Nate Winch: Yellowstone’s Charismatic Megafauna

nateThe wolf and the bison share similar pasts, and hopeful futures. The Grey Wolf, and other subspecies, were aggressively hunted and eradicated from East to West, a task completed around 1960. The bison was nearly eradicated in seven short years in the 1860s. The motive behind the killing of both the wolf and bison was progress. Progress, at the time, was seen as fewer predators and more game, less bison meaning less competition for grass and land.

In Yellowstone National Park we read a lot about wolves. Wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone and Idaho, and now number in the thousands throughout the West. We met with Rick McIntyre, the resident wolf expert at the park. The experience was a bit touristy, seeing as we simply got out of the van and listened to him talk. From hearing him talk, the integration in the wolves’ relationships was clear. Seeing other tourists, rightfully titled wolf watchers, who chase wolves around the park in their cars and communicate with one another via radio, the extent that humans anthropomorphize wolves was obvious, whether it’s the big bad wolf of fairy tales or the individual personality given to them by wolf watchers. In reality the wolf is a wild animal just like the bison and should be treated as such, with the intrinsic right to live as a wild animal.

A keystone predator is one that is nearly essential for an ecosystem to sustain a healthy diversity. Many would argue that all members of the biotic and all aspects of the abiotic community in an ecosystem are essential. Regardless, the wolf and its role as a predator are pivotal for ecosystems that evolved with such a predator. In the absence of wolves, ecosystems in Yellowstone (a very small sample) were shown to change. The changes mentioned were most notably increased elk populations and changes in prey behavior. The elk acted like cattle, settling for long periods of time in riparian areas, areas that arguably would have been frequented less by elk with the presence of wolves. The result was depressed growth of streamside vegetation, such as cottonwoods. This decrease in vegetation growth and survival has been shakily linked to low beaver populations. Much of this data is disputed, as is the way of science. I find the point to be mute as wolves, like any member of the ecological community, have an intrinsic right to exist, although some argue otherwise.

There is an age-old battle between man and wolf. For fear of their lives and the continuation of their livelihoods, ranchers have taken up arms against wolves for centuries. This custom has not changed much, with the only difference being more effective methods of killing. Whether they poison, shoot, or trap a wolf, ranchers do it to protect their livelihoods. Although not all ranchers partake in this illegal act, I often saw bumper stickers saying “Shoot. Shovel. & Shutup.” I personally met a woman at a wolf ethology class who worked for the EPA who said ranchers would often tell her that they killed and buried wolves and that she would never find them. The statistically oriented mind will reason that wolf kills in areas with a wolf presence account for less than 5% of livestock deaths, so it should not be as big of an issue as it is.

Everyone knows the iconic Yellowstone bison. They are majestic, free to roam wherever they wish. What if I told you this was an illusion? Bison are a migratory ungulate as are the elk and pronghorn. Once the snow falls they move from Yellowstone to Horse Butte peninsula. We visited this peninsula, which is a natural safe zone for bison to give birth and nurture their young as it is protected from predators by water on three sides. Here we met with Bob Hardy from the Buffalo Field Campaign, an organization committed to educating the public on the plights of the park bison. He explained how the bison are brutally hazed back into the park on May 15, sometimes with the use of helicopters. Bob told us that this date was not arbitrary; it was chosen because it gives the ranchers a two week period where there are no bison on the land. This two week period is seen as important because of the possibility of brucellosis spreading to cattle. When bison are infected with brucellosis, they will often have a stillbirth. The carcass then carries the disease and when cattle come in contact with the carcass, they could contract the disease.

Bob took us back to the Buffalo Field Campaign headquarters. The camp resembled a hippy refuge center, complete with makeshift cabins constructed out of old busses and cars. There were a few permanent structures, including a tasteful log cabin where meetings are held and dinner is served. Inside the cabin over some hot cider, Bob explained how the modern Buffalo Field Campaign was established from more its radical origins. As we saw in a documentary, in the 90’s, the BFC used to ski in front of legal bison hunters in attempts to prevent a fatal shot. This dangerous practice, as Bob puts it, was getting them nowhere, so instead of fighting hunters and the community, they embraced the practice and informed the hunters of the horrors of hazing and slaughter that occur each year. Naturally, many of the hunters were proponents of allowing bison to roam free as other wildlife, so as with elk or mule deer, they could have a true hunting season.

Many ranchers are still opposed to the idea of a bison preserve because they have been trained to fear brucellosis contamination. We spoke with Arnie Dood, who works for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. He is opposed to the treatment and classification of bison as livestock. He describes the arguments against bison as real arguments, but there are still solutions. The fear of brucellosis contamination by bison is insufficient in Arnie’s eyes as elk carry brucellosis as well and can just as easily affect a herd. The issue of bison destroying fences is as clouded issue. As Arnie Dood states, the bison only destroy fences when they are hazed otherwise they are known to find alternative routes or simply hop the fence. It is only when you treat them like cattle that they act in a destructive manner. The argument for competition of land and grass is well founded, as bison do use land and eat grass, but so do elk and other wild game. It is only when you consider a bison as private property that this becomes an issue.

Wolves and bison are similar in their plights. Both are targeted by the same fashion as pests. Although not all ranchers feel this way, many do advocate for their eradication and take it upon themselves, in the case of wolves, to bring this eradication to reality. Not all ranchers feel this way, as Bob told us; some ranchers near Horse Butte allow bison to stay on their land where they cannot be hazed. The only way to change opinion of the local community is to educate them and listen to their points. A compromise can be reached through cooperative conservation.

 

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