Week of 5/28/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the controversy over bison hunting in the U.S. and Canada?

—Prakash Thomas, Akron, Ohio

Whether or not to allow the hunting of bison (also known as buffalo) is a hot debate indeed. For starters, Native Americans sustainably hunted bison for thousands of years, but the onslaught of gun-toting European commercial hunters reduced the species to just 30 remaining animals by the 1880s. Bison populations have rebounded in recent years, but to numbers in just the low thousands, far from the 30 to 60 million that roamed the plains before the white man arrived in the New World. Animal advocates and environmentalists think hunters should not be allowed another shot at bison right now.

Meanwhile, agricultural agencies in both the U.S. and Canada beg to differ, as they have been dutifully working for decades to stamp out a disease, Brucellosis, which once ran rampant through domestic cattle herds. The disease, which can spread easily between cattle as well as bison, causes infertility, miscarriages and lowered milk production in the animals. It is also transmissible to humans, where it is known as “undulant fever” because of the severe intermittent fevers it causes.

Livestock ranchers have cooperated with government efforts to rid their cattle populations of Brucellosis, but the disease spread into rebounding bison herds in Yellowstone National Park and in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta in the middle of the 20th century when cattle were allowed to graze in the same areas. Domestic livestock grazing is no longer allowed inside either park, but wild bison tend to wander outside park boundaries where they can intermingle with domestic cattle herds and possibly reintroduce Brucellosis. As such, ranchers think that hunting any such bison that stray too far from protected areas is justified in order to protect against a new outbreak among domestic cattle.

For this reason, the state of Montana began to allow bison hunting during the 1980s. Animal advocates decried hunting the innocently grazing animals as hardly sporting, and nationally televised protests and tourist boycotts forced the Montana legislature to shut the hunt down in 1991. But in 2005, Montana lifted the ban, but with some strings attached: The hunt was limited to a 450,000-acre area; and only 50 permit holders actually got to take down a bison. (More than six thousand applicants vied for the coveted permits, which were awarded via lottery.) And hunters must get certified in their knowledge of the rules of the hunt.

Nevertheless, animal advocates were not placated. Video cameras in hand, members of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a bison advocacy group, were on hand last fall to film the killing of the first bison, which reportedly took five bullets and about 45 minutes to die after a 17-year-old marksman shot it.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government is considering letting hunters into Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park to cull the burgeoning herd there, where Brucellosis has become a big problem. Last fall, 32 scientists met to figure out whether it was possible to eliminate the disease from the park by culling the herd and then reintroducing the species. The jury is still out. Meanwhile, the fate of the bison hangs in the balance.

CONTACT: Buffalo Field Campaign, www.buffalofieldcampaign.org .

Dear EarthTalk: Where I live in Connecticut, our highways are “parking lots” many times a day. Isn’t this an ideal situation for public transit? Why isn’t it happening?

—John Moulton, Stamford, CT

An increasing number of public transit options are coming online throughout North America, but those of you idling alone bumper-to-bumper in your cars might not know it. Indeed, lack of knowledge about public transportation options may be the largest impediment to widespread acceptance of more efficient ways of getting around. Driving your own car back and forth to work every day is not as convenient as it once was, and public transit options are now faster and undoubtedly generate less stress and pollution.

In Connecticut, the state-owned CTTRANSIT moves 27 million people a year on well-appointed local and express buses serving all metro areas. And two full-service commuter rail lines, Metro-North and Shore Line East, routinely take riders longer distances. Similar services are available in many urban and suburban areas across the U.S. Municipal websites are the best place to find transit options, routes and schedules.

The best thing to happen to encourage public transit usage has been high gas prices. Over the last year the average price of regular unleaded rose in the U.S. by 76 cents, with prices now $3.00 or more almost everywhere. And transit agencies report a correlation between high gas prices and increased ridership. The Utah Transit Authority says ridership is up 50 percent from last year on a 19-mile light-rail system in Salt Lake City. And Washington, DC’s Metrorail has seen some of its busiest days ever during the last few months. In Canada, ridership has risen as much as 10 percent in cities like Vancouver and Winnipeg in step with rising gas prices, though cars remain the travel option of choice in the country’s eastern cities.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, 14 million Americans use one or another form of public transportation every weekday, while about 17 million people drive their cars instead. The organization estimates that public transit ridership has grown by as much as 22 percent—faster than highway or air travel—since 1995. And a recently conducted Harris Poll concluded that the American public would like to see rail-based public transit “have an increasing share of passenger transportation.”

Meanwhile, Canadians have embraced public transit even more than their neighbors to the south. An estimated 12 million Canadians—including more than a fifth of all commuters in Toronto—use some form of public transit. Transportation analyst Paul Schimek found that public transit use is almost twice as high per capita in Canada as in the U.S. Also, car use in Canada is almost 20 percent lower per capita. Schimek attributes the differences to traditionally higher gas prices as well as more compact urban development than in the U.S.

Analysts point to the strength of the American “highway lobby” as the reason why Americans have been slow to embrace public transit. It has worked directly with lawmakers over the years to encourage road building and private automobile use to achieve, in the words of a General Motors ad of days gone by, the “American dream of freedom on wheels.” Back in Connecticut, some urban planners have been pushing the idea of turning crowded Interstate 95 into a double-decker highway in places to ease congestion.

CONTACTS: American Public Transportation Association, www.apta.com ; Canadian Urban Transit Association, www.cutaactu.ca .