Feds revive plan for mass bison slaughter
Radical step considered as diseases put ranches at risk
The Edmonton Journal
Monday, March 20, 2006http://www.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=1c31fb20-bfe2-4a16-8d2f-e66cf6adae11&k=43314
EDMONTON -- The federal government is again considering a plan to destroy the world's largest free-roaming bison herd to curb diseases that threaten ranches in Western Canada as well as a nearby healthy herd of wild bison.
The eradicated herd would be replaced with disease-free bison from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton.
Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles Alberta's border with the Northwest Territories, is home to about 4,000 bison, nearly all of which are descendants of a herd shipped to the park between 1925 and 1928.
A team of 32 scientists believe they have the answers to the scientific and technical questions that helped kill a similar plan in 1990.
The scientists -- representing federal, provincial and territorial governments and agencies, universities and international organizations -- collaborated on a report for Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service.
In it, the scientists unanimously agree that "under tightly controlled conditions, there would be a very high probability of eradicating both diseases."
The experts say the plan would cost $62 million to $78 million and would take up to 20 years to complete -- 10 years to depopulate and another 10 for reintroduction.
If all goes according to the plan, Wood Buffalo park would be home to as many bison as it is today, but without the diseases that make them vulnerable to predators and early death.
The authors of the report realize the proposal will be controversial.
A mass slaughter would likely involve corralling and killing large numbers of animals, shooting others from airplanes and helicopters, and fitting radio collars to remaining lead bison in order to track them to survivors.
But government officials familiar with the report say the new government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper may not have the luxury of putting off a decision on the issue as the Mulroney and Chretien governments did.
Avian flu, chronic wasting disease and tuberculosis-infected elk in and around Riding Mountain National Park have created a new sense of urgency in the agricultural and wildlife management communities.
So has the proliferation of domestic bison and cattle ranches in and around Wood Buffalo park. There are now more than 250 such ranches at risk of contracting the diseases from animals straying from the national park.
The most immediate threat, however, is to more than 2,000 disease-free animals in the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary northwest of Wood Buffalo. If the diseases spread from the park, they are likely to hit this healthy herd first.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association, Agriculture Canada, the Alberta government and various U.S. agencies have expressed serious concerns about the diseases spreading.
One study suggests an outbreak of the two diseases from Wood Buffalo could cost the domestic bison and cattle industries in Western Canada more than $1 billion over 20 years.
The disease problem began in the 1920s, when more than 6,000 plains bison were moved north to join a group of wood bison when the herd outgrew its old home at Buffalo National Park near Wainwright.
But it was soon discovered that before the move, many of the plains bison sent to Wood Buffalo park were infected with brucellosis and tuberculosis from cattle grazing on the same pastures. Tuberculosis was found in the park in 1937, and bovine brucellosis -- which causes spontaneous abortions in cattle -- by 1956.
Parks Canada and other government departments have been trying ever since to find a way to manage the diseases.
A solution was believed to be at hand 16 years ago, when a review panel recommended going ahead with Agriculture Canada's plan to destroy all of the animals.
The so-called "Armageddon option" created such a huge public outcry that the government of former prime minister Brian Mulroney pulled the plug on the proposal at the last minute.
When that plan was abandoned back in 1990, it seemed no one involved could stomach the idea of thousands of animals being shot in a national park.
A number of scientists were also worried that too much genetic diversity would be lost by eliminating such a large herd of animals, and doubted if it was even possible to kill every bison in a heavily forested area bigger than Switzerland.
As well, there were fears that the removal of so much prey would have a catastrophic impact on the park's ecosystem, especially for the wolf population and the park's vegetation, even if it were only for 10 years.
The authors of the new report now say the gene pool may be preserved through technology including in vitro fertilization, and that reintroduction of Elk Island bison will eventually rebalance the firstname.lastname@example.org
Â© The Edmonton Journal 2006
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