Commentary - January, 23rd, 2014
10:12 am
Fri January 24, 2014

Yellowstone Bison

And again, almost like clockwork, the Yellowstone bison wars begin.  This time, however, it’s a much different and important battle.  As deep snows continue to accumulate on the high Yellowstone plateau and bison begin their historic and highly anticipated migration out of the park, Montana’s Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks and the Board of Livestock are once again are at odds over where America’s largest wild bison herd should be allowed to roam. 

Usually expanding bison habitat is fraught with controversy, and rightly so.  It is well known that some of Yellowstone’s bison (as well as its burgeoning elk populations) carry brucellosis—a veritable kryptonite to the livestock industry—a disease that ironically enough cattle initially introduced and has become a buzzword that has plagued bison expansion efforts for decades.

The most contentious solution supported by livestock interests is vaccinating wildlife.  One such program recently nixed by the Park Service included the use of “bio bullets” in an attempt to reduce the prevalence of brucellosis.  Luckily wildlife managers understand that spending countless resources on a remote vaccination program will not solve the disease issues that have haunted Yellowstone’s wildlife for nearly a century.  Eradication of brucellosis would require every single elk and bison to be vaccinated in a region the size of Connecticut- a seemingly impossible feat.

A better option – and the option currently in front of the Board of Livestock and FWP is not to confine the movements of bison, but to expand year round tolerance outside of the park.  This would include places like the Taylor Fork, Horse Butte, and the upper Gardiner basin- an immense 400,000 acre buffer of 98% public National Forest Lands that could provide critical wintering habitat and minimal conflict with livestock.

Thankfully, over the past 10 years an incredible amount of work has happened to get us to the point we’re at today.  The National Wildlife Federation and other conservation leaders have been working collaboratively with livestock producers to create a landscape adjacent to Yellowstone Park that can accommodate a wild bison population.

We’ve done this via voluntary grazing retirements, an approach that has won strong public support as a pro-active, free-market method to solving wildlife / livestock conflicts.  Our first key retirement for bison was the Horse Butte allotment, which removed a significant conflict on the west side of the park.  We then retired the Cache-Eldridge and Wapiti allotments in the Gallatin River drainage which opens up a substantial area for bison.  Then we retired the Slip and Slide allotment north of the park by Gardiner. 

But what may be our most important grazing agreement took place on private land.  Working in partnership with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, NWF negotiated an agreement with the Church Universal and Triumphant to cease cattle grazing on the Royal Teton Ranch.  This has been a bottleneck for bison movement north of the park. 

These retirements have led to the current situation where the risk of contact between bison and livestock is very low.  And we know that the potential for disease transmission between bison and cattle is extremely low if separation is maintained during birthing periods. 

So why is expanding habitat something Montana’s livestock industry should welcome? 

By confining bison within the borders of the Park, managing the species population and movements are extremely difficult.  And as history has shown, it’s only a matter of time before the next bad winter sends bison into troubling territory- resulting in the untenable situation of hazing, capturing and slaughtering wildlife.  By allowing bison to occupy sizeable habitat outside the park year-round it will give Fish, Wildlife and Parks, interested tribes, and Montana sportsmen the opportunity to manage the bison to a population that is suitable to livestock interests. 

This is Kit Fischer with the National Wildlife Federation, thanks for listening.