“Why the Buffalo Can’t Roam”

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The Story

“Why the Buffalo Can’t Roam”
by Hillary Rosner
OnEarth, May 11, 2010

The Pitch

Hi Scott,

Here’s what I’m proposing: a feature about bison management and how this iconic species is at the epicenter of controversies about grazing rights, land use, interstate commerce, and what it means to be wild.

Bison, more than any other species, are micro-managed to an almost absurd degree. I touched on this in my Turner story, but there’s so much more to it. A half-dozen government agencies as well as tribal groups are engaged in keeping supposedly wild and free bison from actually roaming the landscape–all in the name of protecting cattle from brucellosis. But recent studies show that the risk of disease transmission is far lower than commonly assumed, which means many of the efforts–not to mention the slaughter and hazing of hundreds of bison every year– are just needless wastes of time and public money. A recent lawsuit filed by several environmental groups to end bison slaughter charges the US Forest Service and the National Park Service with illegally killing bison and mismanaging federal lands.

I’d like to explore the status of bison today. How are they managed? What’s the truth about brucellosis? Why do cattle ranchers see bison as such a threat? Why does this species provoke such extreme emotion in so many Westerners? How can we better protect them in the future? There are several potential news pegs. There’s the lawsuit I mentioned. There’s new research about brucellosis (including a 2009 paper that’s being widely cited by bison advocates as evidence of mismanagement. There are new regulations concerning cattle grazing on Horse Butte, a crucial piece of land outside Yellowstone, which could have huge implications for bison leaving the park.

There’s also a suitable cast of characters. The lifelong ranchers who will do anything to keep bison away from their cattle. The tribal leaders fighting to protect their historic prey. The gun- toting conservationists intent on freeing Montana from the iron grip of the livestock industry.

Bison are enough of an American icon to merit a two-page spread in new U.S. passports, grazing under snowy peaks as an eagle soars above. So why are the agencies tasked with protecting
them treating them more like a threat to America’s beef supply than a proud member of Western ecosystems?

I’m happy to put together a longer pitch if you need it. But just wanted you to have something to take to the meeting. It’d be great to do this for the summer issue, since that’s when so many Americans travel to Yellowstone in the hope of seeing wild buffalo grazing in their native habitat.

Thanks, Hillary

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