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    Monday, October 22, 2012

    Citizens Working Group Sells Out Wild Bison

    Thursday, December 8, 2011
    Jim Macdonald
    Article originally posted December 8, 2011.  Please read the clarifying footnotes as they appear in the article (footnotes added December 22, 2011).

    At this past week's Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) meetings in Chico Hot Springs, members of a Citizens Working Group presented their recommendations on bison management. The group, which first convened in February, represented diverse interests on the bison issues - from conservationists to stockgrowers. The decisions they reached represent the consensus of those involved in the process. To be involved in the process, you either needed to commit to the long-term planning of the group, or you had to accept previously reached consensus.

    This plan is a travesty that sells out bison to a future not significantly different from what they live with now under the IBMP. It especially disappoints me because people I respect were part of the process.1

    Under the citizens working group proposals, bison will continue to be hazed, quarantined, translocated, and even shipped to slaughter. They will continue to be managed for brucellosis, and they call for bison to be managed for a particular population, with hunting as the preferred management tool. Indeed, the citizens working group even calls for increased hunting of bison. While there are proposals that call for some year-round habitat north and west of the parks and where the onus on the whole brucellosis smokescreen has been mostly placed on cattle producers, the pluses in this proposal do so at the cost of a basic failure to appreciate the lives of the animals currently struggling through another winter in and around Yellowstone National Park.

    I did not get involved with the citizens working group for a few reasons. The first is that I believed that the working group gave legitimacy to the IBMP, a partnership that must be completely blown up if there is ever going to be progress on this issue. Indeed, the proposals that have come out of the citizens working group largely reinforce the IBMP's stated goals and intentions with bison. There is little in it that you cannot already read in the current adaptive agreement of the IBMP. There are simply some adjustments on boundaries and vague shifts in emphasis.

    The second reason I did not get involved is that I thought my interests were already being represented by Buffalo Field Campaign's participation in the process. While their update from the field today has been very critical of what has come out, it is not clear how such a plan came to consensus while Buffalo Field Campaign was at the table. Did they leave it? How did consensus actually play out here? It seems clear that they are unhappy with the results, and so I guess I was not represented.2

    The third reason is that in the deepest recesses of my being I do not believe there is a consensus to be had. Bison "management" is not an issue of consensus. It is not a human management issue. It all must begin from the standpoint that bison are wildlife, that they deserve respect, and that the boundaries they face are artificial and without justification. Human consensus only begins from the standpoint of understanding how to live within that reality. We do not try to reach consensus on whether women should be treated as equals or whether people of color are also people, do we (though in history, of course the answer is that we have! - even if it seems rightly ridiculous to us now)? There are fundamental starting points that are matters of justice.

    One totally screws up one's understanding of consensus to think that bison should be subject to the control of human consensus. The truth is that if you do not have the view that bison should be free to roam and do not need to be managed, then there is simply no consensus that can be reached. Many of the so called wildlife advocates, as well as the livestock industry, clearly do not accept that belief. Thus, they play God with bison. I refused to be part of a process that did that, and I could only support participation in as much as those involved blocked consensus of any plan that did not begin with that starting point.

    However, even if my views are far too radical to matter, one can hardly claim a citizens consensus on a process that could not possibly have reached all the stakeholders. There were a few articles in some newspapers that could only reach some people. At the very least, the citizens working group should have prefaced their consensus by saying that they were simply "a" citizens working group and that other possible groups of stakeholders might reach a different consensus. There is no sense from the working group involved about being humble in terms of its representative capacity.

    All this might have been forgiven if the document and recommendations they produced had not been so damnable to the living and breathing bison now consigned to whatever legitimacy is given these recommendations. Below, I go through some of the lowlights of the document and offer specific commentary.

    In general, though, you can stop reading further if you believe as I do that the slaughter of bison must stop (and not simply be a last resort), that bison should not be suffered through the humiliation of hazing, testing, and translocation, that bison should not be managed for a population, and that brucellosis is an absolutely irrelevant consideration when it comes to bison management. Some of the recommendations produce contradictions the citizen's working group seems unaware. They agree that bison should not be artificially confined. They also try to de-emphasize quarantine. Yet, how are bison to be translocated if they are first not hazed, captured, concentrated, tested, and then put into a quarantine facility? You do not magically capture bison that test negative to exposure to brucellosis. First, you have to round them up, and then you have to put them in close quarters, you run them through cattle chutes, and then you test them. That is only one troubling lack of foresight, it seems, in how the process actually plays out in reality (perhaps because so many of the citizens working group have probably spent little time in the field seeing what these animals actually go through.)

    Right now, I am so angry with people I know have worked for years on behalf of bison that part of me wants to have nothing to do with them again. The bison deserve better friends. Perhaps because we fail to keep the needs of the bison first, because we find ourselves trapped by the sociopathic bureaucratic system in which they are governed, we feel content with helping any symptom of the bison whatsoever. "Sure, the plan stinks, but it is an incremental step forward, eh?" That is not the role of a citizens working group or for anyone who is actually standing for justice for these animals. That is what we say when a plan comes out of which we had no control - like the step forward taken by the IBMP partners this past spring to allow some tolerance to wild bison in the Gardiner Basin. That plan would do nothing to stop our fight; yet, we would have to admit it was a small step forward. This plan is also a small step forward, but it may be two steps back because it has the veneer of being produced by the general public. It may make it impossible for true justice for the bison because we will be committed to the principles of wild bison as management objects that are legitimately subject to hazing, testing, and slaughter.

    Any member of the citizens working group could have blocked consensus. That they did not is a crime against the buffalo. It is a stunning lack of solidarity that I am going to have to take some time to let sink in.
    What follows below is specific commentary on aspects of the document, which you can read in full at


    1 I want to make clear that I am not writing about Buffalo Field Campaign here; they absolutely did not and have not sold out the buffalo.  I mean other friends.  Because I have volunteered at BFC and because BFC is the only organization mentioned by name in the article, some have drawn the fallacious inference that I might have meant that BFC sold out the bison.  However, I am in no way suggesting that BFC was a party to this document.  They are the only organization I know that has consistently been there for the bison every step of the way.  Indeed, if the people who did consent spent even a fraction of the time that BFC has in the field, the so called bison advocates at the table probably would never have consented to the recommendations here.

    2 As Buffalo Field Campaign has made clear since this article was first published, they not only were clearly unhappy with the results and therefore did not consent, but also I was actually mistaken in that they never were fully at the table.  A person from BFC attended several meetings - representing himself - and was a member of the group that worked on habitat, by far the strongest section in the document.  He did not consent ultimately to the final results of even the section he was in.  This was really the point of the paragraph, that something in the process must have taken place such that the result was so different than what BFC would have (and did argue in the linked update from the field) wanted.  It is true, though, that one reason I did not participate was that I had misunderstood what was told to us in BFC meetings - where I volunteered full time last year - about the nature of involvement.  So, the paragraph accurately reflects that one reason I did not get involved myself was that I mistakenly assumed I was represented.  Thus, the paragraph is an accurate portrayal of a mistake that has since been fleshed out with more details.  That's the short of what I meant by this paragraph (that I did not get involved in small part because I labored under a mistaken assumption).

    The point I want to make here is that BFC did not consent to this and was as unhappy as I was with the results.  I believe much of what I wrote was intended to echo BFC's update from the field, which went out the same day as the original posting of this article.  One reason I pointed out BFC was to try and point people to BFC's critique of the document not to single out BFC as the organization or people that had my ire.  Those who consented know who they are.  They are the ones who have to account; unfortunately, too many drew the wrong inference that I was singling out my friends.


    These are the three stated topics of the citizens working group. It would have precluded my involvement because I would have felt such topics already were loaded in an unacceptable direction.

    I. Brucellosis risk reduction,
    II. Bison population management, and
    III. Bison habitat. (p. 2)

    It would have been hard to join either topic I or topic II without joining such a group to scuttle the discussion. Brucellosis is a red herring; without it being treated as such, there is no point in having a discussion on the topic. It is not the fault of any animal of any type that it has brucellosis. It is not our business to be in the game of trying to reduce it. I can say a lot more as to why, but I will never work my way through these comments. There is just too much objectionable, but let it be noted that it is hard to participate in a process when you cannot even accept the broad starting points of discussion.

    For example, these overlapping recommendations among the three topic groups included completion of the statewide Montana bison conservation plan, the importance of fair chase hunting as a management tool, the need to emphasize risk reduction efforts in livestock, and the need to remove obstacles to further research on Brucella abortus. (p. 1)

    None of these recommendations becomes much less vague as we move forward; however, you can imagine that I do not think "fair chase hunting" should ever be conceived as a management tool. If hunting is tolerated, it is for other reasons, not because we are trying to reach a management objective with bison. I have no particular objections to a statewide bison "conservation" plan, but I fear what that actually means. Montana would need no such plan if bison were respected first. The plan we would need would be how to deal with a reality of roaming bison; it would be for us, not for the bison.

    We recognize that disease transmission is not the sole concern but believe that responsibly, explicitly addressing brucellosis risk will be a valuable prerequisite for an honest, constructive strategy for addressing other bison-related concerns. (p. 2)

    Why? That's nonsense. Brucellosis has been the topic that more than anything else has gotten in the way of such a strategy. The prerequisite of an honest strategy is first to respect bison as wildlife in no need of fixing. If there is lack of consensus on that point, there is no consensus. When that happens, the remedy is direct action, not the pretense of finding a middle ground that remains unjust.

    "a) Minimizing the risk of brucellosis transmission is desirable." (p. 2)

    That may be true for cows who abort their firstborn. However, one suspects that this goal arises from a concern that stockgrowers have about their bottom line. Ultimately, the health of most of these animals is undisturbed by brucellosis. Before the 1970s, some even thought that brucellosis might have been indigenous to bison (it's not) because bison adapt so well to the disease.

    4. Strongly encourage continued funding and research to develop a practical test on live animals to distinguish between infected and resistant animals. Given the epidemiological importance of building ‘herd immunity,’ it is important to develop the tools to allow us to stop managing animals as if seropositive is equivalent to ‘infectious.’ (p. 3)

    While the last phrase is true, this seems ultimately to be a waste of time if you actually accept that bison are wildlife that do not need to be fixed and that brucellosis is not an issue on which to "manage" bison. That leaves out the fact that cows probably should not be subject to any of this as well - a whole other animal issue that one dares not speak about in Montana (on any side of any issue.)

    6. Reduce livestock/wildlife interactions at key seasons. This will include building upon and improving techniques already in use as well testing and application of other innovations (e.g. strategic hazing using low-stress animal handling methods; targeted fencing; guard dogs to keep wildlife off feedlines/haystacks/calving areas; trained dogs to locate fetal material to enable cleanup, and so forth). (p. 3)

    There is no such thing as "low-stress" hazing. It may be that in human/bison interactions, people are going to move bison away from them. Okay, so be it, but that does not need to be spelled out as a government management plan. So, you don't want your neighbor's dog crapping on your lawn. That's one thing. However, this is all under the guise of the need to reduce brucellosis transmission. That might be a worthy consideration of the cow, but that all begs the question of why the cow is forced to be there in the first place.

    7. Reduce artificial concentrations of animals (elk or bison) that may be exacerbating transmission. This principle applies to a variety of locations, and will require a variety of implementation strategies (e.g. at Stephens Creek where bison are intermittently confined; on private lands with restricted hunting where elk congregate; bison crowding in/near the Park; Wyoming feed grounds). (p. 3)

    Yes, this is something that can be agreed with, but the rest of the goals stated in this document will only produce more artificial concentrations of bison. Thus, this is a worthy but vacuous goal the way it has been stated.

    8. Remote vaccination of wild bison using the current vaccine and delivery method as a means of reducing risk of transmission should not be a priority at this time. (p. 3)

    It should not be done at all. Who can consent to the fuzzy language of it not being a priority? All of this again breaks the prerequisite of respecting bison as free-ranging wildlife. It begins from the wrong starting place.
    Herd dispersal is a legitimate population management tool. At the same time, bison may not be tolerated in all areas. Acceptable population levels will depend on risk management strategies. (p. 6)

    This is awful (and not altogether coherent in construction.) Bison are naturally herd animals. It is not clear if they mean to break up herds as a way of killing them (which it often does), or as a way to stop brucellosis risk (as though herd dispersal applies to artificial concentrations of herds.) What on earth does an "acceptable population" mean? On what rational grounds can any human determine what that is supposed to mean? This statement alone - among many here - would have been enough to block consensus on the entire set of recommendations.

    Hunting is an effective tool for managing bison populations and offers sport hunting opportunities. (p. 6)

    Bison are extinct throughout their ecological range. What is there to hunt? But even if this is intended for some time in the future when bison populations have recovered in the areas called for by the recommendations, this is still more controversial than it seems. Bison may be suffering from mitochondrial genetic disease. Hunting does not selectively preserve the genetic diversity in the herd because of the way bison breed. Populations may recover over large stretches of time but ultimately crash due to deteriorating genetics. What this plan doesn't seem to get is that bison were reduced from tens of millions to a population of some 750 just over 100 years ago. All bison derive from those 750 animals! You cannot haphazardly assume that - even if bison should be managed for population - that hunting is the right way to go about it.

    Secondly, there is now evidence that there is a genetic marker in migratory animals for leaders, who are rare in groups. If all the leaders get killed, a herd may not migrate to places it used to migrate. Why are there no bison in the Taylor Fork even though numbers in Yellowstone are as high as they have ever been? They do not even try to migrate there anymore. Might it be that hunters or capture-and-slaughter operations caught the leaders first? That genetic marker may be gone.

    There really is no sound case for opening bison to hunting - certainly not as a management tool. If bison are ever respected as wildlife, then it will become a different and far more complicated ethical question. Yet, at best, this is putting the cart before the horse.

    Translocation (capture, transport and release) is an effective tool for managing the Yellowstone bison population, improving genetic diversity and allowing for establishment of bison conservation herds. (p. 6)

    This kind of sentence only adds to my infuriation. How is translocation consistent with respect for bison as wild animals? That just adds on top of all the objects for managing bison for population.

    h) Translocation should not result in brucellosis seropositive bison being put in new locations outside the current Designated Surveillance Area (DSA) or along the edges of the current DSA.(p. 6)

    What difference should brucellosis make? Why would any bison advocate actually consent to such language?

    1. Modify the Interagency Bison Management Plan Zones 1, 2, and 3 (p. 7)

    Modify is not enough. These zones should be eliminated. Bison should be free to roam.

    2. Strive to manage bison as wildlife, and complete, implement, and support a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks management plan that includes setting bison population objectives and hunting strategies as a priority population management tool. (p. 7)

    For a lot of reasons, too many to number, this statement is objectionable. Of course, ultimately it comes down to bison being managed for population objectives and for hunting in absence of the right prerequisite for our relationship with wild bison.

    3. Make hunting a bigger component of bison management and consider different seasons or other opportunities to increase the impact of hunting. (p. 7)
    Why I could never consent to this is offered above.

    6. When bison have to be removed because of high migration numbers, management constraints, safety, etc., the priorities should be (in order):
    a. Hunting outside the park,
    b. Moving them to nearby appropriate available lands,
    c. Translocation from the Yellowstone area (capture, quarantine, transport and release), and
    d. Lethal removal by managing agencies.(p. 8)

    Wow. A citizens working group of bison advocates actually has given consent to hunting aside from the actual health of the bison herds (taking population as the only constraint), translocation of wild bison (and therefore hazing is implicit in that process), capture and quarantine, and lethal removal! This is so horrifying that one wants to cry for the bison right now. What kind of friends did the buffalo have at the table to consent to this on their behalf?! It is this statement perhaps more than any that strains my belief in forgiveness.

    7. Quarantine should be economically justified in comparison with other means of producing Brucella-free Yellowstone bison for conservation purposes.

    10. Bison translocation and bison movement should not include moving seropositive animals outside the current DSA, and may preclude relocating seropositive animals to new areas within the DSA with the intent of establishing new herd ranges. The intent is to avoid establishing new sources of disease and new disease risks to cattle. (p. 8) 

    As should be clear from above, this is objectionable because it gives legitimacy to the brucellosis argument. No bison should be translocated because they are bison. Given time, they will migrate back to all these areas. In the 17th century, when smallpox decimated native populations, bison quickly expanded toward both coasts from the Great Plains (yes, in that short a period of time.)

    11. Hazing of bulls should be minimized, unless there are issues with property damage or safety, because they are not a factor in the issue of brucellosis transmission. Hazing of newborn calves should be minimized for humane reasons. (p. 8)

    Hazing of any bison should not be part of any management plan. No person who begins with the starting point that bison should be respected as free ranging could ever possibly consent to this statement. This also would be more than enough reason to block consensus. "Minimizing" is still contradictory to that starting point.

    16. Outside the Park, hazing and removals should be minimized in selected, suitable areas to establish year-round populations of Montana bison. This approach should be pursued incrementally in a “learn as we go” fashion. This will be a public process that identifies the boundaries of the area and a contingency plan if bison leave that area. (p. 8)

    I am too angry to comment further on this statement. My objections should be explicit from what's said above.

    i. Bison population targets are agreed-upon and explained. (p. 9)

    The above is proposed as an end result of these recommendations; no bison population target should ever be agreed upon. We need to get out of the God-playing business.

    iv. A variety of tools are used for managing bison. Hunting; moving bison to nearby areas; translocation of brucellosis-free bison to nonadjacent areas; and lethal removal are possible tools if bison must be removed when population targets are exceeded. Agencies are working together to minimize and eventually eliminate the mass slaughter of bison. Hunting opportunities are available for State-authorized and tribal hunters. (p. 9)

    Again ... no need to say more on this ...

    a) We believe that bison should be managed. (p. 10)

    That is the crux of the dispute, right? No, wild animals should not be managed. What we need to manage is our response to a world where bison are respected as free-ranging members of our community.

    b) We believe that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a right and a responsibility to manage brucellosis-free bison as wildlife in the State of Montana. (p. 11)

    I would never, ever consent to this. This seems to arise out of a desire to wrestle control of bison from the Department of Livestock. Yet, that is not made explicit. It is a half-hearted political ploy; it's not based on the best interests of bison - except the cynical belief that we have to play nice within a rotten governmental and political system.

    h) We believe any translocation of Yellowstone bison to an area where they would be geographically separate from Yellowstone herds should be brucellosis free. (p. 11)

    I would only be repeating myself to go into these reasons again.



    As I understand it - not having participated in any but the initial CWG meeting - there were three break-out groups, and you stuck with those groups.  The so-called consensus process was within those groups, there was not consensus reached by everyone for all three - people were involved in one breakout group, and that was it for you and your input.  BFC was represented by Steve Sweeney for a few meetings, and he partook in the habitat group, which actually turned out to be the most beneficial of them all.

    Get in touch with us if you have questions about it.  We do NOT consent to the CWG recommendations and we press on as we always have FOR THE BUFFALO, who's interests were barely considered by the CWG.


    That's a helpful explanation of the "consensus" process, and I figured something like that. You'll also note that I don't have strong criticisms of the habitat section of the document. I would urge press release perhaps saying that BFC does not consent and should not be construed as a consenting member of the CWG.

    Anyone who reads this article and believes I am saying that BFC has sold out the bison or consented to this has completely misread the article. If that were my intention, a far more provocative title would have been "Buffalo Field Campaign Sells Out Wild Bison", which couldn't be further from what I believe.
    BFC is the only consistent advocate for the bison that I know about; I just wish that the anger I express toward unnamed people hadn't somehow been construed by some to mean anger at BFC (as that's not even consistent with what I write in the article's text). I don't need the wrong people angry at me, especially my friends.

    Jim, Although I don't know as much about all this as those who live out there and are actively involved, I agree with every word that you wrote. We need to completely shift the way we see and think of buffalo, not just make little tweaks here and there to an oppressive system. It's like putting a comfier cot in the prison rather than breaking out of the prison altogether. To begin with, we have to think of all the animals who are entirely under our thumb, their very existences created and destroyed by us, namely, "livestock" ("stock" which happens to have the inconvenience of being a living, breathing, feeling creature). First we create and imprison them, then we use our entitlement to profit off their bodies as reason to control, "manage' and oppress the bison, and it all spirals into worse and worse places from there. It is not up to human beings to decide who lives and who dies, who lives here and who lives there, what the values of the entire planet should be, etc. It seems like all modern humans know how to do anymore is impose our will onto people, creatures and places which are just fine as they are and should be left alone. It saddens and disgusts me that bison have to be pulled into this evil narrative along with all the rest of nature, and even ourselves. We need to free ourselves from this way of thought every bit as much as we need to free our fellow beings from   us and our way of "managing" the earth. Well, you've heard all this before. In short, I agree with you, and I admire what you do, and I know you will keep up the good fight. I will too.


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