Buffalo hazing back — but was it necessary?

Advocates and wildlife officials are squaring off over the latest hazing of Yellowstone National Park bison, with Park officials defending the use of helicopters and herders to move a herd back into the Park earlier this month.

A herd had wandered into an area of the Gallatin National Forest west of Yellowstone National Park and 800 acres of the nearby Horse Butte peninsula, an area where the landowners have agreed to let bison graze. There are no cattle in either area, though next month stockmen are expected to locate a herd nearby.

Bison don’t have much respect for Park boundaries; they tend to go where they want, where they want. When they wander far away from Yellowstone National Park, however, there are consequences. Area stockmen view bison as deadly carriers of brucellosis, a disease potentially transmitted to cattle in a very indirect way; the theory is that bison placenta eaten by cattle will infect a herd, and a herd infected with brucellosis means testing and higher costs for the stockmen. And with an outbreak in the region, the stockmen are skitterish, (Of course, common sense dictates brucellosis is highly unlikely to be transmitted via placenta in this method, and that the more likely carriers of brucellosis are the tens of thousands elk freely moving through the region.)

So if the bison were grazing on areas designated as safe havens, why the hazing? Simply put: the management groups believe, rightly or wrongly, that bison belong in the Park, and the risk of letting them roam freely outweighs any stress caused by hazing. Period.

Still, compared to previous springs, the hazing was a fairly mild incident. No bison were slaughtered this winter, as opposed to 2008, when a drastic culling of the herd — some 1,600 bison were slaughtered — led to some rather loud protests from the conservation community. A much-touted management plan to allow 25 brucellosis-free bison onto the Royal Teton Ranch was never implemented because no bison made a move north of the Park.

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