Federal officials are beginning the annual process of shipping hundreds of wild American bison from Yellowstone National Park to slaughter.
Fifteen bison are being sent to slaughter this week, park officials told The Associated Press. Around 400 bison — sometimes colloquially called American buffalo — are being held in a park facility and are slated to follow the others to slaughter in the coming weeks. Officials said they want to reduce the population by 1,300 this winter.
Yellowstone has been culling bison annually since 2000, when the Interagency Bison Management Plan was crafted in response to disputes between the state of Montana and the National Park Service about bison roaming outside Yellowstone boundaries.
Wildlife biologists say there’s not enough space inside the park to support more than a few thousand animals without causing overgrazing and potential mass starvation.
Montana law allows only “very limited” numbers of bison to migrate outside park boundaries, the National Park Service says. State and federal laws prohibit transporting wild bison anywhere, other than slaughterhouses and research facilities, for fear they’ll transmit brucellosis — a bacteria that can cause pregnant cows to abort their fetuses — to domestic cattle. Additionally, ranchers don’t want bison eating grass they use to feed their cattle, according to Reuters.
The first bison shipped to slaughter this year were part of a group of 40 that had been held at a quarantine facility at Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation, with the intention of establishing a herd there, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports. But state livestock officials and federal animal health agents opposed the transfer, and the group’s 15 females — which are at higher risk for brucellosis than males — were loaded onto trucks taken to slaughter on Wednesday, the AP reports.
As a compromise, the 25 males were sent to a U.S. Department of Agriculture corral, where they are set to be quarantined and eventually transferred to Fort Peck. One of the bulls was shot on Tuesday after breaking a leg.
There’s never been a documented case of a bison actually transmitting brucellosis to cattle. However, the National Park Service maintains that it could happen, and says it hasn’t because of concerted efforts to keep bison and cattle apart.
In order to uphold the terms of the Interagency Bison Management Plan, the government organizes the killing of hundreds of bison every year. Hunters outside of park boundaries kill some, and others are captured and sent to slaughter — a process that animal advocates slam as stressful and traumatic for the bison. The meat is distributed to various Native American tribes.
The annual cull has plenty of vocal opponents, including animal protection groups and concerned members of the public. Even the National Park Service itself denounces the practice as outdated, and says a new management plan is needed.
“Many people are uncomfortable with the practice of culling bison, including the National Park Service,” Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a statement last year. “The park would gladly reduce the frequency and magnitude of these operations if migrating bison had access to more habitat outside the park or there was a way to transfer live bison elsewhere.”
Not everyone agrees on what to do. The National Park Service touts a quarantine program as a way to save some animals and transfer them to other protected areas.
But the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group that advocates for wild bison, says quarantine is no solution. The group condemns the quarantine process — which involves separating family groups and forcing the wild animals to live in captivity — as inhumane. Even in quarantine, bison that test positive for the disease are killed.
However, both the park service and the Buffalo Field Campaign seem to agree that bison should be given greater freedom to roam outside Yellowstone boundaries, as other wildlife species can do.
“Over the last two decades, nearly 20 livestock operators in the three states surrounding Yellowstone discovered brucellosis in their animals,” the National Park Service website states. “In each case, wild elk transmitted the disease. However, the state of Montana allows elk to move freely outside Yellowstone: a freedom that bison deserve, but have been denied.”