The stakes are high, as the management of brucellosis is both a medical and political issue vexing scientists and politicians alike. The disease, known in the past as Bang’s Disease, has a definite impact on Montana’s cattlemen: it can cause cows to spontaneously abort fetuses. Economically, it means herds infected with the disease must undergo testing before cattle is shipped out of the state.
But whether Yellowstone bison actually transmit the disease to grazing herds of cattle is up for debate; experts can find no documented instance of transmission, and elk wandering through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are seen as a greater threat of transmitting the disease. Still, much attention has been paid to eradicating brucellosis in Yellowstone bison. One plan, floated for public comment by the National Park Service in May, is to vaccinate Yellowstone bison via air gun and bio-dart. The NPS issued a draft standard for the plan and asked for public comment.
The public comment has not been enthusiastic, to say the least. Surprisingly, some of the harshest criticisms of the plan came from the organization asking for public input: the National Park Service. “It’d take a lot of effort, a lot of money, and a lot of time, and there would be a limited result,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said on the topic. (In the defense of the NPS, the Interagency Bison Management Plan group actually came up with the proposal; the NPS is merely carrying out a promised analysis.)
Environmental groups have panned the idea, citing that only about 25 percent of wild bison in the park would end up with protection in 30 years, at a cost of $9 million. Both bulls and cows would need to be vaccinated, even though only females have a chance of transmitting the disease to cattle. (The theory is that cattle will eat the placenta from a bison birth in order to contract the disease. Yes, the link between bison and cattle when it comes to brucellosis is way past tenuous.) In addition, there are fears that such a small number of vaccinated bison would help accelerate evolution in the brucellosis virus. Darrell Geist, of the nonprofit Buffalo Field Campaign, said the program was “based on uncertainty” and would not be entirely effective.
The delivery method has also been criticized. Mark Pearson, national parks director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition said the “scheme for remote delivery of a vaccine doesn’t seem very effective or reliable.” He went on to say traditional syringe methods are more trustworthy, as well as the fact that bison would become provoked by the idea of being shot. Other groups have claimed the bullets would pose an environmental hazard.
In the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Geist laid out an option that certainly would have the support of many in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Instead of spending $9 million on harebrained vaccinations schemes, take that money and buy out the ranchers in the area. That way the cattlemen can avoid economic losses due to brucellosis and the bison can run free in an expanded area.
Public comment on the plan is still open, but given the response to date, we’re expecting that it will die a quick bureaucratic death. From now to July 26, you can mail your comments to the Yellowstone Superintendent. You can mail your letter to Superintendent Yellowstone National Park, Brucellosis Remote Vaccination Program for Bison DEIS Comments, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190. Alternatively, comments can be submitted to www.parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?parkID=111&projectID=10736&documentId=34079. —Sean Reichard
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