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Disease Sends Bison to Slaughterhouse

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Disease Sends Bison to Slaughterhouse

Science

Disease Sends Bison to Slaughterhouse

Disease Sends Bison to Slaughterhouse

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This winter 175 buffalo in Yellowstone Park were sent to slaughter to prevent the spread of a disease called brucellosis to cattle. Angus Thermer Jr. with the Jackson Hole News and Guide has more.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Discouraging words for bison herds in Yellowstone National Park. In the nation's first national park, which spans Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, so far this winter 175 buffalo have been sent to slaughter. The fear is the bison, which migrate north in the winter, will infect ranchers' cattle with a disease called brucellosis. Here's the irony. The bison are believed to have originally caught the disease from cows back in the early 1900s.

Now, according to the Billings Gazette, over 275 bison have been captured. Some of them have been hazed. And some of the locals don't think this is necessarily a good idea. Stephan Sea(ph), media coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, gave the Jackson Hole News a statement. Quote: "The actions of Yellowstone National Park demonstrate that they are unqualified to protect the bison the nation is entrusting them with." The story was being covered by the co-editor of the Jackson Hole News and Guide, and he joins us, Angus Thermer. Hi, Angus, how are you?

Mr. ANGUS THERMER (Jackson Hole News and Guide): I'm doing well. Good morning.

STEWART: So on the surface, you have animals who may infect other animals, and people are trying to control this. So what's so controversial about trying to stop this disease from spreading to the cattle?

Mr. THERMER: Well, this is the last wild-ranging bison herd in North America, and Buffalo Field Campaign believes that public land should belong to wildlife as well as domestic livestock like cattle, and right now there's a very low tolerance for having wildlife out on these public lands because they might - they might spread this disease, Brucellosis, to cattle, even though the cattle aren't there are this particular time, and these wild bison are migrating out of Yellowstone.

As the snow starts to become denser and their forage is difficult to get to, they move to lower elevations in search of food, and they're rounded up and sent to slaughter, and some folk don't believe that's the right thing to do.

STEWART: So is this coming down to a valuation of a cow's life over a bison's life?

Mr. THERMER: Some people say there are too many cattle, that that that's the problem, that it's not too many bison, yes. But the stockmen take this disease very seriously. If it's found in a cattle herd, the cattle herd is rounded up and destroyed. The stockman usually is compensated. But herds next to it are tested as a result, and if a state finds more than one case of brucellosis in its cattle herds during the year, it loses its ability to ship cattle freely across state lines. So there's a big economic implication for ranchers.

STEWART: Now, if you go to the CDC's Web site and you look up brucellosis, it says that humans can generally be infected in one of three ways: eating or drinking something that's contaminated, breathing the organism in, having the bacteria enter the body through skin wounds. Also some unpasturized food products can transmit it as well. Yet in one article I read, it described some of the meat of the slaughtered bison going to various native tribes.

Mr. THERMER: Yes, that's correct, and it's generally - it's believed and it's advertised that eating meat from a bison that is actually infected with brucellosis or an elk that's infected with brucellosis is not dangerous as long as the meat is prepared correctly.

Now, you can look around some of these game-and-fish and fish-and-wildlife Web sites and it's difficult to find out what prepared correctly is, but if you go to a cooking Web site, if you get out your "Joy of Cooking" or some similar reference text and you look up what temperature it takes to kill bacteria - and brucellosis is a bacteria - you'll find you'll have to do your meat up to 145 degrees, which is beyond medium rare, I believe.

So there is a possibility of catching the disease from contact with the fluids, usually reproductive tissues and stuff like that, from a carcass, but the danger from eating meat is minimal.

STEWART: We're speaking with the co-editor of the Jackson Hole News and Guide, Angus Thermer, about the situation where some bison are being rounded up at Yellowstone National Park. Some of them have been slaughtered. And in this process something called hazing has been going on. Could you explain what that is to us?

Mr. THERMER: Yes. Yellowstone has an agreement with some of the Montana agencies - the Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Department of Livestock, and the U.S. Forest Service - regarding bison that migrate outside of the world's first national park on a regular basis, and one of the methods to keep them away from cattle and the cattle-grazing allotments on public land outside Yellowstone is simply to chase them back inside the park, and that's called hazing, and that's also controversial.

You're running bison in deep snow in the middle of the winter or in spring when their fat reserves are down. Sometimes there's bison calves along with them, and it can be ugly at times. But it is a method that Yellowstone is trying to -as an alternative to capturing and slaughtering the bison, and last Friday Yellowstone was successful in hazing 119 bison back from the northern border of the park, so they did not have to capture them.

STEWART: And of the bison that have been slaughtered, are they 100-percent sure that they were infected with this disease, with this bacteria, brucellosis?

Mr. THERMER: Absolutely not. They stopped testing for that some time ago. You cannot tell whether a live animal has brucellosis. You can tell whether a live animal has been exposed to the bacteria, but that's as far as the tests go.

To find out whether an animal is infected with - actually infected with brucella abortis, the bacteria that we're talking about, you have to kill it and do a tissue sample on some of its organs. And Yellowstone used to test the bison, and the ones that were clean, the ones that were absolutely not exposed, exposed at all to the organism, they would keep in a corral and try to release later in the year, and they would send only the ones they were exposed, not knowing whether they were actually infected; they would send only the ones that tested positive for exposure to disease to slaughter.

But that practice has gone by the wayside. It's too complicated, apparently, and so all bison that migrate toward the northern boundary are captured, or most of them are captured - many of them are captured inside Yellowstone, inside the world's first national park and sent to slaughterhouses, and only when there's an opportunity to chase them back into the heart of Yellowstone are they spared.

STEWART: Angus Thermer is the editor, co-editor of the Jackson Hole News and Guide. Thanks for explaining it all to us, Angus. We appreciate it.

Mr. THERMER: Any time.

STEWART: You're listening to the BPP from NPR.

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