Last month, Yellowstone National Park captured at least 275 of America’s last wild bison for slaughter by Native American tribes, and sent 35 to a USDA facility for research.  The National Park Service is planning to remove 600 to 800 bison over the course of this winter.

As Park spokesman Al Nash told NBC Montana, “If the bison population gets significantly above the target size, there is an increasing likelihood they’ll migrate outside the park boundaries sometime during the winter.”

According to Nash, there are an estimated 4,600 bison in Yellowstone, over 1,000 more than the target size. There is a fear that escaped bison may spread the infectious disease brucellosis to cattle.

Bison populations have increased rapidly due to their high reproduction and survival rates. Yellowstone’s wolves don’t sufficiently cull their numbers because elk make easier prey.

Buffalo once roamed across the country, but have been hunted to near-extinction in the last century. Today, Yellowstone’s bison are the last wild population known to exist, yet Park officials tragically hope to decimate their numbers further. The fear of disease is unfounded considering there hasn’t been a single documented case of wild bison spreading brucellosis to livestock.

Thankfully, a new USDA experiment brings hope for an alternative to slaughter. Researchers say that non-infected bison can be removed and transplanted on public and tribal lands throughout the West to establish their own herds.

Montana wildlife and livestock officials captured over 200 bison for use in the experiment, some of which were killed for testing or because of infections. About 60 survivors and their offspring were sent to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian Reservations, while the rest were sent to a ranch near Bozeman to mingle amidst cattle. Wildlife pathologist Jack Rhyan says, “I’ll feel more positive after 1,000 animals have gone through. That’s just caution because this disease sometimes crops up where you never think it can.”

The buffalo cull is expected to take place through mid-March, weather permitting. Let’s hope that this new study will move Park officials to spare the surviving buffalo and give them a chance to branch out and roam the countryside as they did so many years ago.

Image source: Harvey Barrison / Flickr