New mindset needed to fix bison problem

It’s an issue that has been brewing for many years, but that seemingly can’t be resolved until a state of mind is changed.

It’s an issue that has been brewing for many years, but that seemingly can’t be resolved until a state of mind is changed.

Unfortunately, that state of mind belongs to the federal government and they have the power to do something — or nothing.

I refer to the diseased herd of bison located in Wood Buffalo National Park. They were transplanted to the park from the Wainwright area in the 1920s and carried with them both tuberculosis and brucellosis, two diseases that have a significant economic impact on the cattle industry.

In a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do,” the federal government spent millions of dollars eradicating both diseases from the domestic cattle herd, starting back in the 1960s.

To this day, the feds maintain surveillance programs to monitor any new outbreaks of either disease and carry out lethal eradication programs when any is found.

That approach has proven highly successful, and the savings in industry losses are many times over the original cost. But the feds have not applied the same mandatory disease eradication standards to its own herds of elk and bison, with the result that the diseases flourish within two national parks.

That situation has proven to be a constant threat of contagion to the cattle industry.

The federal attitude toward the diseased bison seemed to be that because they were in a remote location far from any cattle, there was little danger of contagion. So the policy was one of benign neglect and just let the affected bison cope with the diseases and let nature run its course.

The hope perhaps was that the bison would develop a sort of resistance to both diseases. That might have occurred, but that approach has not eliminated either disease and the herd continues to be an infectious reservoir of both.

Perhaps that would still not be a problem if the bison stayed within the park borders, but bison are a roaming species. By the 1970s, small groups of bison were showing up near Fort Vermilion and La Crete, well south of the park boundary. Those areas contain susceptible cattle and, from there, both diseases could easily spread further south.

Governments, after constant lobbying by the cattle industry about the contagion danger, began to pour money into study after study about what to do with this ominous situation. Two problems immediately surfaced — first, there was the jurisdictional issue — the bison in the park were a federal responsibility, but the bison that wandered outside of the park were in a legal limbo.

They were on provincial land, but being on the endangered list at the time — who owned them was in question and who could deal with them was fuzzy. That situation alone was worth years of delay.

The second problem was that the studies recommended that all of the diseased herd of bison be destroyed.

That went contrary to the philosophy of the federal parks bureaucrats who believe they are in the conservation business —not the eradication business — and besides, they see no reason to sacrifice wildlife in favour of agriculture.

So no matter what common sense conclusion the studies came to — no bison herd was going to be eradicated within park boundaries — even a diseased herd. For the next 20 years, a stalemate had developed. Meanwhile, more and more diseased bison were heading south out of the park.

That’s caused the Alberta Beef Producers and the provincial government to engage in another study and a movement-monitoring program. This time, the provincial government seems more willing to address the threat of diseased bison moving south.

It has been suggested that they will draw a line and remove all free-ranging bison from land near agricultural areas like Fort Vermilion and La Crete. That would mean a long-term program, as the bison seem determined to keep leaving the park.

And with the intransigence of Parks Canada in dealing with the diseased herd within the park, the supply of sick bison could go on for many years to come.

It would seem that there is no danger of common sense breaking out anytime soon with this issue.

Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.

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