The findings raise hopes of park managers, Native American tribes
and wildlife advocates that efforts to restore bison populations
derived from the nation's last pure-bred band of wild bison will
face less resistance from the cattle industry.
But representatives of cattle producers who have long fought to keep
Yellowstone's wild bison, or buffalo, from straying outside the park
say their concerns are not entirely allayed by the study.
The research was due to be published in Saturday's edition of the
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"The study is a valuable contribution to advancing bison
conservation," said David Hallac, chief of the Yellowstone Center
for Resources, the park's science and research branch.
Bison once ranged by the tens of millions west of the Mississippi
until systematic hunting reduced their numbers to the fewer than 50
that found refuge in Yellowstone National Park in the early 20th
Today, the more than 4,000 buffalo that roam Yellowstone are a top
tourist attraction in the park, which occupies the northwestern
corner of Wyoming and spills over into Idaho and Montana. But the
iconic animals face capture and death when they wander beyond the
park in Montana during winter in search of food.
Roughly half of Yellowstone bison have been exposed to brucellosis,
an infection that can cause stillbirths in cows and was introduced
to the park by domestic livestock.
Montana's cattle industry, an influential political constituency in
the state, fears that straying buffalo will transmit the illness to
cows that graze near Yellowstone. That could cause Montana to lose
its brucellosis-free status, which allows cattle to be shipped out
of state without testing and preserves their market value.
WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM
Those worries helped shape a federal-state management plan for
Yellowstone bison that has allowed thousands to be shipped to
slaughter when harsh winters lead them from the snow-covered high
country to winter range in lower elevations outside the park in
The practice has been mired in controversy, a key reason the USDA
sought to determine if quarantining bison would keep them
brucellosis free, and thus eligible for transplant to Western states
beyond the park without endangering cattle.
Three years of experiments conducted on quarantined Yellowstone
buffalo by animal disease specialists with the USDA and a scientist
from the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society show that culling
out bison calves exposed to brucellosis can make for a disease-free
[to top of second column]
"The key conclusion is that it's feasible for us to take bison from
Yellowstone and make them eligible to be used for restoration," said
the society's Keith Aune, a co-author of the study. "They are a very
important source of genes that harken back to the ancient DNA of
North American bison."
The restoration in the past two years of Yellowstone buffalo to
their historic range on Indian lands in Montana has been celebrated
by tribes but resisted by ranchers worried about disease,
competition for grass and property destruction from straying bison.
Jay Bodner, natural resource director for the Montana Stockgrowers
Association, said fears of disease are lessened but not eliminated
by the study.
The findings show no persistent infection in the quarantined bison,
but that doesn't rule out latent infections, he said.
"There are still qualms in the livestock industry. Certainly, there
are management concerns. How many bison on the landscape are enough?
How do you contain animals that can walk right through most fences?"
Robert Magnan, head of the fish and wildlife department for the
Sioux and Assiniboine tribes in northeastern Montana, oversaw the
return in 2012 of 60 wild buffalo to their homeland on the Fork Peck
The landmark restoration, fought by ranchers, symbolized a new hope
to an ancient people whose cultural and religious practices were
intertwined with vast buffalo herds that were all but extinct by the
late 19th century, he said.
Magnan said the research will open the way for Fort Peck and other
reservations to claim healthy Yellowstone bison marked for
"We look at them as our relatives," he said. "They took care of us
for hundreds of thousands of years. Now the shoe's on the other
foot. It's time we stand up and help them."
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and David
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