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LULKA 2008 (David Lulka, Dept of Geography, San Diego State University, Journal of Cultural Geography, February)

Thus, while certain prohibitions persist within the bison industry, such as those against the use of hormones, in many instances (including the ones listed above) the economic emphasis has gained an upper hand within the bison industry by virtue of the industry's ability to harness some cultural and material resources (e.g. wildness and palatability) and obscure others (e.g. feedlot production). Accordingly, it is inaccurate to simply say that economic concerns have overridden other priorities, for in reality grades, standards and other diffuse conceptions about food and nature often operate in tandem with financial considerations. Clearly, in some cases, economically-motivated decisions are a direct offshoot of narrow philosophical priorities, but in other cases these developments more accurately reflect pragmatic responses to various contingencies. Nonetheless, in either instance, the movement toward a growth-oriented industry is likely to intensify the distinctions between economic and cultural practices. As these various disputes suggest, naturalistic representations of the bison industry are entirely inadequate, for they embellish the cultural mythology of the animal without addressing the economic and material concerns that influence the spatial, structural and ethical attributes of the industry. Non-economic factors clearly impact bison ranching activities, but they are channeled in very precise ways to satisfy economic considerations. Those within the industry are much more aware of these schisms than the general public, and at least a few producers are wary of the changes these divergent forces may bring. For instance, as one producer noted: My concern is that too many bison producers seem to think they have to control their animals to achieve maximum economic production. In the process they usually break up their herd's social structure of order — the very thing that enables bison to be self supportive by taking perfectively [sic] good care of themselves as they do in the wild. … The unique survivability and long-term economic advantage of bison and success of their caretakers will have been lost. Or, as another producer commented: "We somewhat fear that, in the urge to produce more tender meat from larger & [sic] larger animals, producers may change the nature of bison." Thus, although the iconographic and material qualities of the species prompted many ranchers to acquire bison in the first place, this does not ensure these characteristics will hold into the future. Disenchantment within the bison industry is already evident. Yet whether this response will amount to a reaffirmation of alternative techniques or simply isolation remains to be seen. Without a doubt, resistance to economic pressures and conventional modes of production are quite strong in some quarters. As one producer, who owns more than 500 bison, stated: "We're very small, but we do it right, and I won't … I'll get rid of, I'll kill them all before I cheat." Nonetheless, current trends in the industry point in other directions. Over time, these divisions may significantly alter the identity of the industry, as growth-driven operations accumulate greater weight in comparison to self-imposed forms of environmentally-embedded production. Outliers will certainly persist (as they do in other conventional industries, including, for example, grass-fed production in the cattle industry), but these may eventually become detached from the identity and activities of the industry, rendering them non-influential. By themselves, the internal dynamics of the industry suggest serious doubts about the prospect of bison restoration, yet this situation becomes more complex when it potentially affects the status of bison in other domains. The survey respondents who commented on the concept of the Buffalo Commons generally expressed negative opinions. One referred to the idea as 'Commonism.' In the real space of public herds, the herd manager at Custer State Park acknowledged that he listens to the preferences of bison ranchers and manages his herd accordingly in a manner that increases the demand from private ranchers at auction time. This includes the use of certain vaccinations. In both of these cases, the priority of private concerns wins out over the potential benefits of a relatively unadulterated bison population on public lands. However, the acrimony between public and private concerns is most clearly seen in the industry's attitude toward the bison of YNP. The bison of YNP have become embroiled in a debate about their potential to transmit brucellosis to livestock in the region. Traditional livestock industries, such as the cattle industry, have supported stringent management of the bison herd. The critical point to mention here is that the leadership of the NBA has also repeatedly called for, and supported, the formulation and continuation of strict bison management policies in and around YNP. These views have been presented at annual conferences of the association and in the association's publications. For example, in response to a proposal that called for the redistribution of test-negative Yellowstone bison[ 5] to tribal communities, the president of the NBA at the time candidly stated that: To knowingly allow contact between these infected bison and privately owned livestock is totally irresponsible under any circumstances. Any real or even perceived transmission of brucellosis from YNP bison to livestock or humans would initiate a cascade of events which in the end would result in irrefutable damage to the commercial bison and livestock industries. (Flocchini and Collins 1995, p. 17) The perception of risk, as much as any real risk, is at issue. The association is concerned that the taint of brucellosis will be transferred to private herds in the mind of the public. A few years later, another representative of the NBA summarized his statements at a Greater Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee meeting by saying, "my comments were addressed to the fact that there are no longer any private bison herds infected with brucellosis, and we feel that as long as Yellowstone has infected animals, there is a chance our herds are at risk" (Hensel 1999, p. 27). As such, the association has come down on the side of livestock interests in the region who advocate strict management of the Yellowstone herd. This is particularly important since YNP holds a privileged place in Americans conception of nature and wilderness on the North American continent. Indeed, for many people who are not aware of the large number of bison on private lands, bison are synonymous with YNP. That the integrity of the YNP bison herd (and the ideals it symbolizes) is important to the public is suggested by the fact that the comment period for the draft environmental impact statement that outlined the proposed bison management policy "generated 67,520 documents from the public, which contained 212,249 individual comments" (NPS 2000b, p. i; see also Lavigne 2002). Many of these comments reiterated the interests and concerns noted at the beginning of this article. Nonetheless, in recent years, as the YNP herd has rebounded once again from substantial reductions brought about by these policies, the NBA has expressed similar opinions at conferences in preparation for further debate and conflict. By supporting this position, the NBA seeks to draw a distinction between a culturally significant public herd and private herds. In the process, the potential ecological and cultural significance of the 'wild' population is not commonly addressed in such statements, and the needs of private interests supercede those held by many members of the public. This places the NBA in an odd situation, because members of the public have apparently contacted the association in order to gain support to stop YNP's strict management practices. Many members of the public assume the NBA supports the rights of bison in YNP by virtue of their affiliation with the animal. Yet this has proven to be incorrect, as the NBA clearly recognizes and reaffirms the distinction between public and private. More explicitly in regard to bison conservation and restoration, the current executive director of the NBA delineated the role that the industry would play in this process in stating that: I think that we are going to play a big role in building the breed but these would still be very exotic rare animals if it wasn't for the fact that people are eating them. And the more people eat them, the more bison we're going to have out there. But you also, in raising animals for meat, you start looking at genetic traits for certain things. You know, you want to have a broader backside here with more meat on it, okay. And so you're going to start breeding a different animal, so therefore the fact that we still have these herds in Yellowstone and Custer State Park and everything like that, where they're just letting them run wild and breed, you know, as nature would have, maintains really the heritage of the animal. So I see both of those as being important. The language used clearly draws a distinction between private 'breeds' and the material characteristics of public herds. Although the industry is seen to have a role in the quantitative growth of the species, any obligations to the historic characteristics of the species, the physical environment or prevailing cultural conceptions are minimized. This is a cleavage of note, even if the people who commodify bison do not seek to inflict harm or damage upon the species. Some analysts have advocated the commodification of wildlife (Freese 1988) as a means of conserving species, but it is unclear as to whether it can work. Many species are commodified through hunting, which makes them distinct from the present case. The effort to commodify kangaroo meat falls within this category (Thorne 1998). Joanen et al. (1997) suggest that the commodification of alligators in Louisiana has produced positive results, however this case is different from the situation of bison since wild alligators are ubiquitous throughout the landscape and farmed alligators are raised primarily for their skins. The latter fact mitigates against the perceived need to transform farmed animals, while the former provides a buffer against the excesses of production. The case of salmon bears the closest similarity to events surrounding bison. Researchers have noted the difference between wild salmon and farmed salmon, whereby the substance and nutritional characteristics of the latter is altered detrimentally (Ryan 2003; Hites et al. 2004). Ironically, both bison and salmon are totemic animals that have cultural value for indigenous Americans and those more recently arrived on the continent. Importantly, the economic approach noted above takes a narrow view that does not acknowledge the role of sociality in animals, and the influence it may have on the perpetuation of true biodiversity (Mitman 2005). Altogether, these changes suggest that the agricultural context, however it is structured above land or below water, is insufficient for restoration efforts even in the best of circumstances. More problematically, while research on salmon may inspire greater efforts to conserve wild salmon, it is unclear if the effects of bison production stop at the ranch's edge given the industry's stand on YNP.

[NOTE: NBA = National Bison Association; YNP = Yellowstone National Park—Calum]





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