Yellowstone National Park Bison Gain Winter Access to 75,000 Acres in Montana

An agreement unveiled Thursday calls for Yellowstone bison to be able to roam on a 75,000-acre tract of Montana land during winter months. Whether it increases the state's tolerance for free-roaming bison remains to be seen. NPT file photo.

An agreement being hailed as historic by some will give Yellowstone National Park bison access to 75,000 acres of land in Montana during winters, although the agreement doesn't preclude the iconic animals from being hunted or shot for going too far north of the park.

Whether the plan that was to be publicly unveiled Thursday evening in Gardiner, Montana, is indeed historic remains to be seen. Nearly three years ago conservationists embarked on a $1.5 million deal with Montana 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 handful of bison could migrate north onto Gallatin National Forest lands without running a gauntlet of hunters and hazers. It, too, was seen as breaking new ground in the effort to allow Yellowstone bison to head to their traditional wintering grounds to escape the park's harsh cold and deep snows.

But when the first band of bison, 25 individuals, was allowed to head north towards the national forest this past January, 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 when efforts to haze it back onto the national forest failed, and the remaining bison were hazed back into the park.

So many bison tried to leave the park this winter that at one point some 600 animals -- nearly one-fifth of the park's bison population -- were held in Yellowstone's capture facility at Stephens Creek. The concern over bison roaming freely outside of Yellowstone is that some of the animals carry brucellosis, a disease that can cause livestock to abort their fetuses.

Under the agreement laid out Thursday, park bison will be allowed to roam roughly 13 miles north of the park to Yankee Jim Canyon, a natural pinch-point in the landscape. There a cattle guard has been installed across the highway to discourage bison from moving further north along the road, while fencing is to be erected on U.S. Forest Service land abutting the road to keep the bison more moving around the cattle guard.

At Defenders of Wildlife, Jonathan Proctor was optimistic that the agreement would lead to more tolerance for bison roaming wild in Montana.

"This is a move forward that I think most people would look at and say it makes a lot of sense," said Mr. Proctor, the wildlife advocacy group's Rocky Mountain regional representative.

How the agreement evolved is a little curious, both in light of the failed effort earlier this year to allow just 25 bison to roam north of the park, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's order in February that blocked the park from sending truckloads of bison to slaughter, and then his suggestion in early March that perhaps Yellowstone's bison herds could be culled inside the park to tamp down their numbers.

Mr. Proctor speculated that national opposition to continued slaughtering of Yellowstone bison, or of lines of hunters waiting for bison to step across the park's border only to be gunned down, as was the case not too many years ago, prompted the governor to seek a less contentious solution to how to handle the annual exodus of bison from the park.

While the governor said in February that he was banning shipments of bison to slaughter over concerns that even trucked bison might somehow spread brucellosis, Mr. Proctor wondered Thursday whether the governor simply was trying to avoid public outrage over the slaughter of Yellowstone bison.

"That’s what he said, but it’s clear it was to stop the impending slaughter," the Defenders representative said. "I believe Gov. Schweitzer just talked to some people behind the scenes and said it’s time to change things.

"Why we can’t let the bison roam up to Yankee Jim Canyon? There are only two very small cattle ranchers left in that area and they seem fine with the bison," continued Mr. Proctor. "They don’t seem to have a problem with letting the bison roam, they’ve said so in the press. And so why are we not allowing this? There’s really not much of a reason, so basically Scwhetizer just said things are going to change. And everybody else got on board. The Forest Service, the Park Service, they’re no fans of this hazing and slaughtering. They’re thrilled that this is ending, at least in the Gardiner Basin."

Under the agreement, any bison that somehow manage to get past the cattleguard will be gunned down, according to the Defenders representative.

"The fact that the governor said there will be zero tolerance for bison if they go beyond that, they will be shot -- not just hazed, but shot -- in a way has appeased ranchers further out into Paradise Valley," said Mr. Proctor.

Additionally, Montana officials are expected to allow a public hunt within the Gardiner basin to further manage the bison numbers, possibly with a goal of removing 400 animals a year from the herd.

How many Yellowstone bison might fit into those 75,000 acres -- much of which is on steep mountainsides that many bison probably won't venture up onto -- remains to be seen, although the Defenders representative said 1,000 might.

“There could easily be 1000 bison out there in a bad winter. If that happens, I’m almost certain that they will have a very liberal hunting season," said Mr. Proctor. "But you know, once again, it’s preferable to hazing, putting them in trucks, and shipping them to a slaughterhouse.”

Defenders has committed $50,000 to pay for fencing materials and other costs involved with making this project happen.

Comments

I think this is worth a try, but this is a corridor that already has wildlife - primarily mule deer - all over the road at night (and of course, during the day sometimes too). People are going to have to take warnings to **slow down!!** a little more seriously with bison potentially on the road as well.

What is not being shared, as I understand it - the source of this information is from a BFC call with FWP's Pat Flowers - is that this tolerance is from January until May 1. That is not being reported. Thus, this is not year-round habitat; it's mostly wintering habitat. Thus, there will still be a haze into the park.

As the Montana hunt begins November 15, this will also still essentially be a border shoot. Indeed, it is either way because the Gardiner basin does not allow for large areas of land that can be hunted. The vast majority of hunting happens on the Eagle Creek Plateau; many of those killed this year (and over 100 were north of the park - I saw many of the dead with my own eyes and saw several get killed) were only killed because government hazing operations drove buffalo up there. Buffalo can also be killed on smaller patches of national forest land near Corwin Springs. As for the rest, you simply don't see bison go up there (occasionally in the hills approaching Yankee Jim Canyon).

This plan has essentially been in effect for bulls the last half of the winter. We've had some opportunity to see what they do. Right now, there are some 200-300 bison not in captivity outside the park, the vast majority are in the small skinny stretch along the Yellowstone River. I can't say whether this area will actually hold 1,000 bison naturally (as opposed to the 1,000 that are there now in combination of captivity and on the land - being irregularly hazed from the Royal Teton Ranch (and would that still likely happen a lot, as that is a huge private landholder?)); I doubt it. There may be 1,000 bison able to live on it on it, but I tend to think they will keep trying to push north to the better habitat in the Paradise Valley.

Now, don't get me wrong! This is progress, of course. Winter tolerance over this area is much better than the horrors I've witnessed. And, without as much hazing into the hunt zone, it may actually be harder for hunters to harvest 400 animals (even with intense tribal hunting). Yet, I'm just troubled that the dates of tolerance have made it nowhere that I can find in the press (unless someone has information that Pat Flowers gave us the wrong answers), and I'm troubled that people will get the wrong idea that the basic problem with bison have changed (and remember that this changes nothing west of the park). It is better - who can doubt that - it's ultimately just changing the lines of a problem that essentially remains the same.

And, 400 bison dead a year is nothing to sneeze at; the number is not based on what's good for the herd but rather what's being demanded to keep bison out of the Paradise Valley. It's an arbitrary number based only on political whim.

Nevertheless, wintering habitat is still truly a great step (it does make one wonder why they bothered with the false step of the Royal Teton Ranch deal - a deal that essentially was implemented and imploded in 10 days - when they could have done this all along).

This agreement still doesn't address the fact that the cattle industry (which bears substantial responsibility for the buffalo's functional extinction) is being allowed to dictate rules that prevent the last wild bison from re-establishing their range on PUBLIC LAND. The area being opened to temporary access to the buffalo is very small, really only open during times when buffalo will be hunted, and is taken away as soon as the cattle are put back out. A just solution would allow the herd to grow and spread as rapidly as possible (while still allowing tribal hunting).

However, this is progress. In a few years, when buffalo still haven't infected a single cow with brucellosis (which will almost certainly be the case), we can finally kill the brucellosis lie which has been the cattle industry's biggest weapon in preventing the restoration of western rangeland ecosystems. Also, this new development is essentially an admission by the 5 agencies charged with managing the Yellowstone bison that their real goal is population control. As soon as the herd is large enough that they begin to migrate into Yakee Jim Canyon, their shot on-site. Its not the right thing to do, but at least its progress towards an honest debate.

Like "jsmcdonald," I have also witnessed the bison mismanagement in the Gardiner Basin, and also know that much of this 75,000 acres is not land that bison will access anyway (it's too steep). The real buffalo range is in the Paradise Valley, beyond Yankee Jim Canyon.

Thanks for reporting on this. NPT it one of the best places for news on the Yellowstone bison.