In the 1880s, after the herds of bison that once swarmed the Western plains had been hunted to the brink of extinction, a few hundred of the animals were found living in the mountains of this national park.
The Army stepped up patrols against poachers, and park authorities created a ranch in the park to raise bison. The restoration project was so successful that it became a symbol for the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, which have an image of a buffalo on their badges.
Next month, however, the Park Service reluctantly begins a new chapter in the management of its famous herd of shaggy-headed bison. It will capture several dozen bison bulls that appear to be headed across the park’s northern border and ship them to slaughterhouses. Officials say many more - perhaps hundreds - could be sent to slaughter before the winter is over.
“We really don’t have many options,” said Wayne Brewster, deputy director of the Yellowstone Center for Resources. “It’s a temporary solution. We sure hope it isn’t a permanent one.”
The controversial plan was devised when the state of Montana filed a lawsuit to force the park to keep the animals from crossing Yellowstone’s northern border and entering Montana, where the private land includes cattle ranches. The bison carry a disease called brucellosis, which if passed on to cattle could result in a quarantine on Montana cattle.
To settle the lawsuit, park officials agreed to ship most of the bison that leave the park for private ranch land to the north to slaughter. The meat will be donated to Indian tribes and charitable organizations. Some bison that stray onto other public land to the north will be allowed to remain.
As many as 600 animals are near the north entrance. If they all choose to leave, officials say, all will be sent to slaughterhouses in Montana.
There are about 3,500 bison in Yellowstone, and thousands more elsewhere in the country. The animal is not an endangered species.
Still, the prospect of sending an animal that delights millions of tourists and is a potent symbol - first of wanton destruction, then of conservation success - does not thrill park officials.
Environmentalists are also opposed to the bison plan, fearing it could become a model for management of other species. They filed a suit in federal court in Helena to halt the slaughter, but a judge ruled against them. A decision on their appeal of that ruling is not expected for several months.
The plan is controversial for a number of reasons. One is that it appears as if the park is capitulating on its philosophy of natural regulation, which is to allow animals to roam without interference.
Another is that there is no evidence that bison pass the disease on to cattle in a wild setting. Cattle must come in contact with blood from an infected bison.
Environmentalists also say the plan diminishes the park’s naturalness. “For them to trap and slaughter these animals is a fundamental distortion of their mission,” said Jim Angell, a lawyer for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Bozeman, Mont. “The park is becoming a zoo, with the wildlife fenced in.”
Marsha Karle, a park spokeswoman, said: “Our preference is to allow nature to take its course. But we’re responding to the concerns of the State of Montana.”
The capture and slaughter plan illustrates the difficulty of managing a park like Yellowstone, whose borders were drawn up in the 19th century when much of the country was still wild. The boundaries do not reflect biological realities, and much of the winter range for elk and bison is outside the park.
The bison problem is one of the thorniest faced by park officials. They have tried to herd the animals with horses and haze them back into the park with helicopters. The state of Montana instituted a hunt for the animals in the early 1980s but canceled it after widespread opposition.
Then state wildlife and livestock officials began shooting the animals en masse. Last year several hundred bison were shot by state officials. Local residents who watched as the animals were killed in front of their homes raised an outcry. More than 1,500 animals have been killed by hunters and officials since 1975.
The park has constructed a large capture and sorting site at Stephens Creek, south of the park’s northwestern boundary line, near Gardiner, Mont., where animals will be taken to await shipment to slaughter.
There is a different policy for animals that leave the park near West Yellowstone, the other major departure point for bison. Here the animals are captured and tested for brucellosis.
If they are pregnant - the condition most likely to spread the disease from abortion or birth - or if they test positive for the disease, they are shipped to slaughter. If they test negative, they are freed. If they cannot be captured, they are shot.
More than 50 bison have been shot or shipped to slaughter this year.