Thursday, September 1, 2011

Wolf-hunts morally corrupt

The resumption of wolf-hunts in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming illustrates why citizens must continue to oppose such unnecessary and senseless slaughters
The wolf-hunts are predicated upon morally corrupt and inaccurate assumptions about wolf behavior and impacts that is not supported by recent scientific research. State wildlife agencies pander to the lowest common denominator in the hunting community—men who need to bolster their own self esteem and release misdirected anger by killing.
Wolf-hunts, as Montana Fish and Game Commission Chairman Bob Ream noted at a public hearing, are in part to relieve hunters’ frustrations—frustration based on inaccurate information, flawed assumptions, and just plain old myths and fears about predators and their role in the world.
Maybe relieving hunter frustration is a good enough justification for wolf-hunts to many people. However, in my view permitting hunts to go forward without even registering opposition is to acquiesce to ignorance, hatred, and the worst in human motivations. Thankfully a few environmental groups, most notably the Center for Biodiversity, Wildearth Guardians, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for Wild Rockies and Western Watersheds had the courage and gumption to stand up to ignorance and hatred.
All of the usual justifications given for wolf-hunts are spurious at best. For instance, one rationale given for hunting wolves is to reduce their presumed effects on big game populations. Yet in all three states, elk and deer populations are at or exceed population objectives for most hunting units.
For instance in Wyoming, one of the most vehement anti wolf states in the West, the 2010 elk population was 21,200 animals over state-wide objectives, and this did not include data for six herds, suggesting that elk populations are likely higher. Of the state’s elk herds most were at or above objectives and only 6 percent were below objectives. Similar data are found for Idaho and Montana elk herds as well.
However, you would not know that from the “howls” of hunters who characterize the elk populations as suffering from a wolf induced Armageddon. And Fish and Game departments are loath to counter the false accusations from hunters that wolves are somehow “destroying” hunting throughout the Rockies.
Experience in other parts of the country where wolves have been part of the landscape longer suggests that in the long term, wolves while they may reduce prey populations in certain locales generally do not reduce hunting opportunities across a state or region. Despite the fact that there more than double the number of wolves in Minnesota (3000+) as in the entire Rocky Mountain region, Minnesota hunters experienced the highest deer kills ever in recent years, with Minnesota deer hunters killing over 250,000 white-tailed deer during each of those hunting seasons – an approximate five-fold increase in hunter deer take since wolves were listed under the ESA in 1978.
Another claim made by wolf-hunt proponents is that hunting will reduce “conflicts” with livestock owners. Again this assertion is taken as a matter of faith without really looking into the veracity of it. Given the hysteria generated by the livestock industry one might think that the entire western livestock operations were in jeopardy from wolf predation. However, the number of livestock killed annually by wolves is pitifully small, especially by comparison to losses from other more mundane sources like poison plants, lightning and even domestic dogs.
For instance, the FWS reported that 75 cattle and 148 sheep were killed in Idaho during 2010. In Montana the same year 84 cattle and 64 sheep were verified as killed by wolves. While any loss may represent a significant financial blow to individual ranchers, the livestock industry as a whole is hardly threatened by wolf predation. And it hardly warrants the exaggerated psychotic response by Congress, state legislators and state wildlife agencies.
In light of the fact that most losses are avoidable by implementation of simple measures of that reduce predator opportunity, persecution of predators like wolves is even more morally suspect. Rapid removal of dead carcasses from rangelands, corralling animals at night, electric fencing, and the use of herders, among other measures, are proven to significantly reduce predator losses—up to 90% in some studies. This suggests that ranchers have the capacity (but not the willingness) to basically make wolf losses a non-issue.
However, since ranchers have traditionally been successful in externalizing many of their costs on to the land and taxpayers, including what should be their responsibility to reduce predator conflicts, I do not expect to see these kinds of measures enacted by the livestock industry any time soon, if ever. Ranchers are so used to being coddled they have no motivation or incentives to change their practices in order to reduce predator losses. Why should they change animal husbandry practices when they can get the big bad government that they like to despise and disparage to come in and kill predators for them for free and even get environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife to support paying for predator losses that are entirely avoidable?
But beyond those figures, wolf-hunting ignores a growing body of research that suggests that indiscriminate killing—which hunting is—actually exacerbates livestock/predator conflicts. The mantra of pro wolf-hunting community is that wolves should be “managed” like “other” wildlife. This ignores the findings that suggest that predators are not like other wildlife. They are behaviorally different from say elk and deer. Random killing of predators including bears, mountain lions and wolves creates social chaos that destabilizes predator social structure. Hunting of wolves can skew wolf populations towards younger animals. Younger animals are less skillful hunters. As a consequence, they will be more inclined to kill livestock. Destabilized and small wolf packs also have more difficulty in holding territories and even defending their kills from scavengers and other predators which in end means they are more likely to kill new prey animal.
As a result of these behavioral consequences, persecution of predators through hunting has a self fulfilling feedback mechanism whereby hunters kill more predators, which in turn leads to greater social chaos, and more livestock kills, and results in more demands for hunting as the presumed solution.
Today predator management by so called “professional” wildlife agencies is much more like the old time medical profession where sick people were bled. If they didn’t get better immediately, more blood was let. Finally if the patient died, it was because not enough blood was released from the body. The same illogical reasoning dominates predator management across the country. If killing predators doesn’t cause livestock losses to go down and/or game herds to rise, it must be because we haven’t killed enough predators yet.
Furthermore, most hunting occurs on larger blocks of public lands and most wolves as well as other predators killed by hunters have no relationship to the animals that may be killing livestock on private ranches or taking someone’s pet poodle from the back yard. A number of studies of various predators from cougars to bears show no relationship between hunter kills and a significant reduction in the actual animals considered to be problematic.
Again I hasten to add that most “problematic predators” are created as a result of problem behavior by humans—for instance leaving animal carcasses out on the range or failure to keep garbage from bears, etc. and humans are supposed to be the more intelligent species—though if one were to observe predator management across the country it would be easy to doubt such presumptions.
Finally, wolf-hunting ignores yet another recent and growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that top predators have many top down ecological influences upon the landscape and other wildlife. The presence of wolves, for instance, can reduce deer and elk numbers in some places for some time period. But rather than viewing this as a negative as most hunters presume, reduction of prey species like elk can have many positive ecological influences. A reduction of elk herbivory on riparian vegetation can produce more song bird habitat. Wolves can reduce coyote predation on snowshoe hare thus competition for food by lynx, perhaps increasing survival for this threatened species. Wolves have been shown to increase the presence of voles and mice near their dens—a boon for some birds of prey like hawks. These and many other positive effects on the environment are ignored by wolf-hunt proponents and unfortunately by state wildlife management agencies as well who continue to advocate and/or at least not effectively counter old fallacies about predators.
Most state agencies operate under the assumption that production of elk and deer for hunters to shoot should have priority in wildlife management decisions. All state wildlife agencies are by law supposed to manage wildlife as a public trust for all citizens. Yet few challenge the common assumption that elk and deer exist merely for the pleasure of hunters to shoot.
I have no doubt that for many pro wolf-hunt supporters’ predators represent all that is wrong with the world. Declining job prospects, declining economic vitality of their rural communities, changes in social structures and challenges to long-held beliefs are exemplified by the wolf. Killing wolves is symbolic of destroying all those other things that are bad in the world for which they have no control. They vent this misdirected anger on wolves-- that gives them the illusion that they can control something.
Nevertheless, making wolves and other predators scapegoats for the personal failures of individuals or the collective failures of society is not fair to wolves or individuals either. The premises upon which western wolf-hunts are based either are the result of inaccurate assumptions about wolf impacts or morally corrupt justifications like relieving hunter anger and frustrations over how their worlds are falling apart.
I applaud the few environmental groups that had the courage to stand up for wolves, and to challenge the old guard that currently controls our collective wildlife heritage. More of us need to stand up against persecution of wildlife to appease the frustrations of disenfranchised rural residents. It is time to have wildlife management based on science, and ecological integrity, not based upon relieving hunter frustrations over the disintegrating state of their world. And lastly we need a new ethnics and relationship to wildlife that goes beyond a simple utilitarian view of whether any particular species benefits or harms human in real and/or imaginary ways.
For more on predator studies and management see
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Oregon's Cougar Hunting misguided


Oregon, like many western states, allows cougar hunting. Part of the justification for hunting is the assumption that killing cougars will reduce livestock losses and increase public safety. There is, however, growing scientific evidence that suggests that sport hunting is more likely to increase cougar predation on livestock and may even increase the likelihood of cougar attacks on humans.


The Oregon legislature’s wants to expand cougar hunting in the state. Under present law, Oregon allows cougars to be killed 365 days of the year. If you kill a cougar, you can get a second license to go kill another. Under these generous hunting seasons and bag limits, cougar kills increased fourfold between 1995 and 2010. For instance, in 2009 almost 500 cougars were killed in Oregon. (By comparison in California where there is no cougar hunting, only 102 cougar were killed, primarily under permit for livestock depredation).

Now the Oregon legislature is trying to pass legislation allowing hound hunting of cougars—which has been banned twice by public referendum. The Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) supports this change, and has been trying for years to increase cougar kills, arguing that the population has doubled since the original ban on hound hunting. Some cougar biologists question ODFW’s methods for calculating these population estimates. See Dr. Wielgus comments here

Regardless of the actual number of cougars in Oregon, ODFW suggests that a growing cougar population is a threat to public safety (or is the real reason for cougar control to reduce cougar take of elk and deer while using public safety as a Trojan Horse to justify even greater cougar killings?).

Here’s what ODFW is not telling Oregon citizens.


First, a bevy of research shows that hunting skews cougar populations (as well as other predators) towards younger animals which are more likely to attack people and livestock. Thus hunting exacerbates the likelihood of human conflicts.

The reason is that in unhunted populations, dominant male cougar kill young males. Young males are less skillful hunters and are more “brazen” and bold. Thus the more young males in a population, the more likelihood you will have depredations on livestock and the rare attack on humans. One does not get to be an old male cougar by being an ineffective hunter and/or either brazen or bold. Thus cougar hunting is more likely to create social chaos by killing the dominant males that control cougar social structure, permitting a greater number of young males to survive.

California is a good control since it is the only state with any significant cougar population where hunting is banned. No sport hunting of cougars has effectively occurred since 1972. The human population of California is 38 million or approximately 10 times the population of Oregon (3.8 million) and California’s human population is more widely dispersed into cougar habitat than Oregon (due to Oregon’s strict land use laws). California also has 17% of the West’s suitable cougar habitat-- more than twice as much cougar habitat as Oregon.

Thus one would expect-- all things being equal-- that California’s much higher human population and greater cougar habitat would lead to much higher number of human conflicts, and livestock depredations than Oregon. But in reality the opposite is true. California has the lowest per capita cougar attacks on human in the West, and a low level of livestock depredations as well.

Comparisons between California and Washington also show the same trends. For 2009, the last year for Washington data, there were 1528 cougar “incidents” in the state Incidents are defined as a livestock depredation, sighting in someone’s yard, etc. Washington has an aggressive hunting season. Washington has an estimated 2000-2,500 cougars.

By comparison in California where there is no cougar hunting, there are an estimated 4000-6000 cougars (as much as three times as many as in Washington) and with six times the human population of Washington, and far more of the state covered with sprawl, yet there were less than 400 incidents a year in recent years--less than a third of the number reported in Washington where cougars are hunted.

Oregon, which has year round cougar hunting, presently kills 3-4 times as many cougars a year as California, yet it has many, many more complaints and livestock depredations. Are Oregon cougars just craftier than their California cousins--and better able to attack livestock than in the Golden State? Or is something else going on here?

Even if cougar hunting were effective at reducing cougar populations that does not mean it will result in fewer conflicts. Dr. Robert Wielgus found that as the cougar population in his Washington study area was declining due to hunting, while complaints and documented conflicts were increasing.


Part of the explanation for this is that sport hunting is ineffective at killing the very cougars most likely to be in conflict--i.e. those living on the fringes of human settlements. Most hunters hunt the larger blocks of public land. They do not hunt people’s backyards. Hound hunters aren’t going to chase cougars through rural neighborhoods or through subdivisions. So even if hunting did reduce cougar populations, it doesn’t necessarily mean it reduces the threat of cougar attacks or conflicts because the cougars living in closest proximity to humans are the ones least likely to be killed by hunting.

Plus good cougar habitat is always filled. If a dominant male cougar controls the territory, he will kill or at least intimidate other young male cougars and keep them away from his territory. If that dominant male territory overlaps with rural neighborhoods, he will reduce conflicts with humans. On the other hand, if that male is killed by hunters, it opens up the territory to young males. And if the young males continue to be killed by hunters, preventing that area from ever being occupied and controlled by older male, then hunting will continuously create conflict by assuring that young males are abundant in that area. The very opposite of what cougar hunting proponents suggest is their goal.


Finally, the public safety threat is greatly exaggerated. It’s much to do about nothing. The likelihood of a cougar attack is extremely small. There have only been 23 fatal cougar attacks in all of North America between 1890 and 2010 That is because cougars as a rule just don’t attack people. --that is even with the social disruption that hunting and predator control creates. That is because cougars as a rule just don’t attack people. America .


Hunters are a bigger threat to human safety than cougars. Indeed, there are hundreds of people shot every year by hunters and there are more hunting fatalities in a single year than cougars have killed in a hundred years. It could be argued that the ODFW by increasing hunting for cougars has put Oregon citizens at greater risk of death from hunters than from cougars, For instance, in 2007 there were 19 fatalities in North America (NA) from hunting and zero from cougars. In 2006 there were 27 deaths in NA from hunters and zero from cougars. In 2005, there were 41 deaths from hunters, and zero from cougars. 19 fatalities 200 non-fatal 27 fatalities 219 non-fatal 41 fatal 364 non-fatal
If legislators in Oregon were genuinely concerned about public safety they would consider two things. One is that hunting increases the likelihood of cougar attacks on humans and increases livestock depredations since it skews cougar populations towards younger age classes which are more likely to attack people. But again keeping in mind that even with skewed cougar populations, the likelihood of anyone being attacked, much less killed by cougars is exceedingly small.
Statistically, hunters are in fact, a greater threat to public safety than cougars. Personally I am not worried about my personal safety due to hunting, because even the fatalities from hunting are exceedingly small and insignificant. But by comparison, cougar attacks and fatalities are even rarer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Wolf Hunting is Unethical

In light of the recent successful delisting of the wolf by Congress, I have been thinking a lot about why I so strenuously object to killing wolves. I can accept hunting that I feel is legitimate—such as the hunting for food done by those who pursue elk, deer, ducks, and so forth under legal seasons, bag limits and other modern wildlife management authority. Just because killing wolves will now be legal in states like Idaho and Montana does not make it legitimate to me.

I should interject here that I don’t believe the state’s goals are to extirpate wolves again. I’m not worried that wolves will disappear from Idaho or Montana. But I do not think we should take the killing of wolves or any other animal lightly. Unnecessary killing is not something that should be condoned.

This is not a blind opposition to all hunting. I believe that hunting can be a legitimate activity. The hunter is legitimate in my view when hunting is done with humility and respect for the animals. When the animal’s death is not taken for granted or trivialized. And the hunter must practice the up-most ethical behavior when pursuing animals. And sometimes I can condone hunting (or more properly perhaps I should call it shooting) when it is the best way to perform what I might call some ecological necessity--say shooting feral animals on some island that is raising havoc with native wildlife.

I also believe hunters, perhaps, more than other sub-groups have a moral and ethical responsibly to watch dog, monitor and police their own ranks. Hunters, by the right that society gives them permission to kill things, should be the ones that take killing seriously. And they have an obligation to really think about the killing they are doing, and whether that killing is warranted, and necessary.

Personally, I don’t use the word “harvest” when talking about killing wildlife. That kind of terminology in my mind minimizes what is being done--the killing of another creature--and I think words like “harvest” desensitizes one to what is happening.

When does hunting start to border on illegitimate? That is a hazy area, of course. In my view blasting “gophers” and “prairie dogs” for fun, coyote hunts, and that like are clearly illegitimate activities. I don’t think shooting “gophers” so you can see the “red spray” is ethical. It demonstrates no respect for the animals. It does not represent humility by the hunter. It trivializes the death of a creature.

What makes something legitimate gets back, in part, to why we do things. Shooting animals out of season is what we call poaching. And especially if someone were killing say elk to sell the meat and antlers, most of us feel is wrong, even though the person is just killing the elk, the exact same thing a hunter might do during hunting season.

On the other hand, if someone shoots a deer out of season to feed their starving family most of us would at least be willing to forgive someone for such an offense, even if it were still illegal. But I would want to know that all other avenues for feeding their family were exhausted--i.e. you could not get food from welfare and/or donations from a church, etc. Nevertheless, you get the point. Depending on the circumstances, the same basic action can be ethical or unethical.

I can support the killing of an elk during hunting seasons, for instance, for many reasons. A person is going to eat something for food and killing an elk and/or say keeping a trout (or whatever animal is consumed) generally is in the category of a “necessity”. Not that there aren’t other alternatives to hunting and fishing--obviously one can buy meat or fish at the grocery store, grow veggies in their garden and so on. Still getting meat from a grocery results in the killing of an animal as well, and I can make a very strong case that agriculturally raised meat whether in a factory farm and/or range cattle out on public lands has a tremendous amount of negative impacts to the land and other wildlife, not to mention even serious ethical questions about how the domestic animals are treated themselves. Thus I don’t have a problem with someone killing an elk or deer to consume if they feel eating some meat is something they want in their diet. (Putting aside the legitimate question of whether one needs to eat meat in the first place for the moment, if one has decided that consuming meat is acceptable, than hunting is a legitimate means of obtaining food in my view).

I also place value on the pursuit of wildlife. Hunting, because it is serious business when done correctly, puts a person in more direct contact with the entire web of life. This is a difficult thing to explain, but it is real. And I think many hunters experience this when afield. Thus hunting has value to both individuals and society as a consequence. I would liken it to growing a garden. Most of us can get our vegetables from the grocery store, but as any gardener will tell you, there is value to growing one’s own food that goes beyond just satisfying a need for food.

But I don’t necessary support the killing of all animals just because someone is going to eat it. There are also other considerations in how I view and determine whether the hunting is ethical. I need to know that the hunter takes death of an animal seriously and does everything they can to avoid unnecessary suffering of the creature they are killing. Killing needs to be done quickly and as humanely as possible.

I also need to know that the animal being killed is relatively common so that killing it does not jeopardize its overall population. Obviously that is not an issue in most of the common species we hunt today like deer, elk, and so forth. For species that are rarer, I start to question whether hunting is legitimate even if one could argue you are eating the meat. For instance, I question hunting grizzlies for that reason. Grizzlies are not really common anywhere, even when they are not hunted as in some of the big parks in Alaska.

I then ask if hunting and taking a lot of these animals from the landscape going to have serious impacts on other wildlife (i.e. is the killing of that particular species in that particular part of the country taking food out of the mouth of other wildlife and/or seriously interrupting with some major ecological function--nutrient cycling, etc.) Nutrient cycling is a good example of why at least as far as catching salmon for sport doesn’t bother me, but I have some serious reservations about the degree of salmon removal by commercial fishermen in terms of nutrient return to headwater streams.

After that I look at how the animals are pursued. Running down a deer on a snowmobile and then shooting it would fall into the illegitimate category even if that person were going to eat the meat. This is all about what is commonly called “fair chase”. Fair chase is one of those changing values--what was “fair” in the past, isn’t necessarily fair today and technology has skewed the boundaries quite a bit. Is using GPS on hounds to chase down a cougar, then when the “treed signal” is heard, you get out of your pick-up truck and amble up to the tree and shoot the cat out of it fair chase? I don’t think so.

So these are some of the things that I consider to develop my current position about wolf management (which is just a euphemism for killing them). One of the reasons I am skeptical of state management of wolves is due to history. Can a species that has been so viciously maligned for so long be successfully “managed” by the same state agencies that depend upon license sales to hunt wolf prey like elk and deer to fund their bureaucracies? I recognize that there are many fine biologists working for these agencies who appreciate the important biological value of having wolf predation, but even they “must dance with the ones that brung ya”—and the majority of hunters want fewer wolves.

Because of this legacy of historic persecution, wolf “management” as it’s called by states like Idaho and Montana, to my mind, is done for all the wrong reasons. Despite what some may say about how they just want to hunt wolves like they hunt deer, elk, etc. the bottom line for most hunters, and the reason for the ‘management’ is not any of the above legitimate reasons for hunting. We are persecuting wolves because they are thought to be competition for elk and deer and/or a threat to livestock producers.

I would not support wolf control and management even if I thought that wolves were a serious threat to elk and deer populations. However, the truth is that these justifications are more imaginary than real.

Even if I believed wolves did have a significant impact on state-wide elk and deer numbers, I would still argue that hunters have to accept that they are sharing the world with other creatures, and wolves have a greater “right” to the elk and deer than the average human hunter--in part because we do have alternatives. We are not going to starve if we don’t shoot a deer or elk.

The same can be said for livestock producers. There are many proven techniques to reduce predator losses that livestock producers can implement. While there may be the occasional need to surgically remove an individual animal or even a pack of wolves, if most livestock producers practiced better animal husbandry, much of the conflict would cease to exist--and I believe ranchers have an ethical responsibility to implement these measures so that both their animals and the predators do not have to suffer.

However, what particularly bothersome to me about this persecution of predators is that there is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that “managing” wolves may actually be counterproductive for even the stated goals of wolf control proponents. Hunting predators can increase conflicts with livestock producers, and could under some circumstances, even hasten the decline of big game herds because of the social chaos and population structural changes that occurs with indiscriminate hunting.

Hunting can skew the wolf populations to younger animals, breaking up larger packs into smaller packs, which can lead to more conflicts. For instance, young animals are less skillful hunters, they do not know the territory as well as older animals—things like where the elk migrate or calve. Packs that are continuously suffering mortality from persecution have a more difficult time holding on to territory. Smaller packs cannot defend kills against other scavengers readily. A big intact pack can kill an elk and guard the carcass from bears, coyotes, ravens and other animals while consuming it entirely, reducing the need to kill another deer or elk. Thus wolves that suffer from wolf “management” are more likely to attack livestock and sometimes even consume more prey than unmanaged packs.

In addition, there is more and more evidence about the ecological role of predators in functioning ecosystems or what has been termed “trophic cascade”. This research suggests, among many ecological benefits associated with predators, that predator induced reductions in elk and deer numbers in some places, at some times, is “good” for ecosystem function. And since wolves have been doing this for eons eliminating these ecological influences is done at our peril. Just as we now understand that damming rivers and changing the flow has serious consequences for many fish, plants, and birds, we must recognize that predators have an important ecological function and eliminating that function across wide swaths of the land is probably not a good idea.

So when hunters say they are not opposed to having a few wolves around, but we need to control them so they don’t diminish the number of elk and deer, I believe it’s essential that thinking hunters respond by saying we shouldn’t be so quick to eliminate something that was so important to ecosystem health and function for so many centuries. We actually “need” to have wolves and other predators to reduce prey populations. Trying to “smooth” out these kinds of natural population fluctuations of prey species as is the accepted “goal” of wildlife management may not be a good idea for healthy ecosystems.

No only does predator “management” result in unnecessary killing, but it jeopardizes ecological function and doesn’t even achieve the stated goals of reducing conflicts with livestock producers and could even hasten decline in prey populations for hunters. Hunters as much as any group should be advocating healthy ecosystems—since in the end the long term value of habitat is dependent on healthy ecological function.

That’s why I believe that of all sub-groups of people who might be opposing wolf “management” it ought to be hunters who should be most strongly opposing this proposal. Yet, not surprisingly, what I hear is strident calls for killing wolves by most hunters, and even the ethically inclined hunters are generally silent, silenced because they are afraid to be called “anti hunting” or even worse, an “animal rights advocate”. But of all groups of people, I think hunters should be among the most outspoken advocates of predators.

I do not think wolf killing rises to that level of ethical hunting, ecological necessity, and/or food necessity.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Vermont Agriculture Myths


Agriculture, like any industry, seeks to perpetuate favorable public perception, especially to maintain public subsidies and support for its operations. Vermont agriculture, like its counter parts across the country, has been very successful in fostering a host of myths that among other things maintains public support and favorable public policy. Since most of the statistics and information about agriculture is produced by agricultural proponents, with little independent review, much of this information is skewed and/or inflated to give a positive view of agriculture’s economic and social importance.

In Vermont, more than any other state I’ve lived in, cows are sacred. Because of this uncritical acceptance of dairy operations as somehow iconic or representative of the state, there is virtually no objective research on the real costs of Ag both in terms of its real economic value, as well as its large ecological/environmental footprint. Even though Ag is one of the most destructive activities engaged in by humans, the common refrain in Vermont is how Ag maintains the environment. As we shall see later, this is more wishful thinking than reality if any kind of objective review of farming’s real environmental costs were ever reviewed.

In any discussion of Vermont agriculture it’s important to distinguish between farmers who are producing food for direct human consumption (i.e. say veggies and fruit) as opposed to livestock production (dairy and meat). The vast majority of large scale commercial operations in Vermont are involved in dairy. When one thinks of a “farm” in Vermont, they think of dairy farms. Most of the acreage devoted to Ag in Vermont is committed to dairy production.

By comparison, the number of people employed and acreage producing food for direct human consumption is relatively small (for instance only slightly more than 2000 acres are in vegetable production in the entire state of Vermont). Most of the ecological damage done to the land and water is the result of livestock production.

This may be nuanced, but most of the critique here is focused on the large scale dairy/livestock operations, not the small scale vegetable/fruit producers.

More on this later, but the bulk of all tax dollars (subsidies) as well as the externalized costs of Ag production to the environment and wildlife is a consequence of livestock production. When one travels around Vermont and sees a “farm”, chances are it is producing dairy and/or meat. These farms are responsible for much of the biological impoverishment of Vermont’s landscape—a corn field is a biological desert, made worse when one considers that the bulk of all corn fields in Vermont are growing forage for dairy cows, not sweet corn humans might consume.

By contrast local vegetable and fruit production, which has many more health benefits and a smaller ecological footprint to Vermont’s landscape, currently receives little public financial support, though in reality it is these small farm operations and backyard gardens,( not the large farms that garner the bulk of tax subsidies), which provide the bulk of food for “farmer’s market” and “local Agriculture.”

Bear in mind that perspective is critical for understanding the role of Ag in Vermont’s economy. For instance, the often quoted statement that Vermont is the largest agricultural producer in New England is accurate, but fails to place that in context. New England is the least productive agricultural section of the entire contiguous United States and has the fewest farms of any region of the country.

Vermont has 6,984 “farms” as defined by the USDA. Vermont ag promoters are always telling the public that Vermont is an important “farm” state, but in truth, it’s a marginal place for agricultural production.

Connecticut, which is half the size of Vermont, has approximately 4,200 farms and far more people. But proportionally Connecticut actually has more farms than Vermont—yet few consider Connecticut an “agricultural state.”

But the real point is that there are not very many farms anywhere in New England. Maine just has 7000 farms. And Rhode Island is so small as to be unimportant, and New Hampshire is too rocky for much farming. Thus overall New England is marginal for agriculture. So the fact that Vermont is the largest agricultural producer in New England is only significant because the competition is extremely limited.

By comparison New Jersey, a state not known as a big agricultural producer, and one that is smaller than Vermont and with far more people, but with more favorable climate and geography has over 9,000 farms—2000 more than Vermont.

Indeed, the vast majority of states in the country are better for agriculture than Vermont. Vermont ranks 41st in the nation in terms of Agricultural output, just ahead of such “farm states” like Alaska and Rhode Island.

Comparative advantage is an important concept to understand. When it comes to agriculture, Vermont does not have a competitive advantage. There is a good geographical reason why the number of Vermont farms has shrunk over the past century. It’s cold climate, hilly terrain, and overall rocky soils make it uncompetitive with other agricultural production regions of the country. Even within the Northeast, other states like Pennsylvania (58,000 farms) and New York (34,500 farms) have better terrain and climate for growing most farm produce—and many more farms even after accounting for their larger size.


The USDA definition of a “farm” is one way that agricultural proponents exaggerate agriculture’s importance. According to the USDA a farm is "any operation that sells at least one thousand dollars of agricultural commodities or that would have sold that amount of produce under normal circumstances." This is a very low bar and results in unrealistically high number of “farms” found in Vermont. Thus someone who sells 25-30 Christmas trees and/or 15-20 gallons of maple syrup qualifies as a “farmer” by the USDA standard. Not to denigrate these efforts, but when the public hears there are more than 6000 farms in Vermont, they think of 6000 large scale operations with barns, fields, and so forth. In truth, only a small percentage of Vermont farms are that large—and there may be less than a thousand operations that would qualify as a “farm” as envisioned in the popular imagination.

To have an entire Dept of Agriculture, not to mention, many other agencies working to subsidize, help, and otherwise support such a small industry is an archaic relic from the time when the vast majority of Vermonters were indeed involved in farming. There are likely more full time software engineers and designers in Vermont today than farmers. Indeed, there are more car salesmen than full time farmers but we haven’t yet created a Dept of Computers and/or a Dept. of Car dealerships to aid and subsidize these industries, even though I think any realistic economic analysis would demonstrate that these occupations now employ far more people than farming. And while there is a “School of Agriculture” at the U of Vermont, we do not yet have a “School of the Automobile Industry” even though clearly there are far more jobs and direct use of cars by most Vermonters.

Though the USDA lists 6,984 farms in Vermont, most of those businesses do not provide a sufficient profit to support the operators without outside income. According to the USDA only 49% of Vermont farmers get their primary income from farming and many depend on outside jobs and other monetary sources to maintain their lifestyle choices. More than 58% of all Vermont gross less than $10,000, and the vast majority of Vermont’s farms are “hobby” operations that provide a little additional income and perhaps lifestyle values, but do not contribute appreciably to either regional employment, income or food production.

This is not to denigrate the contribution small farm operations might make to local food production but they are not an important economic engine for the state’s economy as implied by many Ag boosters.

Other than the relatively few individuals who own large farm operations and may make a significant income, most Ag jobs pay poorly. Even if it were possible to increase employment in Ag, most of these jobs would not pay a living wage. A public investment in almost any other industry would yield far better wages and jobs.

If the definition of a commercially viable farm operation were based upon the ability of that farm to provide a family a livable income, the number of economically viable Vermont farm operations would likely be less than a thousand. And contrary to popular assertions about how important Ag is to rural economies and employment, the reality is that the availability of outside employment is what supports most of Vermont’s farms rather than the farms supporting regional economies. It is the jobs as bus drivers, snowplow operators, teachers, etc. that provide the outside incomes to farm families that permits most “farms” to persist at all.


Because of the false and flawed assumptions about Vermont agriculture, this industry has been successful in acquiring a disproportionate amount of public dollars and favorable treatment in public policy (for instance exemption of farms from environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act, etc.) However, public funds are not unlimited, and funds spent subsidizing agriculture either directly and/or indirectly because many costs are externalized (such as environmental degradation resulting from agricultural production that others must pay to fix) produces poor public policy that results in inefficient use of public resources.

For instance, one of the stated goals of the Farms to Plate campaign is to increase employment. Would a similar investment in say higher education and/or energy conservation produce more jobs in the state than spending scarce public resources on agriculture? Such comparison or cost-benefits are almost never considered because of the Sacred Cows that dot the Vermont landscape.

Below are a number of common myths often heard about agriculture with a short response. More detailed review is needed, but these responses can point the way towards the areas where greater scrutiny may be profitable. As with all myths, there is often a kernel of truth to them, however, the implied message often exaggerates the reality.

MYTH: Agriculture is important to Vermont’s economy. An often quoted figure is that Vermont’s agricultural and food product output is worth $2.7 billion a year.

RESPONSE: Farming actually makes up a small sub-set of Vermont’s economy. Since the mid-1800s there has been a gradual decline in Vermont farms and land in farm largely due to the comparative disadvantage of climate and terrain found in the state.

Indeed, some historians speculate that if Ohio and other rich agricultural lands in the mid-West had been available for white settlement in the late 1700s, Vermont may have remained largely a wilderness. And once those better farmlands were available, many a Vermont farm family in the mid-late 1800s migrated to those better lands.

The trend in farm decline has continued. In 1950 there were more than 11,000 dairy farms in the state, and by 2011, the number had fallen to less than a thousand.

Part of the decline is attributed to greater production per farm, so the total output in milk per cow has actually increased significantly—which is one reason why the alarm over the loss of farms is somewhat exaggerated. Fewer farms are producing more milk today than was produced by far more farms decades ago—while overall demand for milk products has not kept up with supplies resulting in lower prices for farmers.

Nevertheless, overall the economic value of farming to Vermont incomes is far less than commonly asserted. There are numerous ways in which economic value of Vermont’s farm production is an exaggeration.

First, Ag boosters combine many different employment sectors through the use of “multipliers” to exaggerate the value of Vermont agricultural production. The largest sector of the Ag employment is what is termed “Ag related employment”.

According to the latest available USDA data I could find (2002), Vermont had a total of 63,384 Ag employment jobs out of a total workforce of nearly 410,000 jobs. But the bulk of those jobs (44,331) are Ag wholesale and retail trade.

Among others trades and employment “Ag related employment” includes people who work in bakeries, micro breweries, and the checkout at the grocery stores. In at least one other similar study for Utah, I found that even waitresses were included among Utah’s “Ag workers” because they handled food—thus waiting on tables was considered to be Ag related employment. While it’s true that all of these workers handle agricultural products, most of these jobs would exist whether there were any farms in Vermont or not. The people working at Green Mountain Coffee, for instance, are included in the Ag related workers—yet the product produced, coffee, is not grown in Vermont. To attribute these jobs to Vermont farms and the Vermont farm economy is deceptive at best.

By combination of all these employment sectors, one gets a very big number—like $2.7 billion. But nearly all of that economic activity would exist whether there were farms in Vermont or not. People would still buy groceries at Shaw’s or Walmart and the value of those sales and employment would exist regardless of Vermont’s agricultural output.

Another way that employment figures are inflated is to count any employment that can be attributed to agricultural activities, whether Ag makes up the bulk of that job or sales or not is still counted as Ag dependent. For instance, a veterinary service whose business is largely focused on cats and dogs, but may occasionally treat a cow or horse will be counted by USDA as Ag dependent even though the majority of their income and business is non-Ag related. Similarly a store that sells a few tractors to farmers, while earning the bulk of their income selling ride on lawn mowers to urban and suburban dwellers is still counted by the USDA as an “Ag related” sector or employment.

In other words, there is no attempt to determine to what degree that any business is actually dependent upon Ag sales or what percentage of its income is derived directly from Ag. By lumping all these businesses that have even a remote connection to Ag as Ag dependent, the overall contribution of Ag to the state’s economy is greatly inflated.

MYTH: Vermont agriculture contributes to food security

RESPONSE: Vermont is 41st in agricultural production behind such states as Delaware and Rhode Island and Alaska—not exactly a high bar to surpass. The bulk of its commercial farm operations are dairy, yet Vermont’s share of dairy production is only 1.4% of value in dairy products nationally. So even what Vermont does best is relatively unimportant from a national Agricultural production perspective.

But the worse aspect of all of this is that the majority of all Vermont farmland does not grow food directly consumed by humans—rather the bulk of all farm acreage is devoted to livestock forage crops dominated by hay/pasture and feeder corn to feed cows. Over 330,000 acres were in forage production (hay, alfalfa, etc) and 91,000 acres were in corn silage.

By comparison farms growing vegetables only occupy 2,947 acres or a fraction of the more than 1.2 million acres of land considered as farmland.

This is not to suggest that Vermont could not obtain more of its own food in-state, but currently little agricultural production is directed towards producing human foods. Increasing production of locally grown fruits and vegetables is possible and desirable, especially if consumption of these foods were proportionally increased in Vermonters diets. Conversion of Vermont’s large grassy lawns into vegetable gardens and orchards could go a long ways towards achieving greater local food production. But most of this production would not and is not occurring on the bulk of today’s prime farmlands.

However, as previously mentioned Vermont does not enjoy a comparative advantage when it comes to food production. The state’s cold climate, short growing season, and terrain limitations means that the bulk of all Vermont’s food supply comes from outside of the state. Wheat can be grown far more efficiently and for less cost in other parts of the country. The cost of shipping wheat to Vermont from say North Dakota or Kansas is a very insignificant cost of the total price paid for any wheat product. (Energy used for transport is usually less than 1% of the energy used to produce any food product.) Similar competitive advantages exist for most other foods consumed in the state. Not to mention that many of the foods like oranges and bananas enjoyed by Vermonters daily could not be grown here at all and/or even if they can be grown here, like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are only seasonally available.

The majority of all American’s food calories come from grains, not from vegetables and fruits which make up the majority of food products available at local farmers markets. Foods like breads, pasta, baked goods, and so forth make up the majority of the calories in a typical American diet. Almost no grain is grown in Vermont. For example, only 379 acres of wheat are produced in Vermont. If “food security” were really the goal, Vermonters would shift the emphasis from dairy production to wheat and other grains, not wasting good farmland growing feeder corn for cows.

It is doubtful whether Vermont can ever provide for the majority of its food. That is not to suggest that encouraging more local production, including more backyard gardens, as well as food storage practices like canning and fruit drying isn’t desirable from a cultural and social perspective, but Vermonters are unlikely to get the bulk of their food from local sources. Nevertheless, a shift from dairy/livestock to small scale orchard, mixed vegetable and grain production could be encouraged by moving production from dairy/livestock.

MYTH: Eating local reduces greenhouse gases and energy use.

RESPONSE: There are many advantages to consuming locally grown foods, but a food mileage is not one of them. Transporting food consumes less than 1% of all the energy used in growing, processing, and getting food from the field to table. The biggest energy consumption in food production is the fertilizers, fuels for equipment, and processing/packaging food, not the energy used to bring the food to markets. Water transport, trains, and even semi trucks are fairly energy efficient in terms of per calorie energy used to bring food to markets. Making a special trip in one’s car to a farmer’s market to get some local strawberries will consume more energy and create far more greenhouse gases than if one purchased strawberries shipped in from Florida or California at the regular grocery store where all other food is purchased.

MYTH: Vermont's dairy cows and barns are essential to Vermont's tourism industry.

Response: While there are some people who no doubt are attracted to Vermont to see its bucolic landscape, whether farms are "essential" to tourism as often asserted by the Ag industry can be questioned. After all at the same time as the number of farms has declined, tourism has increased in the state. One could even assert flippantly that the decline in farms is responsible for an increase in tourism--though more likely people are attracted to Vermont for a host of reasons including its small communities, lakes, forested hills, ski resorts, and other factors and would continue to come to state even if there were no farms remaining.

MYTH: Vermont agriculture helps sustain healthy environment.

RESPONSE: Agriculture is the most destructive human activity globally. A third of the globe is devoted to agriculture—more than any other human activity. Since Ag is by definition the funneling of solar energy into a single or few crops and/or animals, it represents a significant biological impoverishment and loss of diversity. A corn field is a biological desert, and only ranks slightly more diverse than a Walmart parking lot. The 1.2 million acres of Vermont considered farmland is by far the most biologically disturbed and simplified landscapes in the state. By comparison your average subdivision with its shrubby and trees will have far more native wildlife and plant life than a typical farm field. This is not to suggest that subdivisions are desirable. Your typical urban lawn is also a major source of water pollution (due to excess fertilization), and many larger animals like bear are not sustained by urban land uses. Sprawl costs energy and fragments wildlife habitat.

Nevertheless, many species of native vegetation including aspen, birch, and maple are abundant in suburban housing tracts along with many native birds, insects, and small mammals, so that the conversion of a farm field to a housing tract may be an improvement in overall biodiversity from a strictly biological perspective, though still not nearly as biologically diverse as the native forest that once cloaked nearly all of Vermont’s acres.

Since more than 400,000 acres of Vermont’s landscape is devoted to field crops like alfalfa and/or corn. These monocultures have replaced native plant and wildlife communities to their detriment and more importantly have fragmented a lot of native plant and wildlife communities. Farming is far more responsible for wildlife habitat loss in Vermont than sprawl, but much of it occurred so long ago we consider it as the “norm.” Wildlife that tolerates degraded habitat like whitetail flourish with farming, but many other species including many native amphibians, birds that need interior forest and mammals like fisher and bear suffer when native forests are converted to agricultural fields.

Furthermore, many of these acres are soaked in pesticides and fertilizers, and are a major source for soil erosion and sedimentation in streams. For example, approximately over 70% of the runoff from the Missisquoi watershed is estimated to be from agricultural operations. Thus one of the major factors in the decline of Vermont’s aquatic ecosystems is the habitat degradation resulting from past as well as on-going agricultural practices.

However, since these environmental costs, including loss of wildlife habitat, water pollution, soil erosion are ignored and externalized by farmers and Ag boosters, the real cost to Vermont of expanding or even maintaining existing agricultural production is overvalued—since none of these negative costs are included in economic valuations. Instead they are transferred to the land which is degraded (i.e. the pollution of Lake Champlain by farming for instance) or transferred to taxpayers who pay for things like restoring species that are endangered, cleaning up waterways, and so forth. If these externalized costs were included in the cost-benefit of farming in Vermont, nearly all farming would be negative.

Indeed, it could be argued that the less farming (particularly dairy farming) that occurred in Vermont, the better for biodiversity and even for taxpayer pocketbooks. This raises an important issue. If we must accept at least some environmental degradation to grow food for ourselves, shouldn’t we be growing more crops that can be consumed directly by humans rather than processing that vegetation through domestic livestock like dairy cows?

MYTH: Vermont farms produce healthy food.

RESPONSE: The bulk of Vermont’s agricultural lands are used to produce dairy and meat or food that is unhealthy to consume in large qualities—as is typical in American diets. Both dairy and meat are both implicated in many diseases and health issues. For instance, according to the Physicians for Responsible Medicine, consumption of dairy products including cheese, yogurt, ice cream, milk, are high in saturated fats which are linked to heart disease and high blood pressure as well as contributing to obesity and diabetes. Consumption of dairy is also linked to prostrate, breast, and ovarian cancers.

Despite these well documented health risks, Vermont actually promotes the consumption of these unhealthy foods, much as southern states once promoted the consumption of tobacco products despite numerous studies linking their use to cancer. In truth, if the dairy lobby were not so powerful and aided by farm state legislators like Senator Leahy in Vermont, one could argue convincingly that milk and other dairy products should come with a warning label like tobacco products advising that consumption is a health risk.

If the health costs alone of dairy and meat consumption promoted by Vermont governmental agencies were included in the real cost of these agricultural products, the overall economic value of dairy production to the state would be negative.

MYTH: Investing state and federal funds in Vermont agriculture will contribute to significant employment opportunities.

RESPONSE: While there is no doubt that additional tax payer subsidies can increase employment in Ag production and products, it is also true that most direct employment in agriculture results in low wages positions to the extent that many farmers feel compelled to hire undocumented workers rather than employ Vermonters. Whether this is the best use of scarce tax dollars is the larger issue. Would a similar investment in say higher education and/or energy conservation result in more and perhaps better paying jobs than more agricultural subsidies?

For example, currently Vermont has one of the lowest state supports for higher education in the country. It ranks 48th in state support for higher education. The direct tuition cost to Vermont students of attending a Vermont state supported college or university is often as high as or higher than attending some other state universities and paying out of state tuition and fees. Yet study after study has shown that many of today’s high paying industries and businesses seek out an educated workforce.

Promoting higher education in Vermont is where the state could have a competitive advantage, in particular, when linked with other quality of life attributes such as small, safe communities and relatively low cost of housing (by regional standards). Not to mention Vermont is an attractive place for non-residents to attend school—bringing in outside dollars and promoting many high paying jobs in academia.

Alternatively investing in energy conservation in Vermont would have many long term advantages. Vermont has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation (hence the least energy efficient). Investing state dollars in reducing energy consumption would create thousands of jobs, make Vermont a far more competitive place for business by reducing energy costs, and keep Vermont dollars in Vermont instead of going to out of state energy companies.

I offer these only as examples of how investments in non-agriculture industries could ultimately produce far more employment as well as other benefits to the state compared to using the same dollars for a dying industry—namely Vermont’s dairy industry.

Farm to Plate Strategic Plan Page 12
Farm to Plate Strategic Plan Page 16.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bison slaughter smoke screen for livestock industry

Bison Slaughter A Smoke Screen for Livestock Industry
The on-going slaughter of Yellowstone National Park bison is justified on the basis of disease control—namely trying to prevent transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle. While the potential economic impact brucellosis is real, the likelihood is extremely rare.


Deep snow in Yellowstone National Park is once again forcing bison to seek out winter range at lower elevation. In their search for exposed forage, bison naturally wander to snow-free lands outside of the park. Unfortunately for the bison, once they leave the park, they are killed by the Montana Dept. of Livestock ostensibly in the name of controlling brucellosis, even if they are grazing on national forests and other public lands.

Even worse, the National Park Service is participating in this slaughter of native wildlife. Just this past week hundreds of bison were herded into corrals INSIDE Yellowstone National Park where it is anticipated that at least some of them were be killed.

The bison slaughter is done to appease the intractable and unreasonable demands of Montana’s livestock industry to zero tolerance for native bison on Montana soil. All of this is justified in the name of controlling brucellosis, a disease that can cause domestic livestock to abort their first calf.

Such a slaughter would be bad enough if Montana’s stockgrowers were paying for it out of their own pockets, but both the state and federal agencies involved in this slaughter program are taxpayer funded. If the livestock industry had to pay for these machinations themselves, it is doubtful there would be a brucellosis eradication program, much less an active harass, capture and slaughter program.

Thus far this winter more than 100 bison have been killed, and more are likely to die unless policies are changed. In the winter of 2006/2007 more than 1600 bison were killed. And since the first bison was killed in 1985, nearly 6800 wild bison have been slaughtered outside of the park.

No reasonable solution is possible as long as the livestock industry is in charge, in part, because disease control is not the real issue—rather the slaughter of bison is as much about keeping wildlife bottled up in Yellowstone Park and off other public lands as anything to do with protecting Montana’s livestock from disease.


The on-going slaughter of Yellowstone National Park bison is justified on the basis of disease control—namely trying to prevent transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle. While the potential economic impact brucellosis is real, the likelihood is extremely rare.

There are two major reasons for eliminating brucellosis from livestock. The first is that the bacteria, Brucella abortus, can cause cattle to abort their calves.

Beyond this obvious loss of a calf to the rancher, current government policy also requires any herd found to contain infected animals to be quarantined and eventually slaughtered, representing another loss to any ranching operation which has invested in building a reputation based on a quality herd.

Also livestock producers in states that are brucellosis-free can avoid mandatory testing of animals shipped across state lines. However, both of these last regulations could be altered.

For instance, there is no reason why an entire state should lose its brucellosis-free status simply because one cow or even a few herds in the state test positive for brucellosis. This is a self-created problem that could easily be solved by modest modification in regulations. The problem isn’t with bison and brucellosis, rather the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the government agency in charge of brucellosis control remains inflexible in its approach to dealing with brucellosis. APHIS uses the threat of a loss of state-wide brucellosis-free status as a club to maintain management control over public wildlife like bison. APHIS is a tax funded arm of industrial agriculture whose main constituency is the livestock industry, not the public interest.


Though mandatory vaccination would help to reduce the brucellosis transmission fears, there are a host of reasons why the brucellosis scare is likely a smoke screen for motives other than a genuine concern about disease. A little background on the disease is worth discussing.

Recall from above that the main concern of livestock producers is that brucellosis can cause a cow to abort its fetus. That would represent an economic loss to the rancher. That’s an understandable concern to any rancher who might lose a few calves, but why is the federal government involved in brucellosis control? The answer has to do with history.

Back in the 1930s the federal government launched its brucellosis containment program to control Bang’s Disease, the name given to the ailment in livestock. Tax payer support was justified on the basis of public health because Bang’s Disease can cause what is known as Undulant Fever in humans for the undulating fever it causes, along with muscular pain.

The main source for human infection was consumption of unpasteurized milk and/or having contact with infected meat. But with the widespread adoption of pasteurization, and a requirement that all dairy cattle be vaccinated, the disease has not been a public health threat since WW11. But once the program was started, and had benefits for the livestock industry, it was impossible to eliminate the public funding of the program. Since the 1930s the government has spent billions of taxpayer funds to eradicate the disease—largely to benefit the pocketbook of cattle producers.


A glaring inconsistency in the treatment of Yellowstone’s bison herd is the fact that elk also carry brucellosis. There are far more elk in the ecosystem than bison, and furthermore, they are more widespread and difficult to control than bison. Indeed, all the known cases of wildlife to livestock brucellosis transmission in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have involved elk, not bison. And even if it were possible to remove brucellosis from bison, as long as elk remain active carriers of the disease, reinfection of wild bison is likely.

There are approximately 100,000 elk in the ecosystem that wander freely among livestock operations without being harassed, captured, and slaughtered. One may reasonably ask why bison are singled out for slaughter, while elk are permitted to move freely throughout the ecosystem.

There are two reasons. One is that elk have a big constituency comprised of hunters and outfitters. The livestock industry has; so far, avoided antagonizing these people by going after elk. However, there are some in the livestock industry that believe elk should be captured, tested, and those with positive reactors, slaughtered as well.

The second reason is perhaps less obvious. But if disease were the primary motivation for killing bison, it would make sense to capture and slaughter elk. However, I believe a good deal of the motivation for killing bison is to prevent bison recolonization of public lands. The livestock industry recognizes bison restoration as a direct threat. If bison became widespread on public lands, competition for forage would arise, and likely lead to reductions in public lands grazing by private livestock.


New research suggests that on-going slaughter is amplifying the presence of deleterious genes in bison created by past genetic bottlenecks. The original wild herd of bison in Yellowstone had a limited founding population, (as have all herds in the West) and unnatural selection over the years that have compounded the occurrence of these mutations.

Symptoms of the disease can include fatigue while running, lactic acid buildup in the blood and ragged red muscle fibers. The bison do not die at birth but may get tired while running, succumb to prolonged winter cold, get fatigued brushing snow aside for feeding, lose out in breeding competition or fall to predators. In fossil evidence, only 5% of the bison had the mutation, while 81% of bison today are found to have these mutations. Continued culling by the Montana Dept of Livestock amplifies these genetic problems further.


Several vaccines that offer some resistant to brucellosis infection have been developed. Although not 100% effective, they do reduce the likelihood of infection considerably and provide quite a bit of protection against brucellosis transmission-- 65-75% in field tests. They cost $4 a shot to administer. But Montana does not require mandatory brucellosis vaccination. At present approximately 70% of the state’s cattle are voluntarily vaccinated against brucellosis.

In 2010 members of two of Montana’s largest livestock groups, the Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Farm Bureau Federation, have adopted policies officially opposing the vaccination of all sexually intact female calves because they think it’s unnecessary.

While vaccination is not a silver bullet offering complete protection against infection, it would go a long ways towards reducing exposure in any cattle herd, and reduce the presumed rationale for killing bison.


Even without a mandatory vaccination of all livestock, brucellosis transmission between bison and cattle is rare in practice for a host of reasons.

An important point is that many bison do not carry the active disease. One of the distortions perpetuated by the livestock industry and amplified by the media are reports of field tests of bison showing a significant number test “sero positive” for brucellosis. Field tests for brucellosis only demonstrate the presence of anti bodies which are produced upon exposure to brucellosis; however the presence of anti bodies does not necessarily represent active cases. Thus, due to the limitations of the field test, something less than the number testing positive for brucellosis actually have an active infection and represent a potential source of infection for domestic animals.

To put this into perspective, I would test positive for polio because I was “exposed” to polio by vaccination as a youth, but I cannot transmit polio to anyone today. In the rare instances where more complete lab testing for active brucellosis has been done, the percentage of infected bison is always lower than the number reported as sero-positive in field tests.

The livestock industry often notes that 50% of all bison tested are positive for brucellosis without noting that only sexually mature female bison (usually two years or older) can transfer the disease to domestic livestock. This is a much smaller subset of a bison herd—i.e. much less than 50% of a herd. Bison calves, bull bison, and young female bison are for all intents and purposes unable to infect domestic livestock. Thus the vast majority of bison which test positive and are subsequently slaughtered, including all bison calves and bulls that are killed, can in no way pass on the disease to domestic animals.

The primary route for disease transmission results when a bison or any other animal (elk also carry the disease), aborts its fetus and the dead fetus and/or birthing fluids are licked, nosed, or otherwise touched by another animal. The likelihood that this would occur between domestic cattle and wild bison is possible, but exceedingly rare for a host of reasons.

Timing is critical. Brucellosis bacteria are very sensitive to temperature and moisture, and die rapidly when expelled from a body. And any aborted fetus is a tempting meal for a passing coyote, raven and other scavengers. Thus, unless cattle and bison are actively mixing together, it is unlikely that any livestock will come upon an aborted bison fetus with live brucella bacteria.


Bison abortions, if they occur (and they are exceedingly rare under wild conditions), tend to happen in the spring when most cattle are on the home ranch, and long before any cattle are moved to summer pastures on public lands where they might encounter an aborted bison fetus.

Furthermore, few cattle are present over most of the area outside of Yellowstone where bison are currently being harassed and slaughtered. Nearly all public lands grazing allotments near West Yellowstone and north of Gardiner have been closed. Cattle on private lands in the West Yellowstone area are only there in summer. North of Yellowstone beyond Gardiner, there are some small cattle operations on private lands, however, most of these operations involve fenced livestock where mixing of bison and cattle is unlikely. And they are set within a much larger matrix of public land including the Gallatin National Forest and several state wildlife management areas are cattle-free year round.

Thus there is no legitimate reason why bison should not be permitted to wander out of Yellowstone in these areas and to occupy these public lands. Suitable habitat exists on Gallatin National Forest lands in the Eagle Creek drainage and Dome Mountain areas north of Gardiner, as well as west around Horse Butte and north of Yellowstone Park on Gallatin National Forest lands in the Madison and Gallatin Ranges between Big Sky and West Yellowstone. This amounts to hundreds of thousands of acres of potential bison habitat outside of the park.


The disease is really a smoke screen for control of wildlife, and to prevent the restoration of bison to public lands in the West. What the livestock industry really fears is a widespread demand by the public to have its public wildlife like bison given priority on public rangelands. Since bison eat essentially the same forage as domestic livestock, if bison herds were to reestablished there would have to be a dramatic reduction in forage allotment for the private livestock grazing public lands. That, far more than the exceedingly small risk of brucellosis transmission, is what has been driving bison brucellosis politics for decades and has resulted in the death of thousands of America’s wildlife heritage wild bison and the wasted expenditure of millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars.

I got a hint of the real reason for brucellosis politics decades ago when the first bison were killed when they wandered from Yellowstone NP. I was living in Livingston, Montana just north of the park at the time and doing research for a magazine article on the bison-brucellosis issue. I had put a call into the Montana State Veterinarian. For some reason when he got on the phone with me he automatically assumed that I was a rancher.

He said to me, “where do you live?” I said “Livingston.” And he immediately said to me, “Hey you don’t have to worry about brucellosis because you live far enough from Yellowstone that it’s unlikely your animals will get the disease. Beside, the state would won’t lose its brucellosis-free status even if a few herds got brucellosis.”

I was surprised by this last statement because he had repeatedly told the media that the biggest fear for Montana’s livestock industry was losing its brucellosis-free status. So I asked him to clarify.

“Why won’t the state lose its brucellosis free status?” I asked.

He replied, “Oh,” he said candidly, “If any limitations are imposed due to brucellosis status APHIS will restrict that to a few herds around Yellowstone.”
I said thanks for the reassurances, and hung up.

Despite this assertion, the state continued to argue that loss of brucellosis status was a real threat. And has used the brucellosis card as a club to silence and detract the media and others from following the money. And the big money for many ranchers is the potential loss of subsidized grazing on public rangelands if bison were permitted to reoccupy those lands and grazing allotments are closed and/or forage for domestic cattle reduced to accommodate bison herds.


Lest we forget, bison are herd animals that have complex social organization based upon familial ties. The testing and slaughtering of animals continuously reshuffles and breaks these family ties. Cultural knowledge about migration routes, how to defend against predators, and other information critical to the long term health of the herd are lost and/disrupted by present management. The most important thing to remember about bison—they are not domestic livestock—and we should treat them for what they are wild creatures that deserve respect rather than the contempt shown by Montana’s government agencies.


So to summarize, in order for disease transmission to occur, a whole litany of events must transpire. First, the bison has to have the disease. It has to be a sexually mature female bison who then aborts her fetus. The aborted fetus has to be undetected by coyotes, ravens and other scavengers which would quickly consume it. All during this time, the bacteria must remain alive. Finally, a domestic animal has to physically lick or otherwise come in contact with the aborted fetus before the bacteria dies.

The fact that less than a thousand and perhaps as few as 200 cattle occupy the zone of current overlap between bison and livestock makes it easy to establish a buffer zone around the park where all cattle should be vaccinated, and tested regularly for brucellosis. Isolating the test requirements to those animals immediately in the zone of overlap would not create an undue burden on the rest of the livestock industry. This would be far less expensive solution for taxpayers—who are after all footing the bill-- than the current test and slaughter of wildlife.


Bison have suffered tremendously from the artificial management that has afflicted the species for more than a hundred years. All founding populations, including the bison in Yellowstone which at one time numbered less than 100 animals, have suffered genetic bottlenecks that have amplified the occurrence of deleterious gene mutations. The first step in overcoming these harmful genetic loads is to permit natural selection to weed out the bison that are less fit. This can be accomplished in two ways. One by allowing natural selection in the form of winter starvation, predators like wolves , and other natural selective processes to continue to whittle away at less fit bison, removing them from the herds.

Beyond that, we need to greatly expand, not reduce, wild bison numbers across the West. One way to enlarge bison herds and avoid future bottlenecks is to expand the public lands available to bison. As previously mentioned, there are significant acreages of land immediately surrounding Yellowstone where bison could recolonize in the Gallatin and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests without significant conflict with private livestock operations if reasonable preventative precautions are followed.

Bison could also find suitable habitat in the Union Gap/Upper Green River country north of Pinedale Wyoming as well as in the Green River Valley/Salt River, and Commissonary Ridge areas of the Bridger Teton NF and BLM lands between Daniel and Kemmerer Wyoming.

In addition, to ensure maximum genetic diversity bison should be reintroduced on to other suitable public lands where extensive public holdings would minimize conflicts with private lands. Among these sites are the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge and Missouri River Breaks National Monument in central Montana, the Red Desert and Big Horn Basin, and the Thunder Basin National Grassland areas of Wyoming, the Snake River Plain surrounding Craters of the Moon National Monument and the drier valleys between the Lost River, Lemhi and Beaverhead Mountains in Idaho, the Book Cliffs/Roan Cliffs region of Utah-Colorado, the Vermillion Basin and Brown Park NWR of NW Colorado and Dinosaur NM on the Colorado-Utah border, the Little Missouri National Grasslands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and Badlands National Park in South Dakota and the extensive parcels of BLM lands in southern New Mexico.
Brucellosis is a smokescreen. It’s time for citizens to challenge the livestock control of our public wildlife, and to demand that bison be given a bright future by ensuring the widespread restoration of these magnificent animals. Bison are part of America’s wildlife heritage that deserve better than the slaughterhouse.