Friday, December 7, 2001

Why Did Bob the Bison Have To Die?


By Bob Ferris

Bob was just walking along minding his own business. He was trying to make a living during a harsh and biting winter. But Bob made a mistake. He crossed an invisible line from one federally-owned piece of property to another and so Bob was arrested. His freedom was taken away because he was hungry and doing what came naturally to him.

During his incarceration, blood samples were taken without his permission, and Bob was eventually put to death by his captors. Why was Bob killed? Was he rude to his jailers? Did he try to escape? No. Bob's capital crime was being exposed to a disease. Did he have it? Probably not. Could he pass it along? Very unlikely. Was he a high-risk carrier? Absolutely not. Bob was a victim of irrational fear and a very dysfunctional federal-state relationship.

Bob was one of Yellowstone's bison—an American icon and treasure. He was part of our nation's last free-ranging herd and sometime, somewhere in his travels he was exposed to brucellosis—a bacterial disease that causes abortions in cattle and other ungulates such as elk, which, ironically, can wander where ever they may. The fear here is that the bison would pass this disease on to cattle grazing on leases in federal forests.

Does it matter that it is winter and the public land lease will not see cattle for six months? The answer is no because the state of Montana's Department of Livestock has a zero-tolerance policy for bison. No free-ranging bison, no how. Through a mind-boggling set of lawsuits and management plans, they have enlisted the aid of Yellowstone Park personnel in this exercise. So let's review: We have federal park employees helping kill members of America's last free-ranging bison herd on national forest lands at a time when they pose absolutely no threat in order to protect a public land grazing lease that is being operated at a deficit to federal treasury.

In the winter of 1996-97, there were nearly 1,100 Bobs killed on Montana's snowy fields. The same dynamic is shaping up this year, and there are no emerging solutions in sight. Likely, if the killing gets too bad, a federal judge will step in and temporarily stop it. But the core problem remains and will remain. And why should we have to lose a thousand of these majestic animals before someone finally calls "Uncle?"

In 1998, the conservation and sportsmen's community crafted a citizen's plan for Yellowstone bison management. This coalition of more than a dozen groups with divergent views created a workable and reasonable plan that provides safety for both bison and cattle. They essentially did in less than a year what a collection of state and federal agencies could not do in 10. More than 47,000 people wrote to express their support for this balanced plan.

It is now 2001 heading into 2002. Montana has a new governor, and we have a new secretary of Interior who espouses a fondness for locally developed solutions to wildlife conflicts. Maybe it is time to once again sit down at the table and look at the alternative plan before we do something stupid—again and again.

Let Bob the bison be the last to die for no reason.
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Note: This piece was written December 7, 2001 when I was vice president for species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.