Congress Looks at Solutions to Yellowstone Bison Debate

Yesterday in Congress the first hearings in many years were held over bison management in and near Yellowstone Park. The hearing showed that pressure is building to -change the many years of bison harassment and slaughter by the state of Montana and stance of the federal government agency APHIS which uses the club of losing “brucellosis-free” status to keep the bison slaughter/bison confinement program going.

I was able to listen the part of the hearings via audio webcast on the Internet. Although I have been writing about the bison situation since 1996, the hearings told me I had underestimated one aspect of the long controversy — political partisanship. I had located core of opposition to a more rational and more humane bison management program to Montana livestock industry’s attempt to maintain cultural hegemony, but I underestimated the role of the Republican Party.

Testimony on all sides of the issue were given, but the hearing was quite friendly to change on the bison range. However, the most bison hostile testimony was made by Montana’s lone House member Republican Denny Rehberg. Rehberg used essentially every argument ever made against free ranging Yellowstone bison, including even such canards as brucellosis is a potential terrorist agent similar to anthrax.

Although he gave no formal testimony, the committee’s ranking minority member, Republican Rob Bishop of Utah, also struck a very hostile tone.

Montana’s popular Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer was most cleaver [oops 😉 While he made the traditional bows to things such as Montana’s brucellosis free status, he portrayed the current management was one that wasted taxpayer dollars. These monies could be used instead to vaccinate the several hundred cattle the remain in the Greater Yellowstone area where bison might roam and to buy out the cattle grazing.

One aspect that amused me was the continual reference to Idaho and Wyoming losing their brucellosis free status. Probably more was said at the hearing about Idaho losing its status, than has been written by the Idaho media about the matter over the entire history of its loss. It has been a non-story in Idaho, showing just how unimportant is brucellosis-free status.

As usual, there was little recognition of what keeps the brucellosis infection going. It has nothing to do with Yellowstone Park or Yellowstone bison. It is the winter feeding of elk south of the Park in Wyoming where brucellosis infection rates are much higher than inside Yellowstone Park, and where the bulk of the transmission takes place.

Here is the story in the Jackson Hole Star Tribune. How to manage park bison? By Noelle Struab. Jackson Hole Star-Tribune Washington bureau.




  1. Monty Avatar

    Mainstream politics is increaslying hostile to biology & (even) science. As an example, the mathamatical certainity of geologic carbon dating is blithely dismissed as another one of those liberal scientific hoaxes. They view the “natural world” as a threat to the human condition & would replace it with a totally modified human world of predictability & sameness. They hate the “wild” as wildlands are speed bumps slowing down “eternal” human expansion! Moderation & restraint are for wimps

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I know this is true.

    That is one reason why I, as an academic, felt compelled to step out of the ivory tower to actively defend science, and start to write on the web — to become one finger in the dike holding back a new “dark age,” ready to flood the world.

    Few people read my academic conference papers. That is true of almost every academic no matter how esteemed or mediocre their scholarship, but 3000 people read this blog a day.

  3. Jeff Avatar

    Ralph can you tell who reads your blog or is it just number of hits? If I check three times a day for updates am I recorded as 1 visitor or 3? Just wondering…

  4. Pronghorn Avatar

    I watched the hearing (although I missed Rehberg’s initial hissy-fit bully-rant) and agree–it was more open to positive change than one could have hoped for in lo, these many years. Bison advocates owe a debt of gratitude to NicK Rahall, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Raul Grijalva, Chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, etc.

    You are so right, Schweitzer was most “cleaver.” On second thought, I’ll bet you meant “clever,” but “cleaver” fits, as he tried to cut it every which way. If he said “I’m a rancher” once, he said it 20 times, yet he knows darn well the current arrangement just isn’t working. Some of his stuff was just crap, not based on anything resembling reality–e.g., the herd has to be reduced to the number where they will stay in the park “most” winters; the park is overgrazed more than most ranches in Montana (he cited the thermal areas as one proof of that! Duh!) He talked out of both sides of his mouth, for sure, and contradicted himself a few times…we don’t have the “resolve” to eradicate brucellosis (maybe that’s because it’s impossible?), but Congress should give NPS the tools to eradicate brucellosis… From there he played the other side for awhile, gee, some ranchers won’t like it if we eradicate brucellosis, there will be bison everywhere, downtown Bozeman, standing on the interstate, blah blah blah. Real folksy. Later on, one of the committee members who has no idea what life on the ground out here is all about, asked him about that, won’t we need to manage for the “bison everywhere” scenario? Then the guv had to backpedal.

    I really liked it, though, when he went head-to-head with the odious USDA-APHIS guy, who, being a typical status-quo bureaucrat from a bloated bureaucracy, held on with a death grip to the idea that brucellosis HAS to be eradicated from the GYA, and that in the meantime, the Interagency Bison Management Plan is working, and nothing, but nothing else will work. Brian was like, It’s NOT working when two out of three states have lost their B-free status, etc. etc. B.S. is the consummate politician, but I do give him credit for the dance he’s doing. It can’t be easy, and in a state like Montana….hooo-eee.

    Even Bishop, who was indeed a hostile one, but not being one of the typical players from the northern Rockies who plays the bison/brucellosis card because it’s convenient (not because it’s true), kept trying to nail the GAO woman about why her study was only looking at bison when elk also carry brucellosis???

    But Suzanne Lewis (YNP superintendent) and one Mr. Soukup, NPS official, came down more pro-bison than not. Both adamantly maintained that the park is not overgrazed, that carrying capacity might be anywhere from 5500-7500, but that it’s not an issue because the herd is self-regulating….Mr. Soukup even went so far as to admit (when really nailed down for an answer) that a free-ranging herd is a higher priority than a disease-free herd!

    Then there was this Dr. Kay from Utah, whose testimony (available here ) was based, apparently, on the “myth of once-abundant wildlife” and “aboriginal overkill.” I, for one, felt he was bogus when he cited something (sorry, I missed lots of his stuff, he talked so fast) about a study showing that when there are too many bison, some protein test indicates that they start consuming their own muscle mass and somehow he came around to the idea that this shows that the ideal number of bison is (drum roll): 3000, the same arbitrary number cited in the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

    If I may quote Ralph,
    “Dr. Charles Kay, at Utah State University, and others, have long complained the northern range herd is too large. Kay cites the decline of aspen, willows, and beaver inside Yellowstone as the result of an “excessive number” of elk. More recently, he has added to this his view that the original peoples of the area kept elk numbers very low because the human population was much higher than anthropologists previously believed. As a result, the present large elk population is without precedent, and it is changing to ecology of the northern range to something that has never existed before.

    I think his hypothesis is interesting, but it is not relevant unless we, today, are under some ethical mandate to restore a condition of ungulate-paucity that might have accompanied a speculative human overpopulation back in 400, 800, 900 or 1200 A.D.”

    “Ungulate-paucity,” I like that. I mean, I DON’T like that!

  5. be Avatar

    if you check back 3 or 4 times a day you are counted once – the software recognizes your IP address and will only count redundant IPs once – that is of course, unless your internet service provider jumps you from IP address to IP address, but that only really happens when they are working on technical issues – so, you are counted once…

  6. kt Avatar

    Charles Kay has always seemed sort of “Sagebrush Rebelly” to me – really seming to despise the federal government … He did a fine aspen report on BLM lands in Battle Mountain, NV though – visited all the BLM exclosures with aspen in the Simpson Park and other remote ranges – and found the amazing (not) fact that barbed wire protection results in stunning recovery of aspen clones. Outside the exclosures, nary an aspen sucker to be found … The study was good in that the effects of the bovine blight on “aspen clone health” was so overwhelmingly …


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ralph Maughan