In a 120-acre pasture on an Indian reservation in northeastern Montana, five prime examples of America’s national mammal rumble and snort. They shake their enormous heads and use them to plow aside the snow to get to their feed. In the night, I like to think, they put those shaggy heads together to ruminate on the weird politics of the American West and blast clouds of exhausted air out their shiny nostrils.
These five, all males, arrived last month from Yellowstone National Park, the last great refuge of the wild bison that once dominated the American landscape from Pennsylvania to Oregon. Their arrival marks the beginning of what will ostensibly become a pipeline sending surplus bison from Yellowstone out to repopulate portions of their old habitat.
Since 2000, it has been the custom to send 600 or 1,000 prize Yellowstone bison to slaughter every year at about this time to keep the park’s booming population at roughly 4,000 animals. The meat goes mainly to tribal nations. Even so, the culling is perverse and wasteful: Yellowstone is home to genetically pure wild bison, coveted by national parks, Native American tribes and conservation groups across the West.
But Yellowstone is also home to a notorious disease called brucellosis, dreaded by cattle ranchers everywhere. And while Congress in 2016 designated the American bison the national mammal, everyone knows that title comes with fine print reading “other than cattle.” And when it comes to cattle — a species that is not native to North America — the politics always gets weird.
Much of the talk about brucellosis could leave a person thinking that bison are the source of the problem. A typical document headlined “Brucellosis and Yellowstone Bison,” from Aphis, the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, declares that “brucellosis and Yellowstone Bison Overview Brucellosis” have “cost the federal government, the states and the livestock industry billions of dollars in direct losses and the cost of efforts to eliminate the disease.” And that is no doubt true. The livestock industry has suffered heavily from brucellosis, which lowers milk production and can cause cows to miscarry. But it’s worth adding that the livestock industry also introduced the disease to this country. The cattle infected the bison, not the other way around.
As usual, the tribes are paying a heavy cost. In 2014 the Sioux and Assiniboine tribal nations at Fort Peck Reservation, in northeastern Montana, spent more than 0,000 building a double-fenced, state-of-the-art quarantine facility, according to Daniel Wenner, a lawyer for the tribes, and did so based on assurances that they would be on the receiving end of that pipeline of surplus bison from Yellowstone. This facility can handle 350 bison, double the combined capacity of the two quarantine facilities near Yellowstone maintained by the Park Service and Aphis.
The plan, says Robbie Magnan, fish and game director for the tribal nations, was for the Sioux and Assiniboine to put bison through the late stages of the elaborate protocol for testing whether they are free of brucellosis, then release some into a 13,000-acre fenced range, and send some on to help start herds on other reservations. But until the arrival of that token shipment of five males in February, the quarantine facility has stood empty, they say.
“The Montana livestock community” and its allies in state and federal agencies “have obstructed this effort at every turn,” Mr. Wenner said. In addition to decades of apparent bureaucratic slow-walking by Aphis and the State of Montana, the obstructionists got help last year when vandals broke into the Park Service quarantine facility and released scores of bison that were due to go to Fort Peck. In June, the interior secretary at the time, Ryan Zinke, piled on, forcing out the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, who had been a strong proponent of the move to Fort Peck.
Mr. Zinke was sympathetic, according to Mountain Journal, an environmental news site, to “a carefully orchestrated populist revolt” by eastern Montana ranchers “using Bundyesque fear tactics to thwart Yellowstone bison from being relocated there as seedstock for building new public herds.”
There are plenty of paradoxes to the effort to keep the bison from getting to Fort Peck. The first is that brucellosis is typically transmitted in the aborted fetus and fluids of an infected cow. Transmission by bulls is unlikely. That means the five bulls sent to Fort Peck as a token of cooperation have spent most of their lives being quarantined at great expense for a disease they don’t spread.
The next shipment of Yellowstone bison tentatively scheduled to go to Fort Peck, possibly later this year, is also all bulls. This is a good way to not build new herds, which may be the point. But Mr. Magnan, fish and game director for the tribal nations, isn’t complaining. He hopes that taking the males through the quarantine process will persuade officials that the reservation can handle the females, too.
Another incongruity has to do with the lack of evidence implicating any bison at all in transmission of brucellosis. In an authoritative 2017 study, scientists traced the genetic lineage of the Brucella bacteria in 27 cattle herds infected around Yellowstone since 1998 and found bison not guilty on all counts. The culprits in every case were elk. There are, however, no plans to contain or cull elk. But unlike bison, elk don’t compete with cattle for grazing rights on public lands.
The Montana state veterinarian, Marty Zaluski, argues that the genetic study means nothing, except that elk interact with cattle more than bison do. “It defies logic to say that Brucella bacteria in bison magically do not affect other animals,” he said, adding that a Brucella infection in a cattle herd in South Dakota in the 1980s was “most likely from bison.” The state has also delayed use of the Fort Peck quarantine facility, he said, because “we don’t have jurisdiction — it’s an independent sovereign nation and not subject to state regulation.” That means the state might have no way to enforce an order for testing or euthanasia.
The Fort Peck tribes have offered to sign an agreement to accept state jurisdiction over quarantined animals, Dr. Zaluski acknowledges. “My concern is all of these agreements are severable, and possession is nine-tenths of law,” he said. “It’s ultimately extremely difficult for me to go into an agreement that potentially jeopardizes Montana’s disease control program when we know those agreements can be severed.”
The notion that Native Americans won’t keep their word is also moderately paradoxical. “Since 1492,” said Mr. Magnan, “Europeans have made promises and reneged on everything, and yet they hang it on us?” He doesn’t bother to add that the 19th-century annihilation of bison was in large part a deliberate campaign to destroy and displace the Plains Indians. Or that restoring bison to the tribes at Fort Peck and elsewhere, after 150 years, ought to be one of the easier acts of reparation for the United States to undertake.
The bison deserve better, too. They are an integral part of the Great Plains landscape they helped create, and their patchy way of grazing is beneficial for water resources, for plant growth and for plant and animal diversity. Keeping them locked up in Yellowstone turns them instead into glorified zoo animals.
This country will never get back the “immense herds of buffalo, elk, deer and antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture” witnessed with awe by Meriwether Lewis in 1805. But with a measure of care and tolerance on both sides, we could still allow our national mammal to become something grander and more glorious than a buffalo-nickel treat for tourists.
Richard Conniff (@RichardConniff) is the author of “The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth” and a contributing opinion writer.
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