Buffalo herd faces jeopardy

WASHINGTON (AP) With more than half of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo herd destroyed, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Tuesday that continued killing of the animals is threatening the survival of a national symbol.
Babbitt has been sharply critical of Montana state officials who for months have waged war on buffalo that wander outside of Yellowstone National Park, killing or sending to slaughter 1,049 of the animals so far this winter.
Hundreds more are believed to have died within the park from the severe winter weather that also has caused more of the animals than expected to wander into surrounding forage areas in search of food.
“The continued killing by the state of Montana could threaten the future of this national symbol and the biological integrity of the last wild herd,” Babbitt said in a statement.
Montana Gov. Marc Racicot called Babbitt’s remarks “shameful” and said they show he does not understand the problem.
“I’m really tired — and I think the people of this country, and I know Montanans are tired — of this same rhetorical posturing,” Racicot said.
Montana officials contend that they have no choice but to kill the animals if they leave the park because of fear that they may spread disease to livestock. Some bison carry brucellosis, a disease that causes livestock to abort their calves.
Even the threat of such disease can cause havoc to a state’s livestock industry, they say. Oregon, for example, already has barred Montana cattle from its borders unless they are tested for the disease.
Interior officials said Babbitt planned to offer new proposals next week on ways to deal with the buffalo and concerns by Montana officials over the spread of brucellosis. A news conference on the subject was canceled Tuesday because of what aides said were scheduling conflicts.
According to Interior estimates, 1,049 buffalo have been either shot or rounded up and taken to slaughter so far this winter after they wandered off to forage outside of Yellowstone boundaries, including in a nearby national forest.
Interior officials said the latest count showed 1,720 buffalo remaining in the herd that had grown to about 3,500 animals last October. Interior officials could not immediately account for the discrepancy, but it is believed that more than 700 may have died from the severe winter.
Babbitt has been in a long tug-of-war with the state over how to deal with the problem. In a settlement of a lawsuit filed by Montana against the agency, the Interior Department agreed to a plan in which bison leaving the park are killed or captured for slaughter, either by state officials or by park rangers.
Interior officials said that 68 buffalo have been killed since Feb. 26 when Babbitt sent Racicot a letter urging a halt to the killing and suggesting some alternative short-term solutions aimed at stopping the slaughter.
But Montana officials have accused the National Park Service of not doing enough to control the Yellowstone bison herd, which they say had grown too large. They also have complained about inadequate research into developing a brucellosis vaccine for wild buffalo.
Babbitt said that the unusually severe winter has driven a large number of the animals out of their historic winter range and beyond the Yellowstone boundary.
Although there are buffalo found elsewhere, the Yellowstone bison are the only truly wild herd in existence, Interior officials said. Babbitt said if the killing persists, the future of the herd is in jeopardy.
Racicot disputed that, noting that the park’s top bison researcher, Mary Meagher, has said that thinning the herd to about its current level may ensure the herd’s future in a park incapable of supporting a larger number of bison.
“I’m surprised and mystified by the secretary’s lack of knowledge,” Racicot said. “I don’t think that he has a full grasp of all the issues.”