The search continues for 52 Yellowstone bison who left the Stephens Creek quarantine area through a cut fence.
The incident happened last Tuesday, January 16, 2018, when park staff discovered breaches in two pens where two separate groups of bull bison were being held. Yellowstone immediately opened a criminal investigation into the incident, alleging that the fences were cut with a bolt cutter.
Last Thursday, some of the bison were reportedly found near Mammoth Hot Springs, though park staff said “no effort will be made to recapture bison unless they return to the holding facility.”
According to Montana Public Radio, although the search continues, there’s no guarantee the bison will be found on a speedy basis:
Now the bison are scattered across an area larger than Delaware and park officials have launched a criminal investigation to find out what happened.
“I didn’t believe it when I was first told,” says park bison biologist Rick Wallen.
Finding these animals won’t be easy, he says, because there are thousands of bison in Yellowstone.
The only thing that sets the escaped animals apart is a tiny ear tag which can be hard to spot from long distances.
“Bison, in the winter time, are incredibly furry animals,” says [Yellowstone spokesperson Morgan] Warthin. “And so the fur, being so thick, covers up those tags. So it can be difficult to see the tag.”
The bison at Stephens Creek were being held until they were cleared of brucellosis, a disease that can spread to cattle and cause abortions and also necessitates quarantine and/or slaughter. Yellowstone bison are routinely hunted or slaughtered to keep their numbers down and prevent them from spreading out of Yellowstone, where rangers fear they will spread brucellosis.
To date, there have been no cases of bison-to-cattle brucellosis transmission.
Once sufficient time passed, the 52 bison would have been transferred to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in eastern Montana. Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that, even if the bison wander back to Stephens Creek and are penned up again, their previous quarantine may not carry over. Indeed, Zinke cautioned the bison’s quarantine clock may be reset entirely.
The hunting and slaughter of Yellowstone bison is a point of severe controversy among conservation, environmental, and animal rights groups, who argue it’s unnecessary and cruel. Quarantine is also controversial, albeit less so than hunting/slaughter.
Groups like the Buffalo Field Campaign, for instance, argue bison should be left alone entirely and allowed to roam the landscape as wild animals. According to MTPR, the group denies responsibility for the incident:
“Something like that from the campaign would be kind of detrimental to anything we’re trying to achieve,” [BFC coordinator Chris Hurley] says. “We don’t… it would fall back on us in a hard way and we might lose a lot. So it’s not condoned. We don’t agree to those kind of things.”
That being said, he’s kind of happy someone cut the animals loose.
Hurley says all Yellowstone bison should roam free. Even if it means they could be taken by hunters along the park’s boundaries.
“If they were be shot at a firing line in Beatty Gulch as a wild animal that seems better than spending their lives in captivity,” he says, “Once their in that facility they will never be wild animals again. After years of domestication and being fed and being watered just to be shipped to end up on lands somewhere is just insulting to this… which is our national mammal.”
Park staff told MTPR this impetus to treat bison as wild is the reason officials aren’t making proactive efforts to round up bison.