RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Americans have always liked the idea of bison, but living with them is another matter. In the same year Congress made bison the national mammal, more than 1,200 were culled from the Yellowstone National Park herd. Amy Martin reports on why the U.S. is killing so many of the animals it also idealizes.
AMY MARTIN, BYLINE: Thirty miles north of Yellowstone is a place called Paradise Valley. Picture snowy peaks, a winding river, big sweeping meadows...
(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)
MARTIN: ...And cows. Drusca Kinkie runs a cattle ranch here.
DRUSCA KINKIE: I think the concept of free-roaming bison will harm agriculture immensely.
MARTIN: The annual bison cull in Yellowstone attracts controversy every year, and this winter was the second biggest ever. But Kinkie supports the reduction of the herd.
KINKIE: There's a disease issue with bison. They've been exposed to brucellosis.
MARTIN: Brucellosis is a bacterial disease, which elk and bison in the Yellowstone area originally caught from livestock. Kinkie says the threat of transmission back to cattle looms large. And it's that fear that drove the state of Montana to sue Yellowstone in 1995, forcing the park to ship more animals to slaughter. But there's more going on here than just disease. Bison are caught in the culture wars. Kinkie says she feels misunderstood.
KINKIE: You have all these people out there fighting for free-roaming bison. And it's a concept. It's a vision that they have. And we're fighting for our ability to survive here and make a living as we have for the last 60, almost 70 years. And they don't have anything to lose in their vision. And we have everything to lose in ours.
ROBBIE MAGNAN: Buffalo has taken care of Native Americans since the beginning of time.
MARTIN: Robbie Magnan says there is a lot to lose on the other side. He's the director of the Fish and Wildlife Department for the Fort Peck Tribes in northeastern Montana. For him, the culture wars started much further back when Europeans first arrived in North America and more than 50 million wild bison roamed the continent.
MAGNAN: The federal government massacred them because they figured out that was the only way to bring the Indians down to their knees - it was destroy their economy. And that's why they were almost wiped out.
MARTIN: Now, only about 30,000 bison are protected in North America and, of those, less than half are living in anything close to wild conditions. As Magnan drives up into the hills of the reservation, he says wild bison are an important part of the country's heritage. That's why he helped to develop an alternative to slaughter.
MAGNAN: Instead of massacring these animals when they migrate out of the park in the wintertime when they're hungry, OK, let's get them out alive and start other cultural herds going.
MARTIN: To do that, the Fort Peck Tribes built a 320-acre brucellosis-quarantined pasture surrounded by extra high fences. Here, the Yellowstone bison can be held and tested and many eventually declared brucellosis free. Last year, the National Park Service said it supported using the facility, but then Magnan says...
MAGNAN: After they found out it works, they quit it. And why quit something when you know it works?
MARTIN: The person responsible for answering that question is Sue Masica, who oversees this region of the park service. But she declined requests for an interview.
Those guys are moving.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How many did you count? Yeah, they're going.
RICK WALLEN: I'm guessing there's 200-plus.
MARTIN: Rick Wallen is the team leader for the park's bison management program. He's watching a large bison herd move quickly down the valley of the Yellowstone River. It's a cold day and their dark shapes stand out against the snow. Despite the beauty, the mood is intense. For most of the year, Wallen studies these animals. But every winter, he manages their slaughter.
WALLEN: There is a cost, and that cost is more emotional for some than others. I've even had people on days that we were supposed to go there and do the work call and say, you know, I can't do this anymore. I have to resign my position. I'm sorry.
MARTIN: Wallen thinks a better solution would be quarantine. That would allow him to do what he says is his job.
WALLEN: Protect the wild in wild bison. Otherwise, they go extinct.
MARTIN: That extinction comes in the form of domestication. Bison are increasingly raised as livestock and bred with cattle to make them more docile. Wallen says Yellowstone is a bulwark against this trend, a place where bison still have to use their instincts to survive in the wild. For NPR News, I'm Amy Martin in Yellowstone National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.