By EMILY SCHABACKER/Montana State News

Some 1,300 wild bison from the greater Yellowstone area were sentenced to slaughter in earlier this month due to a potential brucellosis outbreak and overpopulation of the species within the park.

Controversy surrounds the annual slaughter as cattle ranchers work to maintain the current containment of bison inside park boundaries, while conservationists work to allow wild bison to migrate beyond the park’s borders.

Cattle ranchers fear that free range bison will spread brucellosis to cattle populations, consequently losing Montana’s status as a brucellosis free state, according to the United States Agricultural Department.

Many ranchers fear free-roaming bison will also threaten grazing land that is currently used for livestock. However, many environmental conservationists and animal advocates protest the slaughter, as there has never been a recorded transmittal of the disease from bison to cattle, according to the Buffalo Field Campaign of West Yellowstone.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that causes miscarriages in wild bison as well as other reproductive issues, according to Amy Martin, head of Threshold podcast. The Buffalo Field Campaign website said that the disease spreads primarily through the ingestion of birthing material left behind from a failed pregnancy. According to the USDA, the bacteria can be transferred to other wildlife via waterways as well.

Controversy over whether to slaughter the bison or allow them to roam beyond the park arose from the animal’s “liminal state,” said Martin. Some people see the bison of Yellowstone as a successful restoration project after the near extinction of the species in the late 1800s. Still, some conservationists have made it their life mission to protect and study the animal, said Martin in her podcast.

Currently, the buffalo that live in Yellowstone National Park are not permitted to migrate beyond park boundaries and haven’t been for the last 15 years, creating issues of overpopulation within the park, according to the National Park Service.

The Interagency Bison Management Plan set a cap of 3,000 bison permitted in the park at one time. Today, the bison population in the park sits at 5,500 buffalo. Such a high population causes overgrazing in the park, which may eventually result in mass starvation of the rest of Yellowstone’s wildlife. Bison that wander outside of the park are either hazed back into the park or sent to slaughter, said Martin.

Many conservationists protest the slaughter of buffalo and their argument resides in the unlikelihood of a transmission of the disease from buffalo to cattle. A transmission between these two species has never been recorded, primarily because most bison have developed an immunity to brucellosis, according to the Buffalo Field Campaign.

In response to a 2016 brucellosis outbreak, an article from the United States Geological Survey said, “scientists conclude that elk are the most likely source of current brucellosis outbreaks in livestock.” The article continues: “Focus on bison alone, as was suggested in the past, will not meet the disease eradication objective and conserve wildlife,” said Rick Wallen of the National Park Service team.

edited by Samantha Sundly

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