Government officials are facing a nagging dilemma regarding one of the most iconic North American species: how to protect Yellowstone National Park’s bison population, which has been plagued by disease, without risking infection to the local livestock.
A new report by the Associated Press states that bison from Yellowstone will now be allowed to roam freely in parts of southern Montana — certainly a positive step forward in saving a population that in 1900 numbered only two dozen within Yellowstone, according to the AP.
Because of the risk of livestock contamination from brucellosis — a disease that causes pregnant animals to abort their young — thousands of bison in this area have been slaughtered over the past 20 years. The new deal — which involves several state and federal agencies, as well as American Indian tribes — establishes a basin in which the bison are allowed to roam free when they migrate from the park during the winter, the AP explains. However, increased hunting will be allowed in the area as an alternative to slaughtering, the report adds.
Admittedly, officials face the tough dilemma of choosing between wildlife conservation and a possible risk to human health. Hunting is an attempt to compromise — but really, isn’t a dead animal a dead animal, no matter the means by which it was killed? Not to mention, hunting is not even allowed within National Park boundaries, so this hunting would be restricted to the designated basin area.
But again, it appears that this agreement may not offer the best solution, but rather the easiest — and cheapest — one. Why not, for instance, spend more effort and dollars on protecting, containing and testing livestock for disease? Doesn’t at least some responsibility fall on the ranchers to raise healthy animals? My best guess is that there were not only financial, but political motivations underlying the final agreement that was reached.
The decision also raises another question: Does the freedom to roam free trump conservation of the species? According to the AP report, the Yellowstone bison population totals approximately 3,500. But these animals once numbered in the tens of millions in North America, and they represent an iconic image in the history of both Native American and early European settlers.
Yes, these cultures also hunted bison, but their survival depended on it. The difference today is that these animals are being slaughtered because, well, it requires too much effort to actually study the disease infecting the animals or to mandate the thorough testing of livestock.
What are your suggestions for solving this dilemma? What are some alternative proposals? Be sure to weigh in and join the conversation.