests mowed down for cropland. But the Yellowstone bison, and most other herds around the West, are surrounded by large landscapes in which they could theoretically roam and thrive. The limits to their freedom are not geographic; they are social and political.
Accustomed to seeing bison behind fences, we can scarcely envision what it would look like if they roamed free, like deer or elk. But those committed to bison conservation can picture it clearly, and they are beginning to spread the vision.
First up: Ranchers vs. residents
As with almost every dispute in Montana, the debate over Yellowstone bison often comes down to property rights. In this case, it's the rights of homeowners vs. cattlemen -- and the fight is spilling over from Horse Butte to both in the courtroom and the state legislature.
"I don't want to see a bison shot on my private property," says Ann Stovall, who has lived on Horse Butte her entire life and now takes care of her elderly mother (as well as five dogs, a cat, a gerbil, and a parrot) in the house where she grew up. "I should be able to have them on my property if I want them. We need something to graze the grasses down around here. Why not bison?"
On the other side are ranchers terrified of losing their livelihoods. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that causes cattle to abort their first calves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture long ago adopted harsh policies to keep the bacteria from spreading. One case can doom a rancher's whole herd to slaughter; a second case within two years revokes the entire state's disease-free status, which means restaurant chains and supermarkets will buy their beef elsewhere.
There are no cattle to protect on Horse Butte anymore, and there never will be again. The peninsula's only ranch is now in a conservation easement, meaning it can no longer be used for cattle, and the Forest Service retired its grazing allotments there last fall. Still, livestock officials worry that bison might cross a narrow arm of the lake that surrounds Horse Butte -- walking on ice in early spring or swimming as summer approaches -- and arrive at ranches where cattle do graze, bringing the disease with them.
That concern led the Montana Stockgrowers Association to sue on behalf of ranchers who graze cattle across the water from Horse Butte, trying to turn the May 15 deadline into state law. Taggart, Stovall, and other peninsula residents are fighting the suit in court, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups, arguing that it infringes on their property rights.
Complicating the issue is the fact that scientists believe the biggest risk of brucellosis transmission doesn't come from bison. Wild elk in and around Yellowstone carry the bacteria and roam freely across exactly the same areas where bison are prohibited. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that brucellosis rates among the area's elk are on the rise. So why are the bison regulations so much stricter? The best answer anyone can give is that bison are more easily contained, and the bureaucracy that manages Yellowstone's herd -- five state and federal agencies with often irreconcilable differences -- makes the status quo nearly impossible to change.
Glenn Hockett is pushing for a new approach. An ecologist, avid hunter, and president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association in southwestern Montana, Hockett thinks the current system venerates the rights of ranchers over those of homeowners whose lives are disrupted by bison management tactics. "Can you imagine, you're out in your yard having a barbecue, and suddenly these helicopters come?" he says.
In his view, it's time to remove Montana livestock officials (whose main interest is protecting cattle) from the bureaucratic morass overseeing bison. Hoping to capitalize on support from pro-bison homeowners and Native American tribes who have a strong cultural connection to the animal, Hockett has introduced legislation that would leave Yellowstone's wandering herd in the hands of state wildlife officials, where he thinks they belong.
His proposal has twice failed to garner enough support and faces competition from another bill -- supported by the cattle industry -- that would instead give livestock officials the power to manage elk. But if it gains ground in the next legislative session, Hockett's bill could eventually get rid of something that many Montanans have come to resent as much as someone telling them what to do on their land: the Interagency Bison Management Plan.
Face-to-face case for change
On the ground floor of the Montana wildlife agency's Bozeman office, a sign above the water fountain reads, "Please do not spit your tobacco into the sink." Down the hall, a grizzly bear hide hangs in the conference room, bearing its fangs at all who enter.
On this particular spring day, the room is occupied by a group of Montanans united by their penchant for Wrangler jeans. Only their accessories help tell them apart; there are cowboy boots for the livestock contingent, baseball caps for the hunters (who, like Hockett, double as wildlife advocates here), woolen hats for activists from the Buffalo Field Campaign, and mustaches and beards for the biologists.
They're gathered for a meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan, made up of officials from Yellowstone National Park, the Gallatin National Forest, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), and the state Department of Livestock.
At meetings like this, hours can pass without anyone uttering the word "bison." The group spends the better part of this particular afternoon discussing whether or not Native American tribes, who have recently joined the group, need to submit formal documents announcing their participation. Frustrated, some environmental groups sued the National Park Service last year for violating its mission to preserve wild bison and the forest service for failing to protect its habitat.
Sitting in the back row in the chair closest to the door, Arnie Dood listens patiently, fighting the urge to bolt. A large man whose gray beard marks him as a member of the biologist clan, Dood has spent more than 30 years with the state wildlife agency, leading recovery efforts for Montana's endangered native species, including wolves, grizzlies, black-footed ferrets, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons.
Last August, Dood was given a new task. "The assignment I have is to look at the opportunities to restore a huntable population of wild bison somewhere in Montana," he says, taking care to emphasize each potentially loaded word. "If you want bison on the larger landscape, you can't just protect them. You have to fit them in."
The mere fact that his project exists is something of a coup. Dood's first order of business is to travel the state, meeting with residents and ranchers, hunters and activists, trying to find common ground on bison-related issues. He's good at listening; Dood doesn't own a cell phone and tries to avoid email, preferring face-to-face interaction. Presenting his plans at the interagency meeting, he makes a point of telling the tribal representatives -- who have felt neglected in the past -- how happy he is to have them in the room.
Later, in his second-floor office, surrounded by skulls and skins, Dood seems less like a revolutionary and more like a friendly neighbor who's hoping to ease some longstanding tensions. And there are plenty to ease where bison are concerned.
"People are familiar with bison in Yellowstone," Dood says. "They may be used to seeing them in someone's pasture. But there's not a lot of familiarity with bison as wildlife, as an animal that moves across the landscape like deer, elk, and moose."
While much of Montana's native wildlife nearly vanished during the frontier days (in the 1920s and '30s, deer were so rare that sightings of tracks made the paper), all of its common animals have since been restored -- except for bison.
"Some people think it's 'cause they were too directly competitive with cattle, some people think it's because they were connected with the Indians and there were racial issues," Dood says. "I think part of it is they were gone early. Before the homesteaders showed up, there were still elk, deer, antelope. The trajectory was down, but they were still there, so people were familiar with them. But the bison were gone." They had been hunted to near extinction as the first wave of pioneers and armies drove Native Americans off their land.
In Montana, just getting people used to the idea of wild bison herds again might be the first step toward breaking Yellowstone's bonds.
A century in the making
Dood's approach of long talks and face-to-face interaction makes it clear that changing minds, not to mention the rules, won't be a fast process. But that's no surprise, considering that bison conservation has been languishing for the better part of a century.
Even the American Bison Society -- a group that helped save the animal from extinction under Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century, when only 25 remained in Yellowstone -- stopped far short of returning the animals to the larger landscape.
Now Roosevelt's group has been resurrected by the Wildlife Conservation Society, whose scientists contributed to a recent effort by several dozen bison researchers to develop a vision for restoring the animals throughout their native ecosystem. "This is bigger than Montana," says Keith Aune, a conservation biologist who now heads up the reconstituted bison society.
In his office in downtown Bozeman, on the same street as Ted's Montana Grill, media mogul Ted Turner's bison restaurant, a historical map illustrating "the extermination of the American bison" hangs above Aune's desk. Aune is an expert in brucellosis, which is transmitted when other animals come into contact with either a fetal carcass or related fluids on the ground.
Using bison fetuses taken from slaughterhouses, Aune and his colleagues studied how long it takes for the bacteria to disappear from both the carcass (if scavengers don't get all of it) and from the ground. The research was designed in part to help the Interagency Bison Management Plan make decisions about when and where bison could graze outside the park. (Aune also helped conceive of a quarantine program designed to create a brucellosis-free bison herd that could be used for reintroductions. See "Homeless on the Range.")
Aune's research shows how long it takes for land where disease-carrying bison once grazed to become safe for cattle. For instance, if bison are gone by May 15 and cattle arrive on June 11, ranchers could be 95.5 percent certain that no bacteria remained on the ground. But when Aune presented his data at the interagency group's April meeting and asked the livestock representatives what level of risk is acceptable to them, they couldn't answer. They're trying to protect something that to some degree is unquantifiable: a nearly $1.4 billion industry, sure, but also a culture that, to some, embodies the essence of life in Montana.
But the fact is, it's impossible to reduce the risk of brucellosis to zero. "There's only one way to get there," Aune tells the group, "and that's to never have bison and cattle on the same landscape." But because Yellowstone's elk can also transmit the disease, zero risk is a fantasy. "We don't have zero risk with any disease management in the world," Aune says, "including with human health."
Aune is now looking far beyond Yellowstone as he tries to give bison a chance to resume their ecological role. It's a massive collaborative project that involves managing disease, analyzing complex legal designations (tribal versus state jurisdiction, livestock versus wildlife status), understanding regional economics, and knitting together patchworks of public and private lands. Not to mention closely monitoring bison herd demographics and grassland ecology.
A study published in 2008 by Aune's Wildlife Conservation Society colleague Eric Sanderson and more than two dozen collaborators laid out a vision for bison restoration that included potential "recovery zones" across North America. Aune is assessing these areas. Most of his work is conceptual so far, but it's creating the kind of blueprint that's needed before action can be taken. "I'm looking at climate change resilience, social and political environments, which stakeholders are there. What are the obstacles and how might we deal with them?" Aune says. "Then we need these individual efforts by states to do these things."
As with Dood's talking tour, just considering these options represents a first step that hasn't been taken in a century of bison conservation.
"I think we're at the point where there are some phenomenal opportunities," Aune says. "If we could get two or three of these things going in the next 10 years, that would be a remarkable step forward for this species."
Spring hazing season underway
Back on Horse Butte, the days are getting longer. Livestock officials announced plans last week to push about 400 buffalo back into the park, and reports say the men in helicopters and on horseback have already rounded up more than 140 of the animals.
As Taggart and her neighbors wait to see if any of their spring visitors will be killed by this year's hazing, Arnie Dood is making his rounds, spreading the bison gospel to places like Malta, in the state's northeastern corner, where cattle outnumber people by more than 17 to 1.
Despite the steep and rutted road ahead, Dood remains positive. "These animals were part of this place," he says, "and they can be again. Not in 1800s abundance. But they can be a part of the landscape. We can make progress at this."