A bug's home where buffalo roam Disease: Agriculturalists are close to victory over pesky livestock bacteria that can spread to humans. The dilemma: This infection hitchhikes among resurgent bison herds of Yellowstone.

Sun Journal


YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- In this spectacular land of geysers and grizzlies, two American triumphs are about to collide.

One success is famous: rescuing the American buffalo from extinction. Thanks to a century of conservation, a reminder of the Old West's great buffalo herds is back in Yellowstone National Park, thrilling (and frightening) the tourists.

"Most Americans' experience with bison is symbolic -- it's on the nickel and we've all seen the western movies," says Wayne Brewster, the park's buffalo specialist. Only at Yellowstone can people see the spectacle of "several thousand bison spread out before them. It's the experience of seeing the abundance."

The other success: After 60 years, ranchers and farmers are on the verge of eradicating a nasty livestock disease called brucellosis. Because humans can be infected through tainted milk, curbing the disease has made the food supply safer.

The exceptions are the wildlife herds around Yellowstone. Half of the buffalo herd here is infected, and there is no cure. So the world's first national park is about to become part of a puzzling debate: How do you eradicate the last remnants of a disease when it's carried by a species you want to save?

The history of the buffalo is a story of extremes. Once they numbered 50 million, in vast herds that symbolized the American West. Then came the slaughter. During the 1800s buffalo were killed for their hides, for fun, and to subdue the American Indians who depended on them. By 1889, fewer than 600 buffalo remained alive. That's when conservationists and a handful of ranchers began a desperate effort to save the American buffalo.

As it happened, the largest group of surviving animals at that time -- 21 in all -- lived in Yellowstone. Once they were protected, their numbers grew. Today the park is home to 3,500 buffalo, still the country's largest herd. The park service also boasts of another important distinction.

"This is the only population that has been free-ranging all during their history," says Brewster. "People will argue there's a value to that. There are certainly other herds. But there are only a few herds aren't handled like livestock."

Simply put, the Yellowstone buffalo are not livestock. "These bison are wildlife, just like elk or deer or bears. They survive on the natural range. They deal with bears and coyotes and now wolves. And like any wildlife species, they haven't been dehorned or castrated or vaccinated or branded."

Now, the buffalo (also called bison -- either is correct) are thriving. There are an estimated 200,000 nationwide.

Forty miles west of Yellowstone sits Jim Hagenbarth's cattle ranch. His cattle herd has never had a single case of brucellosis. And yet he has spent $250,000 testing and vaccinating his cattle in the national battle against the disease.

"We're frightened of brucellosis," he says. "We certainly don't have anything against the bison."

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that causes cows to abort, decreases milk production and makes animals weak and arthritic. Most seriously, it can also be spread to humans, as a disease called undulant fever.

For 60 years, farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have worked to wipe out brucellosis in America. It's been a billion-dollar crusade. But it's working. Undulant fever is almost nonexistent in America, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says. And just 46 livestock herds still carry brucellosis. By comparison, there were 124,000 infected herds in 1957.

In a couple of years, the USDA hopes to have brucellosis eradicated from all 50 states by killing the last infected herds. Then, only the wildlife infections at Yellowstone will remain unchecked. The USDA has no control over those.

That infuriates ranchers. Buffalo can spread the disease to cattle. And buffalo are famous for roaming. They regularly

wander out of the park. Two buffalo have roamed within a mile of Hagenbarth's cattle herd.

Had the buffalo infected even one of Hagenbarth's animals, he says, it's possible that his whole cattle herd would have to be destroyed.

And the three states bordering Yellowstone -- Wyoming, Montana and Idaho -- are major cattle states certified as being brucellosis-free. All genuinely fear that even one infection would remove that hard-won designation, thereby affecting every ranch the state.

"We have a test-and-vaccination-and-slaughter program nationwide," says Jim Peterson of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. "The only pool of brucellosis that goes unchecked is in Yellowstone National Park. The park admits they have a problem, but they don't really want to take action."

Ranchers urge the park to be aggressive: round up the bison, test them, vaccinate the healthy ones and slaughter those infected. Eventually, they say, brucellosis would be finished off in America, once and for all.

"Why in the world would we not try to do it, in the name of public health, in the name of common sense?" Peterson asks.

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