YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- In the 1880s, after the herds of bison that once swarmed over the Western plains had been hunted to the brink of extinction, a few hundred of the animals were found living in the mountains of this national park.
The Army stepped up patrols against poachers, and park authorities created a ranch in the park to raise bison. The restoration project was so successful that it became a symbol for the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, which have an image of a buffalo on their badges.
This week, however, the Park Service reluctantly begins a new chapter in the management of its famous herd. It will capture several dozen bison bulls that appear to be headed across the park's northern border and ship them to slaughterhouses. Officials say that many more -- perhaps hundreds -- could be sent to slaughter before the winter is over.
"We really don't have many options," said Wayne Brewster, deputy director of the Yellowstone Center for Resources. "It's a temporary solution. We sure hope it isn't a permanent one."
The controversial plan was devised when the state of Montana filed a lawsuit to force the park to keep the animals from crossing Yellowstone's northern border and entering Montana, where the private land includes cattle ranches. The bison carry a disease called brucellosis, which if passed on to cattle could result in a quarantine on Montana cattle.
To settle the lawsuit, park officials agreed to ship most of the bison that leave the park for private ranch land to the north to slaughter. The meat will be donated to Indian tribes and charitable organizations. Some bison that stray onto other public land to the north will be allowed to remain.
As many as 600 animals are near the north entrance. If they all choose to leave, officials say, all will be sent to slaughterhouses.
There are about 3,500 bison in Yellowstone, and thousands more elsewhere in the country. The animal is not an endangered species.
Still, the prospect of sending to its death an animal that delights millions of tourists and is a potent symbol -- first of wanton destruction, then of conservation success -- does not thrill park officials.
Environmentalists are also opposed to the bison plan, fearing it could become a model for management of other species. They filed a suit in federal court in Helena, Mont., to halt the slaughter, but a judge ruled against them. A decision on their appeal is not expected for several months.
Pub Date: 12/29/96