The population, however, is lower than the peak of 4,900 bison in 2005.
Bison in Yellowstone are a source of controversy among conservation groups, American Indians, the Park Service, livestock growers and officials in Montana. Ranchers and others say the animals harbor the disease brucellosis, a threat to stock, and migrate out of the park in the winter. They don't want them around their livestock.
The Buffalo Field Campaign argues the threat is way overblown. They say only a relatively small percentage of Yellowstone buffalo are actually infected with brucellosis. Brucellosis does not have any significant impact on the health of the Yellowstone buffalo. The risk of transmission between wild buffalo and cattle is extremely low. Relatively few susceptible cattle graze in the Yellowstone area and most are not present when transmission is even a possibility. Some doubt that it ever has happened.
Professor emeritus Paul Nicoletti, D.M.V., College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida, who has conducted research on brucellosis, agrees the risk is minimal. “Bison bulls, calves, yearlings, and non-pregnant cows pose no risk,” he says, adding while pregnant bison do pose a theoretical risk it is diminished because not all pregnant bison are infected, not all emigrate from the park, experience an abortion or reproductive failure.
The risk, he says, is further reduced by separation of cattle and bison, by predators and scavengers who consume fetuses and contaminated reproductive materials, cattle vaccination and the lack of bacteria during spring and summer months.
The controversy about brucellosis in buffalo may be beside the point considering the disease is endemic in Yellowstone elk, free to move in and out of the park.
“You could shoot it out of existence among the bison tomorrow and they still might get it from the elk the next day. Or the cattle could get it directly from the elk,” says Merritt Clifton, editor of the leading independent newspaper Animal People. Clifton, who has written about the issue for 20 years, told this newspaper eliminating brucellosis from the elk is logistically even more unlikely than trying to eliminate it altogether from the bison.
“I suspect that the real solution is going to have to be developing vaccinations for cattle that won’t give false positives.”
Through an interagency agreement, the bison are hazed back to Yellowstone, shot in Montana, corralled at the park border and shipped to slaughter, or allowed to wander. But, conservation groups say the bison should be allowed to follow historical migration routes out of the park, where public land at lower elevations provides better forage for the animals.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) admits that Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the U.S. where wild bison have continuously existed since prehistoric times.
The Buffalo Field Campaign recently attempted to have the Yellowstone bison included on the Endangered Species list, claiming the herd meets the requirements to be classified as threatened or endangered. The Department of Interior denied the petition, after examining the issue and determining the Yellowstone bison herd is not threatened or endangered.
The following is from Native Times.
Majestic Yellowstone Bison Receive Native American Prayers
Sacred prayers and songs were lifted for the Yellowstone buffalo herd by Native American elders led by Scott Frazier (Santee/Crow, and assisted by Dr. Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne) and John Potter (Ojibway). The resting buffalo were gathered in a large meadow on the South edge of Yellowstone Park near the boundary line that stands literally for life or death if crossed by the bison during the winter months when they travel outside park perimeters in search of better forage.
Buffalo herds once numbered 30 to 60 million across North America but were slaughtered nearly to the point of extinction during the late 1800s. As of the spring of 2006, the Yellowstone herd has approximately 3,500 remaining buffalo. Forced to remain inside the confines of Yellowstone Park, the buffalo are subjected to repeated harassment or death as a result of leaving the border lines the animals do not see nor sense.
Buffalo were the sustaining force for the American Indian people for centuries. The balance of supply and demand, weather patterns, and over use of one part of the ecological web affected both bison and human. The plains tribes honor the buffalo in their religious belief and ceremony, depended upon them for their shelter, food, and daily living requirements. Many of the tribes are now part of a hunting program developed by Montana leaders who say buffalo must be killed to keep population in balance. Their efforts are attempting to return some of the buffalo back to the tribes that originally hunted them originally in this area.
Scott Frazier has spent the better part of his life attempting to help protect the Yellowstone herd. When trying to explain the spritiual impact the buffalo have for the people, he explains, "I've been asked many times why the buffalo are so important. I have always seen them as the life that is holy. The buffalo has always been the life force of this land. They gave themselves in many ways so that others could learn, live, and be religiously fulfilled. Peoples of the plains could have not found the strength to exist without the buffalo. There is a power unknown to humans that the buffalo answers."
Though the struggle to procure extra grazing land as a buffer zone for the bison herd outside the park’s boundaries has been attempted, there has not been an entirely affective solution to the problems of migrating buffalo yet.
Despite enormous public outcry by Native tribes, wildlife protection groups and the worldwide community of visitors who come to Yellowstone, the agreement between federal and state agencies continues to places the economic interest of Montana’s livestock industry above the welfare of the buffalo herd.
With the Federal and State government agencies in control, the buffalo have been chased by helicopter and snowmobiles, captured and held in pens, endured experimental testing and slaughter programs that have all resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 Yellowstone buffalo since the mid 1980s. There were 0 kills in the 1999/2000 season but that number skyrocketed to 1,016 buffalo killed during the 2005/2006 season.
Buffalo are migratory like other wildlife in the park and they naturally seek out better food supplies during the heavy snows in winter and spring. Crossing a park boundary line into the path of domestic cattle is leading to their demise where Montana’s livestock industry and the state of Montana maintains a zero-tolerance policy for wild buffalo.
Scott Frazier and those who know the significance of the buffalo hope and pray there will be changes to the treatment the herd has historically been given.
Scott explains this relationship with the buffalo by saying, “The buffalo are trying to awaken us to understand the potential of all relationships to the creation. There are those who walk with the buffalo. They come here to stand in the light of the moment. There is a great relationship happening here, between the holy and the human. It has always been my belief that the buffalo are studying us and relating their findings to the Creator. We are under the microscope of the cosmos in a time when we as humans consider ourselves a higher life form. However, in this time we grow old and change is slow. Many humans do not understand their relationship within the balance and continue to treat the animals poorly. Some humans forget their potential to change and become holy. The buffalo are here to help awaken those people to change. They don't realize that the buffalo are watching.”