Cattle industry domination over elk and bison

Op-Ed. By Stephany J. Seay. Buffalo Field Campaign. West Yellowstone, Montana

GNF Supervisor Mary Erickson’s morbid sense of humor claims renewal of the Department of Livestock’s permit for the Horse Butte bison trap is a “tool of tolerance.”  It certainly fits with Governor Schweitzer’s interpretation of “more tolerance” for wild bison; all we’ve seen from his Administration is a canned hunt and the largest-scale slaughter since the 1800s.

The private/public Horse Butte peninsula is 100% cattle-free; residents welcome buffalo and oppose the trap and DOL’s presence.  At the dawn of the Adaptive Management Plan (AMP) crafted by IBMP partners, the trap is a serious contradiction.  But, the brucellosis argument is full of contradictions.

Example:  on Yellowstone’s north boundary, buffalo are allowed year-round access to Eagle Creek, though there’s a small cattle operation there.  But on cattle-free Horse Butte, buffalo are only allowed access from Nov-May, with half of that time open to hunting.  Then, there’s the Baker brucellosis incident in ’07; DOL correspondence reveals that a Montana vet allowed shipment of 44 head of potentially brucellosis-infected cattle to Iowa before test results came back, which proved to be brucellosis-positive.  Most of the samples taken from the infected cattle were destroyed, so conveniently the industry’s scientists immediately claimed elk were the source.  Montana’s second case of brucellosis infected cattle again placed the blame on elk with inconclusive science.

Elk are now in the crosshairs, and Montana’s new Brucellosis (in)Action Plan heavily targets them with efforts to reduce their numbers by 3000 in the Madison Valley, while already two elk testing sero-positive for exposure to brucellosis were shot by FWP near Gardiner.  Like the AMP, the BAP lacks substance:  outside of last minute testing before travel, ranchers are not required to follow any of the “suggested” risk management actions.  No booster/adult vaccinations, testing of aborted fetuses, game-proof fencing, or stocking of brucellosis-proof animals required.  Moreover, taxpayers pay for any costs incurred by producers.

Once Montana regains its class-free status, the BAP goes away. The debate is painted as brucellosis risk management when it’s wildlife, but risk management takes a back seat when it’s targeted at cattle. If brucellosis is such an economic threat to the industry, why aren’t producers mandated to take real, lasting action? Why aren’t producers throughout the GYA demanding the phase-out of elk feed-grounds? Because the industry knows that wildlife to livestock transmissions are remotely low (Kilpatrick et al, 2009).  This isn’t about brucellosis:  it’s about who gets to eat the grass.

This centuries-old range war becomes more evident in recent reports of rancher opposition to the release of disease-free bison.  It’s simply a crime to be a buffalo regaining native ground.  Furthering their cause, ranchers are demanding a seat on Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission as if their interests aren’t already fully represented in every action government agencies take against wildlife. The air of entitlement exuded by the cattle industry suffocates the integrity of wildlife and wild places, while it gorges itself at the dwindling public trough.

Sound science and basic logic understand that free-living, migrating wild buffalo and elk pose no threat to well-managed cattle.  Hoarding grass to maintain a lifestyle that fuels the death of the wild, however, poses an unacceptable threat to healthy ecosystems.  The industry needs to take real responsibility and shift its focus to the manageable element: cattle. And IBMP agencies and Governor Schweitzer should take note that the meaning of tolerance doesn’t jive with traps, hunts, zones, or slaughter; rather, synonyms for tolerance are:  leniency, mercy, compassion, kindness, and humanity.  Fourth-generation ranchers claim cattle production is Montana’s heritage, but the hundreds of generations here before them, and future generations of Americans embrace wild buffalo and elk as North America’s heritage; Montana’s cattle industry must stop squandering it away.

Stephany Seay is the Media & Outreach Coordinator for the volunteer-based Buffalo Field Campaign.  BFC is the only group working in the field every day in defense of America’s last wild population of buffalo.  More information about BFC and the issue can be found at



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  1. Salle Avatar

    This is just another example of the fine American value of, “Hey, if it’s causing anyone a problem, let’s just kill it. Problem solved.”

    I’ve seen this happen all too often in so many issues, including with humans, that I can’t say that the set of so called values Americans espouse are truly worth endorsement.

  2. jburnham Avatar

    Well said.
    Did this run in any papers? I haven’t seen it.

  3. John d. Avatar
    John d.

    And only a few months ago the Northern Rockies were said to have an elk shortage due to wolves slaughtering them for kicks. Elk numbers are definitely going to drastically drop after this, though it won’t be called a slaughter just an extensive wildlife management project to ‘improve’ game herds. Then we begin the lovely domino effect up the food chain.

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Stephany Seay wrote the op ed for this web site.

  5. Bea Elliott Avatar

    And speaking of cattle and who gets to eat grass… there’s a wonderful article about the rounding up of mustangs in Nat Geo Feb issue:

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