Saturday, December 09, 2006

Cowboy Mentality Dominates Bison Slaughter

BFC writes: "This is a terrific article that was printed in the Fall 2006 issue of the Western Watersheds Project's newsletter, 'Watersheds Messenger.' WWP's mission is to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives and litigation. Learn more at their site."

Cowboy Mentality Dominates Bison Slaughter
By George Wuerthner

The continuing bison slaughter by the Montana Department of Livestock outside of Yellowstone National Park is a demonstration of the "cowboy" mentality the industry uses to address any problem. Instead of using its brains, it resorts to brute force. If left unchallenged, I believe the industry's harsh tactics pose a threat to free roaming wildlife everywhere.

When you review the facts, it is difficult to believe that minimizing the threat of brucellosis is really the motivating force behind the livestock industry's actions.

Reasonable options that could address their concerns about disease transmission are ignored in favor of deadly force. This can only be explained if the brucellosis issue is a Trojan Horse hiding another motive. Whether admitted, many in the livestock industry fear the expansion of wild bison outside of parks. Such an expansion of wild free roaming bison can only come at the expense of the livestock industry. The industry, realizing this threat, is attempting to construct a Berlin Wall around our parks, destroying any animals that wander from these sanctuaries.

There are several points to keep in mind. The threat of brucellosis transmission from wild free-roaming bison is grossly exaggerated. Most bison don't even have the disease.

Secondly, even if infected with brucellosis, transmission to livestock can only occur by contact with body fluids. In other words, brucellosis can be harbored in many parts of a bison's body and still not pose a threat to livestock. Thus even if a bison tests positive for the disease, it may not pose a threat to livestock.

The only bison body fluids that pose a threat to livestock are those associated with birth or abortion. This alone means that even brucellosis infected bison wandering near cattle outside of the primary abortion or birth season don't pose a threat of infection at all. Yet this hasn't prevented agencies from killing them.

In addition, since only mature bison cows pose any threat of transmission, the killing of bison bulls makes no sense if your goal is mitigation of brucellosis transmission and only makes sense if control of bison is the ultimate goal.

Third, the brucella bacterium is extremely sensitive to things like heat, dehydration, and exposure to the environment. Even if a bison aborted a fetus it is unlikely the bacteria would remain viable (this is why the notion of wild free roaming bison not posing a threat is important). Under a laboratory situation you might be able to transmit brucellosis from bison to cattle, but that's like suggesting you could grow oranges in Montana under laboratory conditions. It's meaningless in the wild. No attempt to determine the real risks has been performed. The risk isn't zero, but it's darn close-essentially if other mitigation measures such as mandatory brucellosis vaccination for livestock and other measures were implemented.

Fourth, elk and other wildlife also carry the disease. And if brucellosis transmission were really as much a threat as the livestock agencies would have us believe, the target of control efforts should be elk, not bison. There are far more elk in the Ecosystem than bison. Even if a lower proportion of elk carried the disease, their greater numbers and distribution poses a far greater potential threat. Yet the livestock agency ignores elk. Why? I think because ranchers do not view elk as great a competitor for forage as bison.

Fifth, snowmobile use and roads in the park has facilitated movement of bison, yet livestock agencies make no effort to restrict snowmobile use. If they were truly concerned about minimizing bison movement, they should be among the staunchest supporters of restrictions on snowmobile travel in the park. But they are silent.

Sixth, mandatory vaccination of all livestock in the region is still not required. A serious attempt to limit brucellosis transmission from wildlife should include such mandatory vaccination as a prerequisite.

Seventh, part of the problem rests with federal and state laws and regulations. For example, APHIS continues to suggest that if brucellosis is discovered among domestic animals, it will have no choice but to yank a state's brucellosis free status. Yet it does have a choice. They have the authority to restrict any quarantine to a much smaller area from a county to even a single herd. State livestock industries need not suffer merely because a single herd or a few herds contract the disease. The agencies don't readily admit this to the public because they want to create a crisis situation to justify their extreme actions.

Eighth, for a fraction of the funds currently expended on the capture and killing of bison, compensation fund could be created to assist ranchers whose livestock may contract the disease from wildlife to pay for their extra expenses incurred by quarantine. Better yet, buying out of ranches in or near public lands where bison roam-such as the Church Universal Triumphant ranch near Gardiner, Montana and a few other strategically located ranches would go a long ways towards removing any threat of livestock-bison contact.

When you consider all of these facts together, the current slaughter of bison is unnecessary and unjustified. It's time to question the cowboy mentality of brute force as a solution to any problem or conflict. ###

George Wuerthner, co-editor of "Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West," is a Western Watersheds Project advisory board member who lives in Richmond, Vermont.

Also see:

The Cowboy and His Cow (Edward Abbey)

Earth's Last Wild Bison Being Slaughtered

Dispelling the Cowboy Myth: an Interview with George Wuerthner

Sacred Buffalo, Holy Cow: The Struggle for the Western Range


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