The superintendent of Yellowstone National Park said Saturday he was shocked by an unexpected move in Montana to seek a federal quarantine order to keep diseased buffalo from wandering outside park borders and infecting domestic livestock.
Robert Barbee said the move by the Montana Board of Livestock came as a total surprise and National Park Service officials had not been consulted in advance."There's just no sense in exchanging cheap shots. We're interested in solving the problem, and we're going to pursue this no matter what they do," Barbee said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials in Washington, D.C., were advised verbally late Friday of the board's formal call for a quarantine, and the written request will be filed this week, said Les Graham, executive director of the Montana Department of Livestock.
Buffalo wandering into Montana from Yellowstone are considered game animals. They are shot by licensed hunters under orders of the Montana Legislature in an attempt to keep them from reinfecting domestic cattle with a disease that causes livestock to abort calves.
Montana was quarantined for 10 years beginning in the mid-1970s and spent an estimated $30 million to win recertification of its cattle herds as brucellosis-free, Graham said.
Barbee said the unexpected development left him wondering "what prompted this kind of precipitous reaction."
"I don't even know what it means, for that matter. I sure will be looking into it. I don't even know where to go from here," he said in a telephone interview.
The quarantine call came in the midst of increasing controversy surrounding the killing of male buffalo in the West Yellowstone area. Eleven bulls have been killed by licensed riflemen so far this season.
Under an agreement with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Gov. Stan Stephens, hunters are called to shoot the bulls. State wardens and federal rangers will kill the females, and the calves are to be subdued and sterilized before being sold at public auction.
Only bulls have been killed so far this winter.
Stephens pressed for the agreement in an attempt to blunt criticism of Montana's decision to kill the animals. In the winter of 1988-89, about 570 buffalo were killed in the Gardiner area, spawning a national outcry.
The killing of buffalo this winter already has prompted a pending federal suit by the National Fund for Animals. The Humane Society of America also has threatened to join the suit.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court at Helena, contends the buffalo control plan now in effect violates the National Environmental Policy Act. It seeks an injunction against the state and federal governments to stop the killing.
K.L. Cool, director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, announced during a hearing on the buffalo plan Friday that public comment would be taken until another formal hearing Dec. 27. The day after the hearing, the department plans to decide whether to continue implementing the interim plan now in effect.
At Friday's hearing, state officials and Yellowstone-area ranchers said the Park Service should shoulder the ultimate blame for allowing the buffalo herds to grow rampantly in recent years and criticized the agency for not initiating a program to cleanse the animals of the contagious disease.
Barbee said a trapping-inoculation program is one of many alternatives currently being discussed as part of attempts to formulate a long-range solution to the problem. An environmental impact statement is part of that effort.
He said about 40 people from state, local and federal agencies met last week to discuss the problem, and "the next thing I hear are these new shots taken at us out of Helena. It absolutely puzzles me, and I don't understand it."