U.S. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, speaking in 1873:
“I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western plains, in its effect upon the Indians. I would regard it rather as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors.”
Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam
When I headed to West Yellowstone, Montana to observe Montana’s Department of Livestock (a group with absolutely no background in any biological sciences) in their inexplicable war upon North America’s last wild herd of bison, I had two motives. The primary concern was the bison themselves. After about three years of hearing sporadic reports of their ongoing slaughter, I must admit I was a bit baffled as to how this could still be going on. From everything I had heard, this issue had everything going for it to attract the public attention. I kept thinking, “This has all the elements of the sensational”; after all, the bison are, next to the bald eagle, the single most revered symbol/totem of the “New World.” There was the MDoL’s refusal to accommodate an offer to have all the cattle in question vaccinated from a microorganism that, although potentially dangerous, had NEVER been known to transmit from bison to either human OR cattle. Elk – yes. Bison – no! Another reason of mine for plugging into the Buffalo Field Campaign was that in the past four years my focus as an activist and a journalist had strayed from being primarily ecological to other, less universal concerns. I make no apologies; they are important issues. Yet without nutritive soil, decent air, healthy water, and a biodiverse ecosystem, what befalls Yugoslavia, Colombia, Afghanistan, Palestine, Venezuela, or Indonesia matters not at all.
One of the first things that grabbed my attention during my week long tutelage, workshop, and exercise in setting aside my personal differences with people for the attainment of a common goal, was that the bison had NEVER been listed as an endangered species. Apparently, the “reasoning” behind this fallacy is that they are, genetically, not appreciably different from cattle. This is baseless as such a study has never been conducted. So goes the argument, a female bison’s ovum can be fertilized by the sperm of a domesticated bull, something that never occurs in nature, i.e. all “beefalo” are a result of artificial insemination. By this reasoning, your Rottweiler is a wolf merely because it can become impregnated by one and this DOES occur without the meddling hand of man.
In fact, Yellowstone’s bison don’t even officially exist, managing to not be listed as a species even present there by the National Park Service. They’re there alright – and they’re big. You can’t miss them. Given the fact that there is a considerable mandate for their protection, one can only conclude that their exclusion is political in nature. Perhaps putting the bison on paper would open legal doorways for their protection. It seems that there have been people in key governmental positions for some time with interests vested against such a scenario, and the bison; perhaps for a hundred and fifty years.
Think on this: a yearling calf that is not infected with brucellosis and is not posing a problem for anyone can have his/her head auctioned off. These “trophies” have gone for as little as a dollar, indicating that people who attend such auctions find it distasteful – not Montana’s Department of Livestock! Such auctions netted the MDoL, last year, over $180,000 – an established motive?
Is it any wonder many Montana reservations refuse the meat offered by the MDoL obtained from such crimes?
There is not a single recorded incident of transmission of brucellosis from bison to either cattle or human. A Texas A&M study is often cited to argue otherwise but in that study bison were HEAVILY dosed with the microbe and the bison and cattle were confined together in tight quarters.
Human health arguments are, as well, severely flawed. Despite hundreds of people butchering Yellowstone bison, many with their bare hands, not one of those contracted the bacteria. There ARE five known cases of transmission from elk to human, however.
The principle route of transmission of this protist is through contact with an infected, aborted fetus. As such, pregnant bison pose a theoretical risk of transmission yet the window for such an occurrence, as I shall demonstrate, and as is ALREADY demonstrated by its never having occurred, is infinitesimal.
Some have argued that cattle could become infected by licking a live, newborn calf. After spending a week watching these monolithic, four- legged forces of nature playing, grazing, and battling for dominance, I am pretty sure that any domestic cow or bull that tried to get near one of the bison’s young would be quickly and properly escorted from its erroneous ways.
In order for brucellosis to be transmitted from bison to cattle, the following factors must ALL be in place:
1. A pregnant female bison must walk out of Yellowstone National Park between June and October (when cattle are present in the general vicinity) and this is uncommon.
2. The female must abort – something that is extremely rare.
3. The aborted fetus must remain un-scavenged until cattle enter the area. I was just there and there are scavengers aplenty of the kind that aren’t affected by brucellosis. Besides, the herd will almost always eat the aborted fetus, the placenta, the mucus – everything.
4. Cattle must arrive within four hours if the fetus is left in direct sunlight after which, it dies.
Despite all of this, Montana’s MDoL has shown that they are willing to kill any bison of any age or sex, regardless of whether or not it is known that they are brucellosis-free, that steps out of the park.
Know that a 30-60 day period of separation between bison and cattle is observed, further diminishing this already microscopic window of risk. When ranchers were offered to have the cattle vaccinated (the vaccine has been shown to be 70% effective) they declined. This would have reduced the hair-thin risk window by another seventy percent.
RECENTLY A couple of weeks ago, a judge ruled that this year’s grazing allotments must be canceled because an Environmental Impact Statement, required every ten years, was not done. A few days later, the MDoL killed twenty-nine of these creatures. They posed no threat to any cattle or human yet the MDoL, in their arrogance, were sure that an appeal with absolutely no base would go through. It didn’t. Another judge ruled the same. No cattle this year. Do the EIS. Too late for those twenty-nine.
A few days later, after the capture facility had been packed up for the season, in their spite, they came back out for the sole purpose of shooting two bison that were practicing something that Shane (head cowpoke) and his boys do not: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This was a new experience for me, losing a bison I had actually known, though it happened after I left West Yellowstone.
He was magnificent. He was peaceful. He practiced a creed we usually only speak about practicing: live and let live.
This mighty manifestation of the same force that powers the universe was marked – in two ways. He was marked and tagged from having been already tested for brucellosis – meaning he was KNOWN by his murderers as not being a carrier. He was also marked in a different way, targeted to satisfy the urge of a few deranged primates who get off on playing the hunter.
The bison were the livelihood of millions of people indigenous to the Americas. As it turns out, it is for this reason that at the turn of the century, only twenty-three remained.
In 1871, R.C. McCormick, the congressional delegate from the Arizona Territory, introduced a bill in the U.S. House for the protection of the bison, but it never made it out of committee. He tried again the next year by showing other congressmen an illustrated article in Harper’s Weekly that warned of their impending extermination.
McCormick also read letters on the House floor from army officers, Indian agents, and the head of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, all of whom urged that the federal government take action.
McCormick overplayed his hand, however, when he read a letter pointing out the devastating effect the loss of the bison had on the plains Indians. It reminded congressmen who favored a “hard-line” Indian policy that allowing the destruction of the bison would expedite their goal of undermining the native population. Widespread newspaper reporting of the continued decimation of the bison generated support for protective legislation, so that a bill finally passed both houses of Congress in the spring of 1874. President Ulysses S. Grant pocket-vetoed the measure. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano had recently reported to the president that “the total disappearance of the buffalo” was an effective way to encourage the Indians to adopt an agricultural lifestyle, which (white) reformers desired. Grant’s chief military advisors on Indian policy, Generals William Sherman and Philip Sheridan, argued that the Indians would be forced to capitulate to the army once the bison were gone.
By the mid 1880’s, only a few hundred bison existed, located primarily in the area of Yellowstone National Park. The 1872 law establishing the park prohibited the “wanton destruction of fish or game for the sole purposes of merchandise or profit.” Poachers, though, took advantage of the absence of enforcement mechanisms and lack of funding for the park’s first five years. Conditions were so bad in 1886 that a U.S. Cavalry unit had to police the park. The situation remained much the same until 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the Yellowstone Protection Act into law. It banned killing game, cutting timber, or removing mineral deposits upon penalty of fines and jail time.
Just as in the nineteenth century, white man wages war on something that does not threaten him. That was the legacy we as Americans inherited. We railed, at times, for being held accountable for the sins of our grandfathers. Shall we rail against being held accountable for the sins of OUR age? Well who else WOULD be responsible? Who is there to account for such if not ourselves? Will our children get by in spite of our apathy? I offer a different scenario – a vision that I hope you can identify with: may they thrive BECAUSE of our EFFORTS!
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I was hurt to find out about 29 bison being slaughtered two weeks ago. It seems the MDoL has 202 confirmed kills this year including 72 from April 29-30 (12.1 MB) http://www.angelfire.com/mi/smilinks/72_Slaughtered.mov
Originally posted by Eric Stewart, BFC Volunteer 2002 under the title “A WEEK IN MONTANA”.
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