Environmental politics and the euthanized bison calf

bison yellowstone

Waiting for a bison in the road – Yellowstone National Park a couple years ago.

Bison have been in the news lately.

President Obama signed legislation designating the American Bison as the national animal. (See, Congress can get stuff done when it wants).

One of the more bizarre bison stories made the rounds this week which explains why the Northern Arapaho community in Wyoming has had a tough time getting any bison for its tribal ceremonies.

Seems a couple international tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park was quite concerned about the health and safety of a newborn bison calf that had wandered away from its herd.


This now famous bison calf was collected by a couple tourists in Yellowstone recently. They thought the young animal was cold and in danger.

The well intended park visitors scooped up the maverick and placed it in the back of their SUV and proceeded to notify the park rangers of their concern.

Turns out their unlawful act of kindness resulted in a ticket and fine.

The story has a not-so-happy ending because after repeated attempts to reunite the calf with its mother and herd, it was rejected and park wildlife officials had to put the young animal down.

Some of my friends were aghast wondering why there isn’t a bison rescue organization,  that could have taken the orphaned calf and nurtured it.

That makes a lot of sense but unfortunately, bison are among the most political animals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

gye map

Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been the home for conflicts between wildlife and livestock interests.

This bison calf would have a big identity crisis had it wandered into Wyoming because it could be treated as livestock or wildlife or both.

There’s a political skirmish between cattle ranchers and wildlife managers as to the proper jurisdiction – in fact, the state vet and wikdlife managers both have jurisdiction.

What complicates the matter is a contagious disease called brucellosis which isn’t harmful to people, in most cases, but when the bacteria gets into a cattle herd, all animals generally have to be destroyed and the state quarantined.

You’ll recall there was a big furor a few years back about mad cow’s disease. Most recently, there were many chickens destroyed because of avian flu which is why poutry is still expensive.

How does all this happen?

The disease epidemiology is very complex biologically, but causes huge economic impacts that not only include the domestic livestock industry and wildlife management, but also the tourism industry.

Over the years, due to US National Park Service herd management, certain elk populations outgrow their environments. Bison contracted the disease from the over populated elk herds in this case, the GYE.

Bison wander out of the park, elk migrate to and from and the conflict originated when cattle ranchers began to develop infected herds and the blame fell primarily on the bison because they are more sedentary, as opposed to migratory.

Montana treats bison mire like wildlife and through the state veterinarian’s and wildlifr offices there and the US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has a brucellosis quarantine facility set up just ourside the park. (Fun Fact – APHIS is the agency that oversees the safety of airports so the chance that birds smack into airplanes is minimized).

Bison that leave the park are given a blood test and checked for brucellosis. if they are positive, they are slaughtered, if they are negative, they are put into quarantine and eventually released back to the park.

kids bison

This bison was part of a Northern Arapaho tribal ceremony in November. There are community members who want to reestablish bison on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The bison calf in question could have been tested. If it tested positive, it would have been put down. If it was negative, it would have been quarantined and someone, would have had to stick with it for 30 days or more.

Even if that care taking did happen, my druthers would have been to give it to the Northern Arapaho Tribe to help them reestablish a bison herd on the Wind River Indian Reservation in a highly managed pasture – as opposed to free-roaming.

The fact is, Wyoming is currently NOT a brucellosis free state. In the Cliff Notes version of the process, this means the bison calf, if it was tested and found to be brucellosis-free, as well as others could be culled from the Yellowstone herd, quarantined on Northern Arapaho land and allowed to propagate for tribal ceremonial purposes.

There’s currently a prototype already operating at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins with Yellowstone brucellosis-free bison. There’s a small herd now on the Soap Stone open space park by Livermore.

Take away the politics and this isn’t rocket science.




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