Outside magazine, April 1995
Sunrise glows on rifle barrels as park rangers and game wardens huddle in a Montana snowfield just outside Yellowstone National Park. Poised for another round in the Yellowstone bison wars, the officials peer through scopes and get positioned for easy shots.
To the side stands a member of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a controversial New Age community whose vast acreage is the setting for the day's "cull." Like many others who run cattle, the church is worried that these migrant buffalo may carry brucellosis, an infectious disease that can cause pregnant cows to abort. Nearby are 60 praying Blackfeet and Oglala Lakota who've come to honor the sacred beasts and to collect meat that will feed the needy on their reservations. (Brucellosis-infected meat is safe when cooked.) Up ahead, 100 members of one of the world's last wild buffalo herds graze in a field. After a barked signal, a long barrage takes 41 animals down. The rest thunder back to the park. They'll face the rifles another day.
"It's crazy," says Mark Heckert, who witnessed this scene last January. Heckert, 36, is the non-Indian executive director of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, a Rapid City, South Dakota-based group of 36 tribes. For six years the IBC has futilely sought permission to capture wayward Yellowstone bison, ship the sick animals to quarantine, and send healthy ones to reservations for cultural practices and consumption. The idea has garnered praise from some wildlife bureaucrats and environmentalists, but no one's been able to put it into practice because microbe-obsessed Department of Agriculture officials have flatly banned the shipping of any live Yellowstone bison. "We've offered a better way," Heckert sighs. "But everyone's too busy fighting."
Not to mention suing and stalling. Long the subject of controversy, Yellowstone bison first came to national attention in the mideighties, when Montana began letting hunters shoot them, a gory exercise that was called off after the winter of 1989, when 569 animals were killed. By 1991, the state and Yellowstone officials had drafted an interim management plan, still in place, that allows Montana wildlife officials and park rangers to "haze" bison back to the park--or shoot them. Lately, the dispute has grown into a dizzying bureaucratic slugfest starring two federal behemoths: the National Park Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an Agriculture Department agency that for 20 years has worked to eradicate Brucella abortus. Last winter, matters came to a head when--because of unusually deep snowdrifts and more than 4,200 bison foraging a landscape best suited for about 2,000--hundreds of bison left for easier eating in Montana. In December, APHIS threatened to revoke Montana's "brucellosis free" status, a standing that allows out-of-state cattle sales without pricey testing or quarantines. Not waiting to hear more, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Washington State began requiring tests for incoming Montana cattle.
"We've been left with no alternatives--people's livelihoods are in jeopardy," says Montana governor Marc Racicot. In January, Montana sued both Interior and Agriculture in federal court, demanding that the departments work something out. To which people who've been mired in this issue for years say, fat chance. Various solutions have been floated--including buffalo birth control, cattle-free buffer zones, and vaccinations. But thanks to conflicting APHIS and Park Service rules, nothing has been done and everything is overdue. A long-term bison management plan has been in the works since 1989. The final draft is slated to appear by this month--three years late.
The crux of the problem is simple: dueling visions. Since the 1960s, the Park Service has embraced a "natural regulation" policy for Yellowstone, which rules out herding, testing, shooting, or removing wild bison. APHIS folks, in contrast, look at a bison and see a one-ton, four-legged germ that endangers one of its constituencies: the livestock industry. Complicating matters are groups such as the Maryland-based Fund for Animals, which threatens to sue if the government adopts any policy that includes killing bison. The Fund believes that the likelihood of bison-to-cattle brucellosis transmission is slim at best, and it's probably right. Transmission occurs when an infected female bison aborts and another animal licks or ingests the fetal material, but not a single bison-to-cattle transmission has been documented in the wild. Meanwhile, says Fund for Animals wildlife biologist D. J. Schubert, scores of Yellowstone elk also carry brucellosis, but no one's waging war against them. "It's absolutely ludicrous," says Schubert.
Heckert agrees, but he's been willing to bend a little. A wildlife biologist and bison expert, he's proposed trucking Yellowstone bison to rigidly controlled Choctaw quarantine facilities in Texas, ensuring that all animals are "clean" before distributing them to tribes. In February, after a flurry of meetings involving Racicot and federal bigwigs, it appeared that Heckert's proposal was gaining ground. In a total policy reversal, Interior declared that it was now willing to actively participate in reducing Yellowstone's herd. APHIS backed off on yanking Montana's brucellosis-free status and gave a thumbs-up to Heckert's idea. But even if all goes with unique smoothness, no action is expected until next fall, and that's if the Fund for Animals doesn't file a lawsuit.
The tribes, meanwhile, can only watch as the bison fall--over 200 so far this season. The Indians attempt, through prayers, to acknowledge an ancient pact of mutual benefit. "We tell them, 'We need your help to feed our hungry,'" says Alex White Plume, an Oglala Lakota. "We say, 'Maybe you're hungry, too.'"