Sunday, January 18, 2015


The iconic Yellowstone beast.

And we saw plenty. Some close,

... some far (one as a magpie perch).

These images are all from the second day of our Winter Wildlife Expedition adventure, the same day as we saw the wolves.

And while wolves have only recently been reintroduced to the park, bison have had a continuous presence there. Albeit a sometime tenuous one.

Today there are some 4900 bison in the park. An apparently too successful comeback (more on that below).

The first national park, Yellowstone was so designated by an act of congress in 1872. But in politics all to reminiscent of today, funding was not always provided. And development pressure was a threat even then, with the locals none to pleased that they could no longer treat the park as their private game preserve.

Poaching was rampant in the early years. And as the bison headed toward extinction a profitable one. A bison head, suitable for mounting, could bring a poacher $1000, a very nice sum in the 1890's. And the punishment for poaching? Confiscation of the poachers belongings and an escort out of the park, where the poacher was free to go (usually right back into the park).

In 1894 the Magazine Forest and Stream ran a series of stories by Emerson Hough, about his winter trek through the park, including the capture of the notorious poacher Ed Howell (these have recently been collected and published as Rough Trip Through Yellowstone). The outcry from this led to the passing of the "Lacey Act of 1894" which made poaching a crime in Yellowstone with real punishment. John Lacey was a republican (!) congressmen and he later introduced what would become known as the Lacey Act in 1900, which extended the prohibition of trade in illegally obtained animals and plants beyond just Yellowstone.

At the time of the 1894 law there were estimated to be fewer than 100 bison in the park. At the animal's nadir there were only 23.

Lacey's laws were clearly a success. And as a result there is a self sustaining bison herd in Yellowstone. A not so welcome change is that republicans are no longer the champions of conservation. Rather the exact opposite.

Something that hasn't changed is that politics often trumps good policy. Our parks are still underfunded. And park bison are still being killed. Although no longer by poachers. Now it is by park personnel.

The issue is a complicated one. And I've not done an in-depth analysis by any means. But on the surface it appears to be pandering to the interests of ranchers, who make political contributions, over that of the bison, who don't.

Migratory creatures, part of the herd leaves the park in search of food in winter. This has the ranchers upset because of the disease brucellosis. And while it is known that elk can transmit the disease to cattle there are no known cases of bison to cattle transmission (the disease can go the other way, from cattle to bison, which seems to be how the bison were infected in the first place). From the NPS Yellowstone web site:

"To date, no documented transmission of brucellosis from Yellowstone bison to cattle has occurred ..."

Yet it is the bison that are killed.

If the ranchers are so worried then perhaps their cattle shouldn't be allowed to graze on public land?

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