Hopes for tolerance of migratory Yellowstone National Park bison by Montana officials seemed to unravel this week, as the park's tortuous winter drove hundreds of bison north into Montana. While they were quickly rounded up, some appear headed to slaughter.
“We live here, we see the bison every day. The bison are a positive influence in our lives,” Julia Page of the Bear Creek Council in Gardiner, Montana, said Tuesday. “These Yellowstone bison are the last remnant of the millions that used to roam the plains. Bison are culturally important to Montanans, and it saddens us to see bison slaughtered.”
The huge bison migration came during the weekend as a cold front barreled south out of Canada and draped sub-zero temperatures across the park. The bison had moved nearly 10 miles and onto private and public land north of Corwin Springs before hazers pushed them back into the park and its Stephens Creek bison capture facility.
The Interagency Bison Management Plan developed in 2000 by state and federal agencies allowed for the hazing, and corraling, of the bison. Nevertheless, the ensuing plan by the partner agencies to test the captured bison for exposure to brucellosis and ship any that tested positive to slaughter drew condemnation Tuesday from conservationists.
Greater Yellowstone Coalition officials joined Yellowstone-area residents to criticize the herding. They called on Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Interagency Bison Management Plan partners to offer leniency for the bison, a lasting symbol of the old West.
According to a GYC release, "(T)he 300 bison were rounded up even as the only two cattle ranchers in the area told a local newspaper that they didn’t mind bison roaming outside the park. The number of bison in the Stephens Creek holding pen near Gardiner, Mont., represents about 7 percent of the entire Yellowstone population."
Migrating bison, genetically programmed to head to lower ground in winter, long have been viewed as a problem at Yellowstone. Montana livestock officials, worried their state might lose its "brucellosis-free status" and thus require expensive testing of their cattle herds to ensure they don't carry the disease that can cause spontaneous abortions in livestock, have long been opposed to letting Yellowstone bison wander out of the park and into their state.
Nearly three years ago conservationists embarked on a $1.5 million deal with the state that they hoped would build some tolerance in the state for Yellowstone's migrating bison. That deal involved the purchase of grazing rights on the Royal Teton Ranch just north of Yellowstone so that a relative handful of bison could migrate north onto Gallatin National Forest lands without running a gauntlet of hunters and hazers.
While the first movement of bison, 25 individuals, were allowed to head north towards the national forest last month, wildlife managers and livestock agents had trouble keeping the bison on the forest lands and away from private lands. One bison was shot and killed last week when efforts to haze it back onto the national forest failed.
According to a GYC release Tuesday, during a December meeting of IBMP partners, "three of the five agency partners proposed significant modifications to the zone boundaries that dictate bison management. Recommendations by the National Park Service, Gallatin National Forest, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks all proposed increasing the tolerance for bison around Gardiner, moving the Zone 2 boundary to allow for more habitat on public lands. Montana Department of Livestock disagreed with the proposals and prevented their implementation."
Now, with the expectation that some of the 300 corralled bison will be shipped to slaughter, the IBMP plan is being called a failure by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
“We need to change the plan to increase tolerance for bison around Gardiner, in just the way that the majority of the IBMP partners proposed last December,” said Mark Pearson, the group's conservation director.
Greater Yellowstone officials went on to note that, while more than 3,600 "genetically pure Yellowstone bison" have been "unnecessarily killed" in past winters for migrating out of the park in search of suitable winter habitat, that number likely will grow this winter without tolerance by Montana officials.
“Yellowstone’s bison need a new paradigm of management,” Mr. Pearson said. “The state of Montana can lead the way out of this quagmire by accommodating expanded zone management boundaries, and by devising long-term management solutions to let bison roam freely across the Gardiner Basin while still keeping them south of Yankee Jim Canyon. We are hopeful that Gov. Schweitzer and his staff can offer solutions that protect bison without detriment to the other interests in Montana.”