POLICIES AND POLITICS OF THE BISON BRUCELLOSIS CONFLICT
The northern border of Yellowstone National Park is regularly
crossed by Bison. Bison leave the park and enter private and state-owned
lands in Montana at this point. Regulation of the renegades is
controversial and includes shooting, trapping, hazing, and simply
allowing nature to take its own course.
In this section we will make the distinction between policies
and politics. Both categories involve interesting sets of
actors and strategies, and both are very important to understand
the features and the evolution of the whole conflict in its different
arenas of deployment.
Both categories have a distinct field of development, defined
by having more technical or political features. On one side we
have the policies, the art of administering and managing society.
In this case the policies display one conflict that involves and
opposes several social players. On the other hand we have politics,
the relation between the different political actors implicated
in this conflict, and the political and legal actions taken by
them in the fight to achieve their goals or to influence the issue.
As much as possible, the National Park Service tries to
allow the animals to self-regulate and to minimize the amount
of human intervention involved in dealing with the animals.
This policy of natural
regulation is controversial, but it keeps with
the goals of the National Park Service. Natural regulation
is an effective way to decrease human intervention while still
having a healthy population. However, it is impossible for
even a small number of bison to regulate themselves inside YNP
during harsh winters. In these winters, there simply isn’t
enough food to support even a low population of bison. Therefore,
bison are forced to leave YNP in order to find enough food to
eat. When bison leave the park, the Montana Department of
Livestock takes over right to deal with YNP bison, and the DOL
disregards natural regulation. The DOL argues that implementation
of natural regulation policy outside of YNP puts Montana cattle
in danger of contracting brucellosis from YNP bison. In
order to eliminate any risk of brucellosis transmission from bison
to cattle, the DOL has implemented a policy of trapping and hazing.
Trapping and Hazing:
There is a major bison trap constructed
at the Northwest exit of the park. The policy of the DOL
is that the bison follow the fencelike trap and end up in holding
pens. Once in holding pens, all of the captured bison are
tested for brucellosis. The bison are tested for brucellosis
by serologic tests, which detect for brucella antibodies within
the blood of the bison. All bison that test seropositive
or are pregnant are assumed to be carrying the live B. Abortus
virus and are sent to slaughter. All non-pregnant bison
that test seronegative are released or returned to the park.
Also, the DOL has tried, with varied success, to “haze”
the bison back into the park. How it works is that when
the bison cross outside the park border, people hold signs and
wave their arms in an attempt to scare the bison back into the
park. Many bison have been scared back into the park, but
not nearly enough to stop the need for trapping.
For further information: http://www.liv.state.mt.us/BISONBRUC.htm
NATURAL REGULATION, PARKS AND IDEOLOGY – THE DEBATE:
Inside National Parks, for many decades, the management practice
implemented by the National Parks Service has been so-called natural
regulation. This laissez-faire attitude towards the natural
processes is a key element of the ideological apparatus that regulates
Park management. The National Parks System works as an archipelago
in which every unit acts as an island isolated in a sea of development.
Any of these units contains a whole ecosystem, if such a closed
thing exists. These conditions make it hard to believe in the
feasibility or reliability of the natural regulation practiced
on our parks. There are continual fluxes and interchanges across
the borders of the parks, and the mobile populations inside the
park borders, which are for the most part, constantly under human
pressure in the form of hunting, logging, ranching or mining practices.
Natural regulation is also based on the assumption that anthropogenic
disturbances aren’t natural, and therefore theoretically
exclude all human practices. Humans though, during millennia,
have been a keystone species of most ecosystems. The bison
brucellosis problem exacerbates the polemics around natural regulation.
The presence of these bacteria into the bison and the economic
threat that it represents legitimizes some outside park actors
to systematically kill the animals when they cross their borders.
The need to save and maintain a viable bison population obliged
park authorities to implement policies to keep the animals inside
the park (trapping and forced transportation of the animals into
the park core area).
That analysis leads to deeper considerations about the biologic
rationality of the Yellowstone borders. The park contains wonderful
and dramatic landscapes that are an animal paradise in summer,
but that turn into a snow reservoir, a hell, in winter. At that
time is when large quantities of animals, searching for better
grazing areas, exit the park and collide with the different policies
implemented outside by different managers, owners and political
actors. At that time, if not always, natural regulation policy
in the fictitious context provided by national park islands falls
To understand the politics of the bison brucellosis conflict
it is necessary to understand the nature of the actors implicated.
conflict mobilizes different institutions that situate
themselves behind one of the contending economic interests.
The way to approach the politics of the conflict, therefore,
is understand the way each institution chooses a particular side.
We have to understand what kind of values and priorities affect
the decision of each institution. Public institutions have a particular
set of priorities that are directly affected by the interests
of voters and lobbies that have power over them. In this sense,
the fracture between local and national is quite significant.
The states and a great part of their populations are directly
affected by the fate of their local industries and consequently
protect them and fight against any threat to the revenues that
these industries produce, cattle in our case.
On the other hand, we have the national power, represented by
the federal government. The federal government isn’t
pressured by the immediate survival of the local community, which
is why it focuses on other kinds of goals dealing with national
interests, such as conservation of resources.
Nevertheless, the federal government is more than a complex actor.
It is more like a set of different players with different and
sometimes even contradictory agendas. These agendas put them in
different sides of the political arena where the bison brucellosis
conflict is dealt with. For instance, say the main concern of
the Department of Agriculture is the eradication of the brucellosis,
while the National Park Service is focused on the survival of
To have a more detailed description of all the actors implicated
in the conflict, go to the actors
section of this website.
Creation of the Greater Yellowstone Interagency Committee
The GYIBC deserves special commentary. The creation of this multilateral
committee is a logical result of the different challenges that
the issue of brucellosis presents and have been repeatedly exposed
in this website. Although we are talking about bacteria present
in free roaming wild animals, that fact has repercussions all
over the social arc of possibilities.
A National Park is a fictitious geographical, ecological and
political unity. The migrant behavior of some of national
park inhabitants reflects that reality. This behavior puts on
contact, on conflict several institutions, governmental bodies
and, therefore, their jurisdictional capabilities.
Each of the institutions involved in the GYIBC has a determinate level
of jurisdiction on the problem. In the past, and to a certain
degree the approaches and initiatives of each one of these actors
has been opposed due to the fact that they defend, represent,
and are pressed by complete different actors and interests.
This committee intends to reach consensus,
or at least to share information between all the players of this
crazy game. It is interesting to note that it is a consensual
and advisory body with no mandatory powers and characterized by
very broad statutes that allow also very broad interpretations.
information: GYIBC memorandum of understanding