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

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 .