Photo credit: Flock/bandada by Flickr.com user Rafael Edwards

Bison slaughter in Montana

According to the New York Times, Jeffrey Scott Hawn, a wealthy software developer, recently pleaded guilty to one count of criminal mischief and one count of cruelty to animals for illegally killing 32 bison on his ranch in Colorado last winter. The bison apparently wandered onto Mr. Hawn's property from an adjacent ranch, probably because a heavy snowfall caused them to go searching for forage. For his misdeed, Mr. Hawn will pay $157,000 in fines and restitution. Ironically, last winter the State of Montana and the National Park Service sanctioned the killing of over 1,600 wild bison that committed the unpardonable crime of wandering outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park in search of forage. These bison, members of the only free-roaming, genetically-pure herd of bison left in the United States, were killed because the State of Montana is terrified they will spread brucellosis to livestock grazing on federal and private lands outside the park borders. Brucellosis can cause female cattle to abort their fetuses. Montana has gone to great lengths to eliminate brucellosis from its livestock, and because Montana's cattle have been declared brucellosis-free, its ranchers are free to ship their animals out of state without first quarantining them (an expensive thing to do). Bison in Yellowstone. There has never been a documented case of a wild bison transmitting brucellosis to a cow, but the mere possibility that it could happen is enough to cause the State of Montana to insist on the death penalty for all bison that wander outside the park boundary (unless they can be chased back into the park...but try making a bison go where you want it to go). The Yellowstone bison are doing what bison in the Northern Rockies have been doing for thousands of years-migrating out of the high-elevation areas and into the low-elevation areas during harsh winters, when the snow becomes too deep for them to find food. There is a less bloody solution to this problem: The federal government can refuse to allow livestock to graze on public lands adjacent to the park, and it can pay private landowners near the park to allow bison, not cattle, to graze on their property during the winter. But that solution is anathema to the ranching lobby and some politicians in Montana, so the slaughter continues. Let's hope this winter is a mild one in Montana, so the bison don't leave the park. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- David Wilcove is professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and public affairs at Princeton University and one of the world’s leading experts on endangered species. He is the author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.