By Jessie Wiese EBS Contributor

The end of 2015 brought Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s decision on the contentious issue of bison movement outside of Yellowstone National Park. Bullock’s proposal would allow the animals to roam year round in limited areas to the north and west of the park.

The Interagency Bison Management Plan must first adopt the governor’s proposal before it goes into effect. The IBMP consists of multiple agencies including Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Montana Department of Livestock, the National Park Service, and U.S. Forest Service.

The IBMP considers issues such as bison migration and tolerance outside of Yellowstone, as well as population densities within the park. Bison from the herd are annually hazed or slaughtered to keep them from areas where cattle might be grazing due to the risk of brucellosis transmission.

However, the management of other species that carry brucellosis, including elk, are not constrained or managed similarly. Since the 1980s, more than 6,300 bison have been slaughtered and nearly 1,900 killed by hunters, largely in response to fears over the spread of the disease.

“The state’s decision to allow wild bison to inhabit public lands in Montana throughout the year is a bold and important step for their conservation and further recovery in the ecosystem,” said Yellowstone Public Affairs officer Amy Bartlett in a Jan. 5 statement

Under Bullock’s proposal, bison would be allowed to roam from the Gardiner Basin at the northern boundary of the park, to the south entrance of Yankee Jim Canyon, as well as from the west park boundary to the Taylor Fork drainage, Buck Ridge area and Horse Butte.

bison_map2Seasonal limits on bison numbers will be imposed in each management area, and hazing and slaughter will still be allowed, depending on the size of the herds and their proximity to cattle. On the west side of the park 450 bison will be allowed in fall and winter, 600 in the spring and 250 in the summer.

“It’s a thoughtful, measured approach to adaptive management,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Regional Supervisor Sam Sheppard.

“This decision is a very modest expansion of the conditions under which bison may remain outside of the park … ” Bullock said in a statement. “I am confident our livestock industry is protected.”

The park currently manages a herd of nearly 5,000 animals, but the IBMP’s 2015-2016 bison operations management plan focuses on population reduction in Yellowstone. Their Dec. 14 memorandum outlines a goal of “decreasing population” without identifying specific density goals for bison within the park.

Each winter since 2012 the group has set a goal for removal, attempting to maintain a population closer to 3,000 animals.

“The harvest and suggested harvest for this year was not affected bison_map1by Gov. Bullock’s decision,” Sheppard said. “Each year the IBMP gets together with YNP and they are given the total numbers of bison and a suggested level of harvest. This year they released the specifics on the number and all agreed that a decreasing population is needed.”

Bartlett said the Park Service is committed to conserve a range of at least 2,500-4,500 Yellowstone bison; greater tolerance for bison on public lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; and less hazing of the animals, especially newborn calves.

One of the most significant changes to the 2015-2016 operations management plan is that bison trapping – previously done as early as January – will not be allowed until after Feb. 15, giving more time for hunting opportunities.