Working Paper #95-2
By Emily Davies
Department of Sociology
University of Colorado, Boulder
This paper was written with a small grant from the Conflict Resolution Consortium, University of Colorado. Funding for the Consortium and its Small Grants Program was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The statements and ideas presented in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Conflict Resolution Consortium, the University of Colorado, or the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (C) 1995. Emily Davies. Do not reprint without permission.
I. Summary Description
Currently, the state of Montana, in conjunction with the federal government, has an interim-management plan that allows for the killing of Yellowstone buffalo that wander outside the boundaries of the national park. Established mainly to keep brucellosis in check, the practice of killing these roaming bison has sparked great controversy in recent years.
Brucellosis, or Bang's Disease, is commonly found in buffalo, elk and domestic cattle. Cattle, specifically cows, are most susceptible to the disease and its effects however, and are prone to abortions, low milk production and even infertility when infected. Spread through contact with reproductive fluids or grass that is wet with such fluids, brucellosis is difficult to detect and even more difficult to prevent through inoculation. This holds particularly true for the wild, free-roaming Yellowstone bison, which presently number more than 4,000 within the park -- the last truly wild bison found in North America.
Because of the National Park Service's policy of natural management in our nation's parks, human influence is kept to a minimum. Yellowstone bison numbers have soared due to lack of predators (although the reintroduction of wolves into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is expected to have an effect eventually) and because of the absence of any human-induced population control methods. Scarcity of winter range is the only real check on the Yellowstone buffalo, and thus, the animals have begun to wander north of park boundaries in search of food.
In response to this gradual exodus from the park, the federal government and the state of Montana allow buffalo that cross park lines and threaten to mingle with domestic cattle or damage private property to be shot. Although there are no documented cases of wild bison spreading the disease to cattle, cattlemen support the shootings as they seek to preserve Montana's brucellosis-free status for the sake of their livelihoods and the state economy. The National Park Service endorses the killings as a means to control the bison populations without contradicting their policy of natural management within the park. Opposing the interim-management policy are animal rights activists, who maintain that less cruel and non-lethal methods should be used to contain brucellosis. Many hunters also object to the killings claiming they deprive sportsmen of legal hunt.
Brucellosis was first discovered in North America among Yellowstone buffalo as early as 1917. Since 1935 it has been estimated that the federal government has spent more than $1.3 billion on the disease, presumably on eradication efforts and research. While not a new concern, the problem of brucellosis has recently been complicated by the vast number of buffalo within the park. But today's record population is in sharp contrast to the animals' numbers at the turn of the century.
By the end of the 1800s, buffalo populations were severely depleted in the West. Popular among Native Americans as well as white settlers, the animals were widely hunted for their meat and skin. From 1896 through 1901 it was reported that bison numbers within Yellowstone ranged from a mere 24 to 50, and still the animals were frequently poached. As park management became more effective and wildlife preservation laws were passed, the bison enjoyed greater protection and soon began to flourish. Their numbers increased so much in fact, that buffalo were actively managed by park rangers to keep populations in check. Such killing of the animals ceased in 1966 however, when park policy changed and natural management was introduced to the national park system. Since then, bison numbers have soared to more than 4,000, a number which many critics of the Park Service contend is beyond Yellowstone's carrying capacity.
With greater numbers of bison in Yellowstone comes greater likelihood of brucellosis spreading to cattle put to pasture near park boundaries. Recognizing this threat and wanting to maintain its newly declared brucellosis-free status, the state of Montana instituted public hunting of buffalo that wandered across park boundaries by a strictly regulated permit system in 1985. This plan was soon abandoned due to massive public outcry however, when the 1988-89 hunting season saw nearly 600 bison killed. In 1991, the present interim-management plan was established, which calls for roaming buffalo to be shot by federal or state government agents. More than 300 animals have been killed this winter alone.
The conflict over the killing of Yellowstone buffalo is geographically concentrated in Montana, where the animals typically wander upon leaving the park. The issue has received national attention however, as the primary animal rights group involved in the dispute, The Fund for Animals, is based in New York.
While it is easy to see the conflict as one between cattlemen and animal rights activists, the National Park Service has garnered much criticism from both groups. Its policy of natural management within Yellowstone is seen by many to be the cause of the conflict: if bison were managed within the park, shooting them outside park boundaries would not be necessary. Unfortunately, it seems that current public perception about the Park Service -- as a corrupt and malfunctioning agency -- leads to additional skepticism of its decisions and policy-making. Very little constructive communication goes on between critics of the plan and those who enforce it.
A) Primary: The National Park Service -- Members of the Park Service, in conjunction with Montana state game wardens, are most physically involved in the conflict as they are the ones killing the Yellowstone buffalo. As a federal agency, the Park Service is a powerful party and one that gives additional clout to the interests of the state of Montana. Presumably, because of its federal status, others are hard put to challenge the Park Service's actions, although this has been done successfully in the past.
Cattlemen/women -- These individuals are most directly threatened by brucellosis and the physical damage caused by wandering buffalo. The beef industry is big business in the United States, so these men and women can be seen as the stewards of a large portion of our nation's economy.
Animal Rights Activists -- Representing the buffalos' right to life are non-governmental groups such as the Fund for Animals. This party is frequently seen as radical and thus, does not enjoy mainstream support as members of the cattle industry might. Because they lack government ties and widespread backing, these individuals appear to have little power in this conflict. Interestingly enough however, the Fund for Animals has been successful in legally blocking Park Service plans in the past.
B) Secondary: Native Americans -- This party benefits from the killing of Yellowstone buffalo because, whenever possible, the carcasses of the animals are given to various tribes by the government. As they are not permitted to hunt bison that leave the park, area tribes are dependent upon the current policy for a supply of the animal.
Hunters -- These individuals decry the government practice of killing roaming Yellowstone buffalo because it prevents sportsmen and women from doing the same. They enjoyed hunting privileges briefly during the 1980s but with the adoption of the current interim-management plan, such freedoms were revoked.
C) Interested Third Parties: The General Public -- Most Americans have some first-hand experience with, or knowledge of, Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park. Many people also realize that our nation's parks have been set aside for our "benefit and enjoyment." It stands to reason therefore that we are all interested parties in this conflict because as trustees of the parks, we are somewhat affected by every policy the Park Service formulates.
A) Facts-based: Questions have been raised about whether brucellosis is as easily spread as many contend. No documented cases of wild bison spreading the disease to cattle exist thus far, but those whose livelihoods are directly affected are reluctant to take unnecessary risks. In addition, many ask why bison bulls are frequently killed when cows are the primary transmitters of the disease.
B) Values-based: The act of killing any life form is despicable to many involved in the conflict while others consider shooting the Yellowstone bison as secondary to humans' quality of life.
C) Interests-based: Cattlemen and women contend that killing the buffalo will allow their cattle to remain healthy. To stop the current government shootings would be detrimental to individuals as well as state and federal economies. Countering this view are many animal rights activists and environmentalists who maintain that continued killing of the Yellowstone buffalo will result in a collective loss for all other life forms as the last wild bison in North America might be rendered extinct.
D) Nonrealistic: It seems that for many, the conflict has become one of buffalo vs. jobs and quality of life. Conversely, others see the conflict as one of man's greed vs. the lives of innocent buffalo. Such rigid and limiting views continue to be perpetuated because parties meet in frequently confrontational environments.
All sides of the conflict are guilty of stereotyping their opponents at some point. Animal rights activists consider the cattlemen, park rangers and game wardens "killers" because of their role in the controversy surrounding the Yellowstone buffalo. They tend to simplify the issue without making any distinctions between the other parties involved in the conflict and without considering any other aspects of the debate except the killing of the animals.
In contrast, those who condone the government action frequently dismiss critics of the plan as "radicals" and belittle their opponents point of view. Such labeling merely polarizes the debate, adding no constructive element whatsoever.
Many have suggested the National Park Service revise its policy of natural management within Yellowstone, thus eliminating the need to shoot the animals outside the park. Most likely however, this option is unacceptable to those who oppose the killings outside the park.
Those who seek non-lethal methods of eradicating brucellosis have suggested moving the cattle grazing on land near park boundaries to regions farther away to reduce the chances of interaction between cattle and Yellowstone bison. Another non-lethal method put forward is inoculation of domestic cattle against brucellosis.
A) Internal Limiting Factors: It has been frequently remarked by cattle owners and Park Service agents that no one likes to see buffalo shot, a statement with which all who oppose the killings enthusiastically agree. Perhaps consensus over the loss of life suffered by the Yellowstone buffalo can be a starting point for resolution.
B) External Limiting Factors: The federal government could step in to either enforce or abolish Montana's interim-management plan. This seems highly unlikely however, as the National Park Service is already involved in the conflict. Perhaps a neutral third party, such as a professional mediator or a conflict manager, would be successful in mediatiating the conflict.
'Bison have occupied the Yellowstone region since the end of the Pleistocene. Their fundamental behavior hasn't changed. They take the world head on. They are animated snowplows, able to reach forage by moving snow aside with their heads. They learn very quickly where the best grazing is. They'll pick up and move if they don't like things.' -- Mary Meagher, Biologist1
Currently, the state of Montana, in conjunction with the federal government, has an interim-management plan that calls for the shooting of buffalo that wander outside Yellowstone National Park. Established mainly to keep brucellosis in check, the practice of killing these roaming bison has sparked great controversy in recent years. Tremendous conflict has arisen between animal rights activists, who condemn the shootings as cruel and unnecessary, and cattle owners, who fear the potentially disastrous effect brucellosis-infected buffalo could have on their cattle. As agents enforcing the interim- management plan, the National Park Service and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks have come under fire from environmentalists and ranchers alike for what many perceive to be the agencies' poor policy decisions. Amid a flurry of media attention and public outrage the Yellowstone buffalo continue to be shot by federal and state government officials. Tension between opposing parties makes for poor relations and occasionally violent confrontations. Such factors must be eliminated from the conflict in order for compromise or effective management to occur.
The government practice of killing buffalo that leave Yellowstone National Park and threaten to mingle with domestic cattle or damage private property has been unpopular with large sectors of the American public since its implementation in 1991. Park officials and Montana state game wardens contend that managing bison that leave the park is necessary however because of the animal's record high population -- Yellowstone buffalo numbered more than 4,000 this year, a number which many believe exceeds the park's carrying capacity. But today's wealth of buffalo is in sharp contrast to the animals' status at the turn of the century.
Called "brother buffalo" by many American Indian tribes, the bison has long been cherished by humans for its delicious meat, sturdy hide and warm fur. As the West was gradually settled in the 19th century, whites discovered the wonders of buffalo as well and soon came to rely on them for food and clothing. This relationship resulted in the animals' exploitation however as the fur trade became big business in the early 1800s, with white settlers selling the furs of bison that were largely hunted by Indians.2 The arrival of the railroad in the Western Plains caused the fur business to skyrocket as increasing demands for buffalo robes were more easily met. Accompanying this new mode of transportation was the peculiar pastime of shooting bison as they stood alongside passing trains.3 Battles between whites and Indians also took a toll on buffalo as thousands of the animals were massacred by whites to deplete food supplies of Indian tribes. By the end of the century, the demands placed on the bison -- for meat, fur, revenge and sport - - nearly resulted in its extinction.
The establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 came at a crucial time for the American buffalo. Set aside by the federal government "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," Yellowstone helped to introduce a conservationist ethic to the West.4 As the nation gradually gained awareness of the mass slaughter of its buffalo through media reports and other accounts, steps were taken to prevent, or at least slow the killings. Wild and captive herds mingled together within the boundaries of the park and began to reproduce. But repairing the damage done to the buffalo's ranks was difficult as Yellowstone wildlife was frequently poached long after the area was declared a national park. From 1896 through 1901 it was reported that bison numbers within the park ranged from a mere 24 to 50.5
A resilient creature, the buffalo began to flourish in Yellowstone as it enjoyed greater protection through more effective park management and the passage of wildlife preservation laws. The animals' numbers increased so much in fact, that until the 1960s buffalo were actively managed by park rangers to keep populations in check. When this management technique was replaced in 1966 by a policy of natural management, or allowing nature to manage itself with minimal human intervention, buffalo numbers soared even higher, resulting in this year's record population within the park.6
With greater numbers of bison in Yellowstone come greater opportunities of brucellosis spreading to cattle put to pasture near park boundaries. First discovered in North America among Yellowstone buffalo as early as 1917, brucellosis, or Bang's Disease, is commonly found in ungulates such as bison, elk and cattle. Domestic cattle, specifically cows, are most susceptible to the disease and its effects however, and are prone to abortions, low milk production and even infertility when infected. Spread through contact with reproductive fluids or grass that is wet with such fluids, brucellosis is difficult to detect and even more difficult to prevent through inoculation.
Given the devastating effects the disease may have on a herd of cattle, federal and state governments have employed many methods to study, contain and eliminate brucellosis over the years. Since 1935 it has been estimated that the federal government has spent more than $1.3 billion on the disease, presumably on eradication efforts and research.7 The Department of Agriculture distributes pamphlets and other publications on brucellosis prevention to cattle owners so that these stewards of America's beef industry can better protect the country's economic interests. For this same reason, a state's cattle are frequently tested for the disease; if no cases of infection are found in the course of a year, regulations surrounding the trade of cattle with that state are relaxed. However, a state with even one outbreak of brucellosis is considered a tremendous risk to the entire country and is subject to increased fees as well as a loss of reputation within the cattle industry.8
The states immediately surrounding Yellowstone National Park have enjoyed brucellosis-free status for several years -- Montana and Wyoming since 1985 and Idaho since 1990.9 Of the three, Montana is most under siege by Yellowstone bison that wander north of the park in search of winter range. Recognizing the threat these animals pose to its cattle business, the state of Montana instituted public hunting of buffalo that travel across park boundaries by a strictly regulated permit system in 1985. This plan was swiftly abandoned however due to massive public outcry when the 1988-89 hunting season saw nearly 600 bison killed. In 1991, the present interim- management plan was established, which allows federal and state government agents to hunt buffalo that step into Montana. Close to 400 animals were killed this winter alone.10
'This is war paint and the war is on ... may the spirit of this buffalo haunt you forever.' -- Animal Rights Activist11
Despite the protests of animal rights activists, many involved in the conflict surrounding the killing of Yellowstone buffalo, both directly and indirectly, maintain that the government shootings are a more humane demise for the animals than starvation, which they say, is inevitable among the overpopulated herds. The National Park Service endorses the killings as a means to control bison populations without contradicting its policy of natural management within Yellowstone. Montana State game wardens contend that the shootings keep brucellosis in check and reduce the risk of the animals damaging private property as they might do if allowed to roam free in Montana. Even biologists working for Yellowstone assert that the management plan is needed to keep the vast numbers of buffalo from trampling fragile vegetation and other park wildlife. Whatever their particular concern, the aforementioned parties stand firm in their belief that the interim management plan performs a greater good for the environment and protects the interests of humans who dwell in it.
Those with perhaps the most at stake personally are cattle owners who fear for the security of their livelihoods and their property if Yellowstone buffalo are permitted to wander onto their land or near their cattle. In addition to being concerned about the health of the beef industry in their region and across the nation, these men and women worry about the health of their finances should the current government practice be altered by pressure from environmental factions or outrage from the general public. Their support of the interim-management plan is therefore motivated primarily by their interests, which they consider to be threatened by the animals' proximity to their land and grazing grounds.
Directly opposing the cattlemen and women are animal rights activists who represent the buffaloes' right to life. Considered radical by many, this party does not enjoy mainstream support or government ties and thus it is easy to view it as powerless against state and federal governments as well as the meat industry. Interestingly enough however, activists have succeeded in legally blocking government plans on occasion. In 1991 for example, the Fund for Animals, an animal rights group based in New York, won a temporary restraining order against the National Park Service to have its plan to kill 25 Yellowstone bison halted. The Park Service wanted to study tissue from the bison in order to gain more knowledge about brucellosis and the risk these wild animals pose to domestic cattle.12
Although such victories are rare and frequently quite temporary, the animal rights activists involved in the Yellowstone buffalo conflict persevere in their efforts to see the government killings cease. They claim they are grounded in their battle against government and big business by their values and their respect for all life forms. If Yellowstone buffalo continue to be killed, these individuals maintain, it will be a collective loss for all creatures as the last wild, free-roaming bison in North America will vanish.
Also involved in the conflict, albeit indirectly, are Native Americans and hunters. Native Americans support the current buffalo management plan because, whenever possible, the carcasses of the animals are given to various tribes by the government.13 As they are not permitted to hunt bison that leave the park, area tribes are dependent upon the status quo for a supply of the animal. Many hunters, on the other hand, decry the government shootings because it deprives sportsmen and women of opportunities to do the same. During the 1980s, hunters enjoyed the ability to hunt wandering bison legally but with the adoption of the current interim-management plan, these freedoms were revoked.
'We knew it was going to be hard to sell death, but we didn't know it was going to be this hard.' -- Montana State Game Warden14
While the conflict surrounding the Yellowstone bison is one that involves a clash of interests and values, other factors are present which complicate the issue. Stereotyping is an unfortunate component of the conflict and is extremely detrimental to relations between opposing parties. Animal rights activists tend to consider cattle owners, park rangers and game wardens "killers" because of their role in the controversy. They often simplify the issue without distinguishing between other parties to the conflict or considering any aspects of the debate besides the killing of the buffalo. Conversely, those who condone the government action frequently dismiss critics of the plan as "radicals" and belittle their points of view. Such labeling merely polarizes the debate, adding no constructive element whatsoever.
Unfortunately, there have been instances when the hostility connected to this name-calling has escalated into violence. In 1990 several activists from the Fund for Animals and Earth First! confronted Yellowstone park rangers and Montana State game wardens who were accompanying a group of hunters on a regulated buffalo hunt, as was legal before the current interim- management plan was established. Verbal sparring took place between the hunters and their critics and eventually the protesters were physically restrained to prevent them from stepping into the line of fire. While no one was seriously hurt, with the exception of the buffalo, the incident resulted in several of the activists' arrests and further antagonism between the parties involved.15
The manner in which the conflict has been framed also limits its ability to be managed. For many, the issue has become one of buffalo vs. quality of life and for others, human greed vs. the lives of innocent creatures. Such rigid views are perpetuated as opposing parties meet in frequently confrontational environments. If, for example, more emphasis were placed on eliminating the pain of starvation for the overpopulated buffalo rather than protecting nearby cattle and their owners from brucellosis, members of the public might be less repulsed by the government shootings. While such framing would not convince most activists of the benefits of the interim-management plan, more constructive dialogue between parties might result if the rights of the buffalo were offered some consideration by proponents of the current management practice.
Public perception about the National Park Service -- as a corrupt and malfunctioning agency -- adds additional ill will to the situation. Frequently maligned by cattle owners and environmentalists alike, the park service is often seen as the cause of the Yellowstone buffalo controversy. Many ranchers contend that the agency's policy of natural management within the park system is responsible for the current problems of overpopulation among bison herds. They believe that by actively managing the animals as domestic cattle are managed, today's conflict would not exist. Activists on the other hand, fault the Park Service for bowing to pressure from the beef industry and placing the desires of cattle owners above the rights of buffalo. This practice of assigning blame must stop in order for constructive management of the conflict to begin.
Parallels can be drawn between the conflict surrounding Yellowstone buffalo and the controversy over the reintroduction of wolves into the national park and central Idaho. Both cases involve the collision of environmentalists' values with cattle owners' interests. While the wolf debate is in no way resolved, some compromise has been reached that allows the animals to exist, albeit "experimentally," while simultaneously granting ranchers the right to shoot members of the species that kill their cattle. Parties involved with the wolf debate remain dissatisfied with the recovery plan to some extent, and many have questioned the validity of any approach that involves human attempts to rush nature. Whatever one's stance on the issue however, some acknowledgment of the efforts involved in implementing the current wolf reintroduction plan to accommodate all sides of the controversy -- the activists' desire to see the wolf reintroduced, the cattle owners' desire to protect their livelihoods, and the wolves' right to exist in a region where they once thrived -- is warranted. Perhaps it can serve as a model for the management of the buffalo conflict, if only to show that opposition does not necessarily mean a breakdown of communication.
'Nobody likes the thought of killing bison, but their numbers are exceeding the Yellowstone's forage capability. They're moving out of the park because they're starving to death.' -- Montana Cattleman16
One of the more encouraging aspects of the Yellowstone buffalo controversy is the fact that most everyone, regardless of his or her background, dislikes seeing bison killed. As one of the nation's most revered animals, the buffalo commands a certain degree of respect from the American people, who have long recognized it as a unique symbol of their country and their heritage.17 This affection for the animal could serve as a starting point for management of the conflict -- if consensus can be reached over the fundamental issue of whether it is best to manage bison populations through mass extermination, resolution of the current Yellowstone debate may not be far behind.
Opponents to the interim-management plan have suggested various non-lethal methods that could be used to contain brucellosis, such as moving cattle grazing on land near Yellowstone Park to regions farther away to reduce the chances of interaction between cattle and wild bison. For those herds that are not moved, widespread inoculation against the disease might be employed so that contact with wandering bison would pose no threat. This technique might also be applied to buffalo although it would be extremely difficult to locate all of the animals within Yellowstone and such action would conflict with the park's policy of natural management.
As it stands now, the plight of the Yellowstone buffalo seems unrelentingly bleak. The government killings continue amid protests. Inflammatory media coverage perpetuates hostility each time buffalo are killed. Complete resolution of the conflict, to the satisfaction of all parties involved, seems impossible. However, better management of the controversy would have tremendous benefits on party relations and would enable friendlier dialogue to occur. This in turn might lead to some type of compromise that is less offensive to animal rights activist and the general public than is the current interim- management plan.
If the gradual process by which wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park is any indication, alterations to Montana's interim-management plan for bison that wander outside the park will be difficult to immediately implement. Many attribute this to bureaucracy, but in truth the current conflict demands a lengthy, public procedure by which all concerns can be addressed.
As stated previously, some consensus exists among the parties involved in the conflict that killing bison is offensive. Although by no means unanimous, this sentiment is vital to achieving compromise. In their book Breaking the Impasse, Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank emphasize the importance of consensus in resolving public disputes while simultaneously exploring its complexity:
More often than not, though, technical
complexity, or differences over which
approach to implementation would be best,
thwart such calls to action and dissipate the
consensus that seems to exist.1
While many agree that killing the majestic buffalo is unnecessary, the perception remains that these creatures pose a threat to the well-being of humans and other animals. Because of this fear, it is widely accepted that some method of population control must be used to manage Yellowstone's thriving bison herds. Coupled with the nation's aversion to the current lethal management technique, it would seem that finding an acceptable alternative to killing the buffalo is not far off. It is at this point however, that all consensus
disintegrates and productive discussions between parties dissolve into acrimonious debates.
Because of its caustic nature, the Yellowstone buffalo conflict would benefit tremendously from the use of third party intervention. Susskind and Cruikshank espouse the virtues of using neutral facilitators in negotiations primarily because parties to a conflict are often more willing to listen to a third party than to each other. Also, facilitators usually establish, and are able to enforce, useful rules for discussions between hostile parties, such as limiting the amount of time each individual is permitted to speak and prohibiting personal attacks from all discussions. Paul Wehr, a sociologist and renowned expert in conflict management, further details the advantages of third party intervention in his work:The new triadic system can serve to dissolve stalemate, produce disputant cooperation with (or against) the intervenor, provide for facesaving, reinforce intervenor prestige, permit tension release through facilitate communication and perform other functions openly acknowledged or merely suggested in the intervention process.2
As the controversy over the Yellowstone bison currently stands, a neutral individual is needed to bring the primary parties together so that con structive discussions and negotiations can begin. Because of the parties involved -- the National Park Service, the state of Montana, cattle owners, and animal rights activists -- and the scope of the dispute, a professional mediator(s) would be most effective as a high level of facilitation expertise is required in this complex situation.
Once underway, the mediation process must address several issues in order to be successful. In addition to the parties directly affected by the debate surrounding the Yellowstone buffalo, the general public should have a say in any future policy decisions. One of the flaws of the present interim-management plan is the minimal public input included in its formation. Theoretically, as trustees of the national park, all Americans are entitled to contribute to the formation of legislation that pertains to Yellowstone, which is public property. Realistically, this does not occur but at the very least all Americans should have access to information regarding their national parks. As Susskind and Cruikshank point out, when involved in a dispute, making pertinent information available to all interested parties significantly lowers levels of suspicion and mistrust. Typically, in heated controversies, misinformation that stems from rumors or stereotypes is generated. If disputing parties are encouraged to jointly seek out the information they require in order to have an informed discussion, such misinformation can be eliminated or at least greatly reduced. Similarly, a party's assumptions should be challenged for their accuracy as conflicts often arise from erroneous judgments.
The point is that assumptions, opinions, and even values can change in the face of believable information; in order to achieve this important end, such assumptions must be identified and scrutinized.3 In the conflict surrounding the Yellowstone buffalo there are "facts" that are questioned. For instance, the possibility of brucellosis being transmitted from wild bison herds to domestic cattle is frequently refuted by opponents to the interim-management plan since there are no known cases of such an occurrence. In addition, many critics dispute the need to shoot all bison -- both cows and bulls -- since cows are the primary carriers of brucellosis. While consensus on these issues will probably never be achieved, it is important for the parties involved in the dispute to seek out reliable information and research on brucellosis rather than basing their opinions on hearsay and other secondary accounts.
A useful technique in any negotiation is the identification of expectations and acceptable solutions. If parties to a conflict realize that something to which they are opposed is inevitable, they are likely to accept that phenomenon provided that certain criteria are met. In such a situation, not all parties to the dispute can be completely satisfied with the outcome but concessions can be made to achieve the best possible circumstances for all those involved. In this way, compromise is reached.
Working together and separately, all participants begin to envision and articulate at least one solution, whole or partial, that they find satisfactory. Obviously, if either side restricts itself to its ideal-world option . . . the negotiations are in serious trouble. But such inflexibility usually reflects a preliminary tactic rather than a working posture.4
By accepting the fact that some method of population control is required for the Yellowstone bison and by identifying acceptable alternatives to the current lethal technique, the parties in the buffalo debate should be able reach a reasonable compromise. Cattlemen and women will be willing to work with individuals who recognize their interests and who acknowledge the need to keep the animals' numbers in check. Animal rights activists will undoubtedly accept non-lethal approaches to controlling the bison herds and safeguarding against the spread of brucellosis. Seeking options that give weight to the concerns of critics as well as proponents of the interim-management plan will avoid expensive and time-consuming court battles, which prevent the establishment of productive relationships between parties and allow for only one "winner."
Most animal rights activists are undoubtedly familiar with the work of Peter Singer, a philosopher who has written extensively on the exploitation of non-human animals by humans. Perhaps surprisingly to some, Singer does not argue vehemently for animal rights per se, but instead maintains that their interests should be offered equal consideration to those of humankind. According to Singer, humans rarely regard other life forms and have used non-human creatures to benefit their own needs since the earliest Western civilizations were established.5 He labels this "speciesism," which he defines as "a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species."6 In light of this, it is logical to assume that Singer would consider speciesist the government practice of killing bison that wander outside of Yellowstone as such action does not account for the interests of buffalo, only those of humans.
While some might interpret his work as rigidly condemning all killing of non-human animals, in reality Singer has a much more tempered view. He recognizes the need for population control in some instances, provided that the spirit in which it is implemented gives weight to the interests of all animals.
If we made an effort to develop more humane methods of population control for wild animals in reserves, it would not be difficult to come up with something better than what is done now. The trouble is that the authorities responsible for wildlife have a 'harvest' mentality, and are not interested in finding techniques of population control which would reduce the number of animals to be 'harvested' by hunters.7
A change in attitude is essential if we are to manage non-human animals for their own sakes and not simply because we perceive them to be an inconvenience to our lives, says Singer. Given his views on population control, it is clear that Singer's ethic of consideration can be integrated into some type of compromise for the Yellowstone buffalo conflict that accounts for the interests of all involved parties, including the bison's.
Although many federal and state government agents, as well as the ranchers involved in the Yellowstone buffalo dispute, would consider Singer's beliefs to be radical and perhaps offensive, the underlying message that Singer promotes -- of respect for life -- is one that even staunch conservatives should be willing to adopt. In today's political climate with such a strong emphasis on values, what more fundamental concept exists than the value of life? Many people do not understand that this idea extends to all species as well as to our surrounding environment. While it is unreasonable to expect the entire human race to alter its collective lifestyle in order to address this issue of respect, it should be asked that everyone learn to consider other interests besides their own. Although this may seem like a slow and inefficient tactic with which to resolve conflicts, as Singer points out, we must change underlying beliefs before we can change behavior.
Careful consideration of this idea put forth by Singer and others might improve the prospect of solving the Yellowstone buffalo debate as well as many other conflicts that plague our society. If we can relearn the value of life, perhaps we will stop trying to manage nature and instead accept our humble role as one of its constituents.
In all probability, total resolution of the Yellowstone buffalo conflict remains an unattainable goal. With the aid of a neutral third party however, there is promising potential for manageability provided that the public is involved and personal animosity is put aside during negotiations. Additionally, future discussions about alternatives to Montana's present interim-management plan should emphasize respect for life -- an idea that all involved parties should be receptive to given their aversion to killing the buffalo. With patience, creativity and awareness of the implications of their actions, interested parties to the Yellowstone buffalo dispute should be able to formulate an alternate plan that everyone, both human and non-human, can live with.
1 Bryan Hodgson, "Buffalo Back Home on the
Range," National Geographic, November
2 David A. Dary, The Buffalo Book: The Full
Saga of the American Animal (Chicago: The
Swallow Press, Inc., 1974), 70.
3 Ibid., p.85.
4 Aubrey L. Haines, The Yellowstone Story: A
History of Our First National Park
(Wyoming: Yellowstone Library, 1977), 471.
5 Ibid., p.484.
6 Hodgson, 71.
7 Robert B. Keiter and Mark S. Boyce, Editors,
Redefining America's Wilderness Heritage
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991),
8 Ibid., p. 279.
9 Ibid., p. 278.
10 Kit Miniclier, "Global Probe is Urges on
Yellowstone Danger," Denver Post, March 3,
11 Craig Vetter, "The Buffalo Wars," Outside,
May 1991, p.143.
12 Todd Wilkinson, "Yellowstone Cancels Bison Kill Because of Lawsuit," High Country
News, April 22, 1991, p.3.
13 "Five Bison Leaving Park Shot," Denver
Post, December 31, 1994.
14 Vetter, 56.
15 Ibid., pp. 59-145.
16 Ibid., p.58.
17 Dary, 279.
1 Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey
Cruikshank, Breaking the Impasse:
Public Disputes (New York: Basic
2 Paul Wehr, Theoretical Utility Module
VIII: Third Party Functions .
3 Susskind and Cruikshank, p.115.
4 Ibid., p.117.
5 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New
York: Avon Books, 1975), 192.
6 Ibid., p.7.
7 Ibid., p.247.