Where do the Buffalo Roam?
Is a question many in the West are trying to answer. Wild herds of American Bison (commonly called Buffalo), once roamed the great plains in the tens of millions as part of a complex, sustainable and highly productive ecosystem. As most people know, due to extensive hunting by the 1880's only 500 bison remained. At the time, Teddy Roosevelt in an effort to save the species from extinction helped concentrate the remaining herds into Yellowstone National Park. Today, there are an estimated 3,000 wild bison still concentrated in and around Yellowstone. But these emblematic beasts are under the gun yet again. In the past two decades government agencies have killed more than 6,000 bison migrating out of Yellowstone, primarily as a response to the disease brucellosis. Emerging diseases like brucellosis along with outdated land management practices put bison (and increasingly the ecosystem) between a rock and a hard place. Is there a sustainable future for the bison as well as the people who live around Yellowstone?
Brucellosis is No Picnic
"Brucellosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria in the genus Brucella", says the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The bacteria are known to cause abortions in cows, and can lead to long term health issues in a herd. Brucellosis is also a zoonotic disease, as it can pass between different species of animals and humans. In people, brucellosis can be difficult to treat, and although it is rarely lethal, it can cause long term and permanent health impacts.
Brucellosis is not common in the United States, and is primarily concentrated in and around Yellowstone. It is suspected that wild elk and bison populations remain a reservoir of the disease. However the various land management solutions currently implemented to contain this risk border on the ridiculous.
Brucellosis is Tough to Manage
Culling of bison herds that follow their migratory nature, and migrate out of the park, has not only proved to be controversial and completely ineffective but cost the state of Montana an estimated $19 million since 2002. Current proposals have been put forward to attempt similar culling of elk, which critics say may prove to be a much more challenging and expensive bungle.
One example of a far-fetched management strategy currently proposed is the idea to vaccinate wild animals to control the spread of the disease. Not only are current vaccines for wild animals ineffective, but capturing, testing, and vaccinating entire herds of free roaming elk is an impossibly expensive task. Have you ever tried to sneak up on an elk? Even the vaccination of cattle herds (I'm pretty sure we could sneak up on them) represents a challenge as the vaccine has only been shown to be 60-70% effective.
Research into vaccination might one day give us the tools to eradicate brucellosis, but at this time there is no effective solution for eradicating brucellosis from the wildlife at Yellowstone National Park. The most encouraging strategies we have seen suggested are those that attempt to reduce the spread of brucellosis through programs that work with the natural ecosystem of Yellowstone, and with the animals tendencies for migration.
Need to Manage Brucellosis
To find these solutions we don't need to look much further than those practices that alter the elk or bison's normal behavior. Wyoming has been criticized for elk feed grounds that artificially concentrate the population of elk in one location, leading to the spread of just this type of zoonotic disease. Phasing out these feeding grounds may be a simple, yet effective measure of controlling disease outbreaks around Yellowstone.
Another concept that is suggested quite often is allowing natural migration routes of buffalo and elk. Creating a larger ecosystem that includes human use (bison as local food?) and migrating animals may be one of the unpopular yet needed developments for long-term management of this area of the country.
Ranchers who currently operate cattle around Yellowstone may find they have rich opportunities in allowing the expansion of a more natural ecosystem including elk, bison, and wolves into their pastures. Battling the spread of emerging diseases by pushing wildlife into a contained 'park' is like trying to stop a wave by putting up your hands. It may be better to go with the flow, and focus efforts and money on how to limit and manage the spread of brucellosis by working with the environment, not against it.