Bison Might be Allowed to Range Further Beyond Yellowstone National Park Borders

Efforts are under way in Montana to expand safe winter range for Yellowstone National Park bison. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Work is under way on a proposal to give bison more room to roam outside of Yellowstone National Park this winter without being killed or hazed back into the park. Though still in the preliminary stages, the proposal would help expand safe winter range for the iconic animals.

Last spring state and federal officials worked out a deal under which up to 25 bison a year -- and possibly more down the road -- could roam north of Yellowstone through property owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant to reach traditional wintering grounds. While not a significant number, in light of the more than 1,700 bison that were killed outside the park last winter in the name of brucellosis prevention, conservationists applauded the agreement as a first step.

Now comes word about efforts to allow bison to roam west of Yellowstone into the Horse Butte Peninsula area near Hebgen Lake, Montana. This area offers a mix of forest, open hillsides, and grassy meadows. As such, it figures highly in the winter and spring movements of bison, and expanding their range there would be a good move.

The current talks were spawned by a biting report by the Government Accountability Office on the failings of the Interagency Bison Management Plan. That report, issued early in April, said that not only are the agencies -- which have spent a combined $16 million on their work in this arena -- far behind the schedule they adopted eight years ago, but they have been, in a word, dysfunctional.

...the agencies have not adequately implemented adaptive management, in that they (1) have not established critical linkages among clearly defined objections (which are absent from the plan), information about the impacts of their management actions obtained through systematic monitoring, and decisions regarding adjustments they make to the plan and their management actions; (2) have continued to act more as individual entities, rather than as a cohesive interagency group; and (3) have not adequately communicated with or involved key stakeholders, such as conservation groups, livestock industry groups, and private landowners. Consequently, their decision-making more often resembles trial and error than adaptive management and also lacks accountability and transparency.

Since August state and federal representations have been meeting to respond to the GAO report. Along with addressing procedural matters, such as the need to file annual reports, the group has been discussing plans to provide winter range north and west of the park.

The current efforts to open the Horse Butte area to wintering bison, along with providing the animals safe haven, also would not require that they be tested for brucellosis, which can cause livestock to abort their fetuses. One reason this area is so appealing for use as bison winter range, in addition to the animals' proclivity to head there, is that cattle no longer use the area.

Still, not everyone is thrilled with the developing plan because some Yellowstone do carry brucellosis.

"It is a de facto expansion of Yellowstone National Park and doing nothing to address the disease," Texas state veterinarian Bob Hillman told the Associated Press. "If the disease moved to another state, we're perpetuating and spreading brucellosis, which we've spent a lot of money on to eradicate."

Yellowstone managers are, however, working on an environmental impact statement revolving around a remote vaccination program that could be used to combat brucellosis. That EIS is expected to be released for public review in the spring.

Over at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Amy McNamara calls the ongoing talks a positive step, but not an ultimate solution.

"It is significant progress,” says Ms. McNamara, the coalition's national parks program manager, but "they still turn bison back May 15 in an area where there are no cattle. This should continue to be a haven for bison much further than late spring. Bison should be able to use the cattle-free area until they opt to move back into the park on their own.”


In bison circles, this plan is being met with a "so what" because of what Amy says in the article. If bison are still being pushed back after May 15, de facto this changes almost nothing and creates just a different set of headaches. This remains a bison control plan and not a wildlife management plan.

When I first read about it yesterday, I was a little excited until I realized that the essential boundaries haven't changed. All it does in effect is make an amendment of what are known as Zone 2 areas, which are tolerance areas only for a season.

It's not looking like something that will satisfy Horse Butte residents (at least what I'm hearing through my own grapevine) who want buffalo there.

This is better, nevertheless, than bison have under the awful, awful plan in the north.

But, this does not represent justice for the buffalo, and so we fight on.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World