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.