SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A plan to slaughter scores of buffalo that strayed from Yellowstone National Park has reignited a debate about the nation’s last purebred herds.
Buffalo, or bison, that migrate from Yellowstone into nearby Montana are often killed to prevent them from infecting cattle with brucellosis, a bacterial disease that causes cows to miscarry and can infect people with flu-like symptoms.
By Friday, government wranglers had herded roughly 400 bison from Yellowstone, which spans parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, into a fenced enclosure for leaving the park’s snow-covered high country to find food in Montana.
The plan to kill brucellosis-exposed bison - with the infected number now at 76 and counting - was put on hold after conservationists on Thursday asked a federal judge to grant a stay of execution.
Telephone calls and emails demanding the bison be spared have swamped the office of Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The state livestock department is one of five agencies that oversee Yellowstone bison.
The fallout is aimed at Montana, where the economic mainstay of ranching is facing off with a multibillion-dollar tourist industry that trades on Yellowstone and opportunities to view wildlife like buffalo.
Images of wild bison being prodded onto trucks destined for slaughterhouses have been a public relations nightmare for Montana before.
The heavy snowfall and bitter cold in Yellowstone in recent weeks is reminiscent of conditions in the winter of 2007-2008 when a record 1,400 buffalo were killed for roaming outside the park.
Mike Volesky, natural resources policy adviser to Schweitzer, said Montana shouldn’t be singled out for blame.
“It’s not just Montana’s decision,” he said. “They come out of the park and we’ve got to deal with it somehow. We do the best we can.”
Critics argue the state seems bent on sacrificing the wildlife that Montana tourism officials say draws millions every year. State campaigns marketing travel to Montana include the photograph of a bison in mountain meadows, an image that tourism-dependent businesses want to promote.
“The bison are worth millions and millions of dollars; it’s the height of stupidity to be killing them,” said Steve Braun, who conducts wildlife tours in Yellowstone and Glacier National Park for vacationing Americans and international travelers.
Marysue Costello, head of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce in Montana, said people struggle to understand how the state can hype its historic ties to buffalo even as it kills them to protect cattle.
“You’ve got two industries going on here that both want their needs met,” she said.
Agriculture always wins in a war between economic interests in a state that prides itself on champion livestock, environmentalists said. They claim the rules for Yellowstone bison are illogical since there are no cattle at risk on grazing grounds outside the park.
Conservationists also question why elk infected with brucellosis are free to seasonally migrate from Yellowstone and mix with cows.
“The public would never tolerate handling elk the way we’ve handled bison,” said Mark Pearson, conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Scientists say rates of brucellosis infection are lower in elk herds in Yellowstone whereas half the estimated 3,900 bison at the park have been exposed to the disease.
Livestock producers say their misgivings about bison go beyond brucellosis. They worry buffalo will displace cattle on public lands with grazing permits.
“Ranchers have a lot of fear that bison restoration will result in the destruction of cattle grazing,” Montana Stock growers Association Vice President Errol Rice said in a recent interview.
An experiment last month that allowed a small band of buffalo to forage outside Yellowstone failed after the animals ranged beyond boundaries clear to government managers but not to the bison.
Hunting of buffalo that roamed from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River cut their numbers from tens of millions to the fewer than 50 that found refuge in Yellowstone in the early 20th century.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Bohan