Class investigates democracy in action at Yellowstone

August 26 2008

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK -- Brad Bulin gave a play-by-play of the action occurring on the valley floor as a black bear, wolves and grizzlies competed for a carcass that bison were determined to protect.

"Watch the bison, folks. The bison are coming in this," said Bulin, an instructor at the Yellowstone Association Institute. "There's three wolves harassing that bear right now. Yep, grab a piece and run. They managed to harass him enough to leave. I don't know how long they'll get to enjoy it with the bison coming in. There are four bears out here now folks. Bison don't care. One bison will take a pack of wolves on unless it's injured. It's an interesting beast. This animal's been dead a while. Why go down there? It's like elephants defending the bones of other elephants."

Indiana State University students, professors and Vigo County school teachers watched the beasts collide as they studied democracy in action through the collisions and retreats of policies surrounding Yellowstone National Park.

At the center of controversies is a unique 2.2 million-acre park that is unparalleled because of what lies beneath. About 640,000 years ago, a super volcano exploded with cataclysmic force, but breath-taking results for visitors millenniums later even as the volcano continues to breathe its life through vents and geysers.

Visitors come to be awed by the scenery and to see the park's wildlife. Yet it is both that have created controversy surrounding the park. Ranchers fight against roaming bison because of a disease brucellosis, which causes animals to abort, and can cause undulate fever in humans. Buffalo Field Campaign members seek to protect the animals and let them roam across their previous range. There are wolf lovers and haters. Snowmobiles and bioprospecting also throw different groups into the controversial mix surrounding the United States' first national park.

It is for those reasons that Indiana State University professors John Conant, chair of economics, and Charles Amlaner, biology department professor, took the classroom to the valleys and mountainsides of Yellowstone National Park as part of the American Democracy Project. It is a class that moves biology, economics and business beyond books and theories and into the on-going public battles that show democracy in action.

"The goal is to help our students to better understand democracy and really the participatory nature of democracy," Conant said. "Where the American Democracy Project comes in is really to help students to understand how the science and economic informs the public debate over the land usage here in Yellowstone and that democracy is really an active participative event, not just pulling a lever in a voting booth come election time."

"Exposing our students to this kind of an issue, asking them to think about solutions to these problems, asking them to think about how to bring civility and discourse between all of these various stakeholders, really causes our students to think well beyond the natural classroom, and, indeed, Yellowstone represents a phenomenal outdoor classroom that just cannot be compared to anything that we have back in Indiana," Amlaner said.

To discuss Yellowstone is to talk about more than snow-tipped mountain peaks, geysers and abundant wildlife. To discuss the park is to tackle science, ecology, economics, law, politics, public relations and business.

"Coming on my own, yeah you would see the scenery, you notice the wildlife along the sides, but you don't have all the information behind it," said Miriam Vermillion, a teacher at Otter Creek Middle School in Terre Haute, who took the class. "This gives you just an excellent educated view of what's really happening in Yellowstone because I think a lot of people come here and have no idea of the controversial issues that are taking place between the residents outside of Yellowstone and the wildlife that's here in Yellowstone."

"You look at the conflict behind those, it really makes the decision process very, very tough, and where I may have made my mind up and sympathized with the buffalo or the wolf before, maybe I'm not quite so sympathetic now that I've listened to some of these ranchers talk about the impact it's had on their lives and their families and ranches that have been in their families forever," said Tim Skinner, an economics and government teacher at West Vigo High School and Indiana state senator.

Others also found their opinions shifting during the two week class - one week at ISU and the second week at Yellowstone.

"We talked about the sides in class, however to actually see the people being emotional about it, you know, it makes you understand it that much more," said Shawn Nevill, a graduate student. "Coming in here, I really thought that I would side with the park obviously after hearing how so many buffalo are slaughtered. But hearing from the ranchers and hearing from the whole other side of the story, I'm not sure anymore."

Others found that the trip opened up a new world.

"Being my first time here, it's opened a lot of things I never though I would ever see here. Seeing pictures, seeing movies just doesn't verify what this park is all about and what's inside of it really. It opened a lot of windows and doors," said Augie Zurcher, a junior ecology and biology major from Terre Haute. "One of the most interesting things I found was talking with the Buffalo Field Campaign. I have never seen people so dedicated to one thing that they are willing to put their life on the line for it."

Darrell Geist held up a single stalk of grass as he sat in front of the log cabin headquarters of the Buffalo Field Campaign.

"This is as good as gold in Montana," said the campaign spokesman. "You get access to the grass, you get access to the capital from the bank to finance your cattle grazing operation. If you get access to an allotment on the national forestland, you can get a little more money from the bank to continue your operation."

Part of the campaign's mission is advocacy and protection for the bison. During the winter, park rangers try to haze the bison back into the park. When that fails, they are captured, tested for brucellosis and those that test positive are sent to slaughter. In early 2008, more than 1,700 buffalo were sent to slaughter -- the most since the 1800s -- out of a herd that was maybe about 4,000 before winter, several presenters noted to the class.

But as one of the largest land mammals in North American, they will have to be kept in check, according to one park ranger.

"You're probably always going to have to do something," said Jenny Jones, a Yellowstone Park ranger. "They reproduce really well. They don't have enough predators. They're just not checked by nature, that's the reason there were 30 million of them."

The slaughter is part of the park's bison management plan and an attempt to eradicate brucellosis from the herd. Cattle first brought the disease, which is listed by Homeland Security as a biohazard, to bison. Bison passed it along to elk and deer. Recently, cattle in two separate herds tested positive causing Montana to lose its brucellosis free status.

For Druska Kinkie, who owns a ranch in Paradise Valley in the Greater Yellowstone Area with her husband, Rich, brucellosis is not something merely to be discussed but something to be vigilantly watched for. One diagnosis for a herd means destruction of the entire herd.

"When you have as many years invested in breeding a cattle herd, they're not just a commodity that you could go out and replace," Rich said.

"Why do we pick words like depopulate when in reality we are slaughtering an entire herd," Druska said. "We nice it up by calling it depopulation and I find that very objectionable, call it like it is. People don't understand that couple in Bridger lost everything, everything. I don't know how you do that."

The cows diagnosed with brucellosis are thought to have picked it up from elk.

"If the bison and elk were allowed free access, you would see the ranching operations in this valley shut down," Druska said. "By doing ranching you provide open space. With open space you have all the vistas and wildlife, which everyone appreciates. It's just that you can't have a lot of diseased animals running around. So that brings us back a full circle in that you have to control the disease at the source and that's by cleaning up the Yellowstone Park bison and implementing all the strategies that we talked about."

Those strategies include vaccinating the cattle, even though the vaccination is far less than 100 percent effective, as well as keeping cattle separated from bison and elk, Druska said.

Even if brucellosis disappeared from among the bison, Jones said the bison would not be welcome outside of the park.

"Most people never go past brucellosis because that disease is so hard to get rid of, we'll probably never get rid of it," she said. "The other issues are there, but people don't want to talk about it because it's so easy to go to brucellosis and let's not talk about that I don't want to share the grass."

Yet, the bison once again migrating throughout the area or the plains is the goal of some groups.

"They don't think much of park boundaries any time of year. It's a shame to a lot of people that they're not allowed to roam where they need to roam. They know best where they need to go," Geist said. "I think that's part of our long term goal is to reconnect them to some of their corridors, their ranges and their habitats that they need to survive over the long term. We don't know what that is. Buffalo haven't ranged far enough for us to get an idea of what that might be."

Examining the issues in a hands-on way caused the students to come up with questions and opinions of their own.

"I understand economically their struggle, losing large herds of cattle due to disease and those type of things," Rebecca Bockting, an ISU senior from Terre Haute majoring in biology and pre-med. "At the same time I don't necessarily think from a medical point of view, all of these diseases are treatable, even once they get to a human level and they're old. We've had them for decades and I think some of the, in my personal opinion, some of the laws and that type of stuff needs to change with our science."

"I don't really see the point of studying about anything if you can't get your hands on what you're actually learning," Zurcher said.

Conant acknowledged there was only so much that can be seen and taught in a classroom, but by taking the class into the world they get to witness the collisions that create policy.

"Until the students see the animals, see the park, see the natural resources and are able to talk one-on-one with the different members of advocacy groups, with ranchers, with park employees, with rangers, with scientists, with environmental groups, they really can't appreciate how complex and important these issues are and how difficult it is to resolve them," he said.


Contact: John Conant, Indiana State University, economics chair, at 812-237-2160 or

Charles Amlaner, Indiana State University, biology department professor, at 812-237-2405 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or  


Cutline: Bison roam the range of Yellowstone National Park. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell


Cutline: Martin Davis, a rancher in Paradise Valley near Yellowstone National Park speaks about the problems he has experienced since wolves were reintroduced to the park. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell


Cutline: Augie Zurcher, a junior ecology and biology major from Terre Haute, uses a scope to watch bison, bears and wolves from a distance at Yellowstone National Park as part of a class on public land use. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell


Cutline: Brad Bulin, instructor at the Yellowstone Association Institute, speaks to Indiana State University students and Vigo School Corporation teachers about a find during a hike to a wolf den at Yellowstone National Park. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell


Cutline: Darrell Geist, a Buffalo Field Campaign spokesman, holds up a stalk of grass as an example of what he thinks is behind not letting the buffalo roam. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell


Cutline: Jenny Jones, a Yellowstone Park ranger, speaks about the park's bison management plan to ISU students.


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Story Highlights

Indiana State University students, professors and Vigo County school teachers studied democracy in action through the collisions and retreats of policies surrounding Yellowstone National Park.

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