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Yellowstone bison: An uncertain future



Bison hazing will give agencies six months for action

By Taylor Anderson
Photo by: Colton Stiffler

A herd of 50 of the world’s most genetically pure bison grazed a north-facing foothill inside the nation’s oldest national park in late May near Gardiner. It was the first week the bison migrated or were hazed back into Yellowstone National Park and off state lands, and now residents in communities near the north gate can breathe relief that the free-roaming bison near that entrance have returned into park boundaries, where they will likely stay until next winter.
But the bison saga continued for at least three days of heat-stricken hazing near the park’s west entrance, in West Yellowstone. There, a few hundred bison stood their grazing grounds on state and private properties when a spring hazing – led by the Department of Livestock – started on June 1.
The start date for hazing was later than usual, due to the late thaw, and some remain skeptical that the bison will stay put. Agencies managing bison now have limited time until the animals again migrate onto state lands.
Conservation groups in charge of monitoring the population of bison on state lands had a busy season this year. Gardiner and West Yellowstone saw upwards of 1200 bison (of the roughly 3600 in the park) attempt to leave the park this winter in search of food. Thick and ruthless amounts of snow covered the edible grassland in the higher elevations, and bison tried to enter the communities looking for grass. Some 200 bison were killed and 770 were trapped in the Stephens Creek trap near Gardiner, according to Buffalo Field Campaign numbers.
The days of hunting the bison any time they tread outside park boundaries have been over for a few years now. But there are state and tribal hunts each year with relatively low quotas. This year’s numbers of bison killed during the winter fails to compare to the 1,631 killed during the 2007-2008 winter, but property owners in Park County and West Yellowstone have shown mixed feelings about allowing bison on their property just yet.
The Interagency Bison Management Plan – nine agencies delegated to control bison outside of park boundaries – met the third week in May to consider how to best deal with the mammoth land walkers, but little came of the meetings aside from promises of increased tolerance near West Yellowstone and the scheduling of future meetings.
The vows for leniency on state lands came with some irony as the bison roamed on state and privately owned properties until June. Buffalo Field Campaign worker Red Jonson said he doesn’t think the June hazing will end the issue in near West Yellowstone. “I have a feeling they’ll come back out,” he said.
If they do, they will likely again run into state agents on horseback, ATV or helicopter trying to get them back onto park land. If they can’t be controlled they will be taken for slaughter.
The Department of Livestock holds supreme power in dealing with the bison outside the park because of the impact the animals could potentially have on the state cattle industry. Bison control is complex because of the varying opinions by the landowners they affect. As one rancher said, “All they’re tryin’ to do is decide how to use my land.”
Bison carry a disease called brucellosis, which causes miscarriage and can be passed to cattle. If the disease is spread to just two cattle in a year, the entire state loses its designation as a ‘brucellosis-free’ state, and Montana beef will lose significant value, according to Department of Livestock representative Steve Merritt. That happened in 2008 and it took the state nine months to regain its good status, he said.
Ranchers are also concerned with bison damaging property and creating a threat to the community. One woman in the Gardiner area lost 10 trees after an itchy herd on her property rubbed against the trees. Bison on another rancher’s property created $1,000 worth of damage when a male tried to jump a water wheel and landed on the pipe. The rancher described bison as “a V8 truck runnin’ around my land in low gear.”
Groups against the slaughtering of bison and for letting the herds roam free outside the park argue elk also carry brucellosis and could also pass the disease to cattle. The elk aren’t managed as mercilessly as bison. In fact, a willingness to preserve and bolster elk numbers throughout the Northwest is evident in the debate over limiting wolf numbers due to predation on big game animals.
The Buffalo Field Campaign says the bison are treated poorly during hazing season. They say the practice can claim the lives of bison that become stressed during the event, and the death total for this year can be expected to rise before hazing is through.
Pat Flowers, Regional Supervisor of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, also carries significant weight in the bison debate. Flowers met with Gardiner ranchers on May 20, hoping to find cooperation as the groups look for the best way to manage the herds. His efforts focused on a plan to guide the bison with fencing away from private lands and onto lands purchased for their grazing near Yankee Jim Canyon.
Ranchers don’t want to foot the fencing bill, and in fact most enjoy letting wildlife from the park mosey through their property, so existing fencing is bare to allow animals to walk under or jump over and pass safely. Some ranchers feel negatively toward fencing that would be big enough to block bison because it would also likely limit the peaceful wildlife on their property. “I’m in the wrong place if I’m against wildlife on my land,” one said.
Regardless, efforts in that area may go for naught because of two lawsuits approved by a judge in Park County. A cattle group filed suit against agents in charge of management, as well as Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and District Court Judge Nels Swandal set a restraining order and trial date for May 25. That hearing was postponed, as the county court wanted to find a new judge to hear the case. The judge in May put the brakes on an effort by the governor to open 75,000 acres of grazing land north of the park in the Gardiner Basin.

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