|A Tarnished Crown Jewel
For bison, home on the range in Yellowstone is not always a happy one
By C. David Kelly, Assistant Director of News Services, American Farm Bureau Federation
YOU CAN'T BEAT THE VIEW from Franklin Rigler's ranch near the border of Yellowstone National Park. The snow-capped mountains, rolling hills and deep blue sky paint a picture no artist could draw.
But in the harsh winter of 1996-97, Rigler saw another aspect of the park all too clearly. The migration of more than a thousand head of bison wandering out of the park in search of food gave him and other Montana ranchers a different perspective of the crown jewel of America's national parks.
"I love Yellowstone Park," says Rigler, a cattle rancher from Gardiner, located about 10 miles from the park's entrance, "but I can't stand to see how it's been decimated." The large bison population has eaten the park nearly bare.
The Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, employs a hands-off natural regulation approach to wildlife management in Yellowstone National Park. Michael Finley, YNP superintendent, maintains, "Science has taught us that a wildland ecosystem cannot be judged by the standards of commercial rangelands, and that the verdict on the Northern Range is to be found in the abundance of plant and animal life that continue to thrive there year after year."
Critics, including renowned ecologist Alton Chase, charge the management policy has "produced soil erosion, denuded streams and declining fisheries, caused cataclysmic wildfires, devastation of aspen and willow, local extinction of beaver and white-tailed deer, and the continuing, inexorable decline of grizzly bears."
"Questions about its [the park's] management," says Finley, "inevitably touch upon deep-seated values that are based less upon facts than on how each of us believes we should relate to our natural environment."
Ranchers would say there are more than values at issue here. "It is evident the citizens are being held to a different standard than the government which wrote the laws and regulations," remarked Larry J. Bourret, executive vice president of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation. Reporting that park personnel deliberately placed bison carcasses in a stream to slow degradation until they could be moved, he said, "We are amazed that the National Park Service, in this instance, forgot about their natural management stance. Had they imposed that policy, the bison would not have been transported to the water, but instead would have been left for the bears."
Grazing permittees on adjacent Forest Service permits are required to use dynamite to blow up livestock carcasses, or use pack horses to remove them from the area. "One [park service] spokeswoman said they couldn't use dynamite," Bourret says, "because it was in an area which tourists use."
As the fateful winter of 1996-97 set in, nearly 4,000 bison were in or near the park. Concerned that the bison would come in contact with domestic cattle, the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) informed Montana officials that the state's brucellosis-free status would be jeopardised if the bison wandered close to cattle. Losing this status could paralyse the cattle industry. Montana's ranchers and officials were placed in a quandary.
On the one hand, ranchers had APHIS demanding wayward wildlife be eliminated, which was causing an uprising among animal rights and environmental activists, and resulted in the "harvest" of more than 1,100 bison that winter. On the other, they had park officials like Finley questioning, "Why is it necessary to kill bison or calves which can hardly transmit the disease in December in five feet of snow on public land when there are no cattle around? It's not rational."
Finley maintains "ranchers are victims" of the hysteria over APHIS threats. "Nothing can happen in this country without due process. Montana's brucellosis-free status can't be revoked without due process. APHIS cannot arbitrarily revoke the status for Montana without following every step of the regulation. The bison coming into Montana doesn't meet that test."
Montana Governor Marc Racicot claims the Park Service is indifferent to control or management of the wandering herd. "What has evolved here in Montana is a totally unacceptable situation," he says. "It is not a management situation [on the part of the Park Service]. It is a non-management situation."
Racicot has tried to work with the federal agencies to develop a solution. His efforts have thus far been fruitless. He has been operating under an interim bison management plan, which was devised as part of a settlement reached in a lawsuit filed by Montana against the National Park Service and APHIS. The plan, aimed at protecting the state's brucellosis-free status, calls for the capturing and harvesting of bison that wander onto public and private lands in Montana. "Frankly," Racicot said, "it should be the job of those involved in the cabinet at the federal level, and ultimately the president, to resolve these differences [in federal policy]."
The Park Service does not concede that Yellowstone is overpopulated with bison and Michael Finley doesn't believe the park is overgrazed. Although he admits, "Where I'm less sure of the science is in the woody vegetation. I'm not comfortable about the effects of overgrazing. This has been contentious for years. I'd like to put a stake in this issue's heart like a vampire and make this thing go away. Let's let science dictate it."
Finley blames an exceptional winter and the inability of the bison to reach the snow-covered forage for their migration. "This [1996-97] was the worst year in Yellowstone in 50 years. Of course wildlife starved. It wasn't because the forage wasn't there, it was because they couldn't get to it," said Finley. "There's plenty of food. We don't have the studies that show there isn't enough food. And I have no evidence or data that show there is an overpopulation of bison in the park."
Dave McClure, a rancher and president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, doesn't need studies or data to prove that the park has been overgrazed. During a flyover of the park last year, McClure witnessed a number of bison carcasses lying in overgrazed fields. He also saw herds of obviously undernourished bison roaming the park.
"It's grazed into the ground," said McClure. "There's evidence of overgrazing. As a rancher, it was bothersome to see the poor condition of these animals and the poor condition of the range. The park just doesn't look to be in very good shape." McClure wonders what would happen to his land if he allowed it to reach the condition of Yellowstone. "For anyone who has grazing leases on federal land, and had their land in that condition, I'm sure they would lose their lease," said McClure. "They may also have their livestock taken away."
A National Park Service newsletter explains what many ranchers see as a double standard, this way: "... a wildland range does look different from a commercial range; its appearance depends entirely on environmental factors, instead of on close supervision by someone whose primary goal is to maintain the highest sustainable level of livestock production. What a wildland ecologist would consider normal grazing effects, a livestock manager might consider unacceptable."
It was certainly unacceptable to Racicot, who has come under heavy criticism by animal rights and environmental groups for the harvesting of the bison and hopes the public understands why Montana took the steps it did. He doesn't apologise for defending Montana's livestock industry, and protecting the citizens of Montana from undulant fever, which is a serious human health threat. His actions, he says, were a matter of principle.
"We believe we came down on the side of doing the right thing for the right reasons," said Racicot, a Republican serving his second term as governor. "We believe that the perspective that has been brought to bear by those involved in agriculture, based on their experience, certainly has offered some insights on how the management protocol that has been utilised by Yellowstone National Park doesn't meet contemporary standards, or at least the standards they are expected to meet.
"I cannot for the life of me understand why the National Park Service cannot, as a matter of common sense and good purpose, bring about a management regimen that would ultimately make sense. We expect nothing more from the National Park Service than what we expect of ourselves, and that's to be good neighbours. They need to do all they can to manage their assets carefully and thoughtfully, and to make certain they don't allow for the possibility of human health and animal health problems to spread."
|In other words ...
"In the 1950s and '60s, elk and bison populations were reduced to available forage and there was little migration outside the park area, limiting the threat of brucellosis to cattle and horses and undulant fever to humans. Today's excess of elk and buffalo have destroyed woody species such as willow, aspen, cottonwood, alder and serviceberry along the streams and rivers. This ecological change in vegetation has almost eliminated beaver, deer, moose and many species of waterfowl in the park." Robert L. Ross, retired state range conservationist and 35-year observer of Yellowstone Park
"Ultimately, the question of whether natural regulation is right for the Northern Range is as much philosophical as scientific. In Yellowstone, as in many national parks, decisions must often be made with only a partial understanding of their possible effect on lands held in trust for future generations. Because careful scientists don't presume to have all the answers, the debate over whether and how to intervene on the Northern Range will continue to be fueled by political process and public pressure." National Park Service Newsletter, 1997
"I believe that Yellowstone National Park officials must allow independent scientists to chart a course out of this self-deception of natural regulation. In the process, they must reduce the number of grazing animals on the Northern Range. I know these problems have been long in the making and cannot be reversed overnight. But nothing can be done until the National Park Service admits there is an enormous problem." John Dolan, range conservationist and former district ranger in Gallatin National Forest
"Yellowstone reveals the supposed saviors of nature to be its destroyers ... Yellowstone does not have many small problems, it has one large one with many parts - namely, the multifarious damage to range and other wildlife perpetrated by overly abundant bison and elk. Yet rangers and greens consistently portray issues in isolation from one another. They have an elk plan, a bison plan, a fisheries plan, a wolf plan and a grizzly plan, but no integrated plan." Alton Chase, ecologist and scholar