Opinion | It's Time For Year-Round Bison Habitat In Montana

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A coalition of organizations says it's time for bison to be allowed to roam free in Montana./Marcelle Shoop

Editor's note: As officials from Montana, Wyoming, and the National Park Service continue to work towards a solution for bison that roam outside of Yellowstone National Park, a group of non-profit organizations is calling for Montana to allow bison to roam in their state year-round. This opinion piece first appeared in The Bozeman Chronicle.

Along with the arrival of songbirds and sandhill cranes, a Montana spring brings a surge of news stories and controversy as wild bison leave Yellowstone National Park in search of grass and calving grounds outside the park. This year, one important story line is Montana’s consideration of a proposal to significantly expand the year-round habitat available to wild bison from Yellowstone in Montana. (Another story line is that bison are fleeing Yellowstone because they know that the Yellowstone super volcano is about to blow. Please, for everyone’s sake, ignore that one.)

On behalf of our organizations and our thousands of members and supporters in Montana and millions nationwide, we fully support year-round wild bison habitat in Montana. Giving wild bison from Yellowstone access to year-round habitat in Montana is long overdue and would help break the endless cycle of controversy surrounding this important wildlife issue.

The controversy and conflict – which includes taxpayer-funded slaughter and hazing of wild bison – stem from a disease called brucellosis, which can cause infected pregnant animals to miscarry. Cattle introduced brucellosis into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem about a century ago, and some wild bison and elk still carry it. The livestock industry is concerned about wild bison transmitting the disease to livestock. Such a transmission has never been documented, but the potential, although incredibly small, exists.

Over the last decade, several changes have created an opportunity to write a new story for bison in Montana. With retired grazing allotments and fewer cows on the landscape, there are tens of thousands of acres of public land where there are no potential conflicts with cattle ever. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made sweeping changes to the brucellosis regulations a few years ago, and the regulations are now more reasonable and livestock-producer-friendly.

All of these recent changes are why a diverse group of Montanans got together a couple of years ago to suggest a better way forward for bison management. It was clear that the old ways of bison management needed to be updated. The Yellowstone Bison Citizens Working Group, which was supported by the State of Montana as well as the state’s federal and tribal partners in Yellowstone bison management, came to a consensus agreement supporting a significant expansion in year-round habitat in Montana.

The state responded by issuing a proposal last summer that includes a range of options, including the designation of significant year-round habitat. More than 99 percent of the more than 100,000 comments support increased year-round habitat.

But several months have passed since the public weighed in, and no decision has been made yet. Negotiations are taking place between the Montana Department of Livestock and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The board that oversees the livestock agency wants to see the Yellowstone bison population drastically reduced and capped before it will agree to year-round tolerance.

It is a difficult process to observe. Science, economics, public opinion, and common sense make clear that opening up significant year-round bison habitat in areas without livestock conflicts is the logical path forward. Doing so would give the state more management options and flexibility. More fair-chase hunting opportunities would be created. Fewer taxpayer dollars would be wasted on unnecessary hazing, capture, and slaughter. Negative publicity for the state of Montana would be reduced. Wild bison would finally be allowed to roam a tiny sliver of Montana, bringing with them ecological and economic benefits, managed as wildlife, sharing the landscape with all of the other wild critters that call Montana home.

The proposal for significant year-round habitat is not an either-or choice between wildlife or livestock that would benefit one at the expense of the other; it would be a step forward for all Montanans. No compelling reasons have been advanced for not moving forward with significant year-round habitat in Montana. In fact, to not move forward – given all of the major recent changes – would be a great setback and failure for the state.

We urge the governor of Montana and the wildlife and livestock agencies that report to him to do what science and the public have demanded: allow for year-round habitat for wild bison in Montana.

It is time.

Matt Skoglund represents the Natural Resources Defense Council; Caroline Byrd, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition; Bonnie Rice, the Sierra Club; Glenn Hockett, the Gallatin Wildlife Association; Steve Forrest, the Defenders of Wildlife; Bart Melton, the National Parks Conservation Association; and Joe Gutkoski, with the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation


If this proposal is not implemented then there is only one other way that these majestic bison will ever return to their homeland, that is for people to boycott the livestock industry. If enough people buy no meat, leather, lamb or wool, it will not take long for ranchers to take notice they no longer control public policy on public lands. Money is the ultimate equalizer.

There are many other options for protein such as chicken, turkey, protein powders and wild fish. For too long, ranchers have decided whether native species such as bison shall return to their native habitat. Between 30 to 60 million bison lived on the great plains just 130 years ago, today only 3,000 remain. For too long, these wild bison have been treated worse than cattle, confined to Yellowstone NP where if they leave are subject to slaughter by the American government.

We know that 95% of livestock deaths are due to weather, starvation, and illnesses and that there has never been one documented case of Bruceollisis transmission from bison to cattle. The potential transmission from elk to cattle is astronomically higher. A free roaming bison herd would be another accomplishment in returning a native species to its homeland.

Thank you Gary H. , I agree. A very impressive coalition supporting this effort. Hope they can do it.

Will you guys indemnify the areas cattle?

EC, I am not well enough informed to do that on this issue, I did work in Yellowstone in 1968-69, great job. It was a huge issue then. I did want to respond to your question on sources regarding "Laissez- Faire", economics I posted some books that explore the issue in depth, but know you are still working in a competitive field. If you get the time, start with Naomi Kline, "The Shock Doctrine", she is highly thought of in the circles that are concerned about the issue at least by those that are opposed to our current economic policies. She presents a very interesting perspective.

Ron, I enjoy talking with you as you are much more civil than some of your compatriots. However, you suffer from the same bias. You were all in with Gary but when pressed admit " I am not well enough informed to do that on this issue". You supported Gary because you like the concept of "rewilding" but have no real feel for the facts.

Similarly you have pointed to numerous books, but when asked to cite specific atrosities these books supposedly exposed, you defer making me think perhaps you haven't even read these books but instead heard somewhere what you wanted to hear - i.e. that they condemned corporate America.

Actions have consequences and one should not blindly take action (or inaction) without understanding and balancing the potential consequences.

Gary H, thank you again for the post. It is a very difficult issue, I know when I worked in Yellowstone in the late 1960's we were concerned about winter range for the Bison. In Yosemite National Park, it is a huge issue as well. Winter range for migrating wildlife is limited now due to increasing development in the Sierra foothill areas. It is encouraging that that such a creditable group of organizations is taking on the issue.

ecc--Why indemnify cattle from contact from bison? Montana doesn't do it for elk and it is much more likely that elk are the transmittters of bruceollisis than are bison.


Rick, Because elk are already free roaming around the country. Nobody is looking to newly expand their range.

Well, I learned that "range" means where animals go. If during the winter, bison leave the park for lower elevations, that is their range. If they are afraid of disease transmission, ranchers should keep their cattle out of this range until later in the spring when most of the bison will return to the park. Those that don't will be hunted anyway. Of course, Montana will continue to ignore the most likely disease vector, elk, because of the enormous money it makes from selling out-of-state elk permits.

As Ron says, this is a very complicated issue and this has been a good discussion of it.


If they are afraid of disease transmission, ranchers should keep their cattle out of this range until later in the spring when most of the bison will return to the park.

Without knowing the impact on the ranchers - and the consequent cost of meat - its hard to fully endorse that idea but it certainly is worthy of consideration. But somehow, I don't think that is what is meant by expanding "significant year-round habitat".

Cattle ranchers have refused to "clean-up" their business to protect consumers

from food borne illnesses and to respect wildlife. Both MadCow Disease threats

and E-Coli Contamination persist; visit:


and http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2013/12/ten_years_ago_this_week_mad_co.html

Boycotts require effective communications and team work, but Americans

will be healthier by reducing their consumption of beef which is currently

priced very high.

Their spokesmen in the Nevada Bundy incidents should inform voters that

these ranchers have no respect for public lands and given the facts of

cattle's role in trashing both arid range vegetation and stream water quality

public lands should not be leased for livestock grazing especially given the low

fees ranchers actually pay; thus, this use is taxpayer subsidized.


Cattle ranchers have refused to "clean-up" their business to protect consumers

from food borne illnesses and to respect wildlife. Both MadCow Disease threats

and E-Coli Contamination persist; visit:

From 1996 to 2012 there were three cases of Mad Cow Disease effecting humans in the US and e-coli is not a ranchers responsibility it is a risk after slaughter.


I don't know what your agenda is but relying on facts certainly isn't part of it.

If you don't want to eat beef, fine, don't eat it. Leave the 300 million of us that do alone.


Actually, that _is_ what is meant by "significant year-round habitat". Year round habitat for Yellowstone bison means lower elevations (mostly outside the park boundaries) in winter/spring, then the bison migrate back to the higher elevations in the park for the summer & fall. Domestic cattle could graze on the public lands (mostly forest service) surrounding Yellowstone starting after the bison migrate to higher elevations. I think that winter habitat for bison is a more important use of the public lands than cattle grazing by ranchers; you might disagree. [The impact on beef prices would be negligible: <1%.]

Quite a few mammal species require different habitats in different seasons, even in North America. Some like grizzly bears can move short distances among a mosaic of habitats all found within a large park or protected area. Plains bison migrated 200-400 miles to the north in the spring and back south in the fall, following the grass and temperatures (not any more, obviously). Yellowstone bison migrate up in the late spring and down in the fall/winter, again, following temperatures and vegetation. Pronghorns also migrate long distances (100-200 miles each way), which means that their persistence in National Parks is dependent on land use and protection in surrounding corridors (including crossing the border in Organ Pipe & Agua Prieta for the desert bighorn).

Other species have even longer seasonal migrations (e.g., neotropical migratory birds, monarch butterflies, several bat species, whales). For them, protection of the wintering habitat matters, but they spend relatively little time in transit and can fly past barriers, so habitat along the corridors is much less important (whales have continuous ocean).

And, of course, sub-Saharan Africa is known for massive long range seasonal migrations of many large grazing mammals.

" Year round habitat for Yellowstone bison means lower elevations (mostly outside the park boundaries) in winter/spring, then the bison migrate back to the higher elevations in the park for the summer & fall."

Isn't that what currently happens? The article above sure sounds like they want to make more property available year round.


Looks like the sound of the article was correct.

The Montana Board of Livestock indefinitely postponed action on a plan that would have allowed year-round grazing of bison in Montana outside Yellowstone National Park.


More on the cattle ranchers vs native Bison's survival:

When Michael Pollan spoke at WSU, Pullman, WA. big agribusiness vetoed

his presentation via the University's biased Administration; so, Pollan's talk was

funded by an attorney who is an alumnus working in food borne illness Law.





mi3cli, tomp2, thank you both for the very informative posts.

thank you both for the very informative posts.

So it doesn't bother you that they were inaccurate/misleading?

ec--I know you and I have different political viewpoints and that's fine. Such disagreements have been present since the time we were 13 colonies instead of a nation. But what I don't understand is your failure to give people credit for their points of view. To dismiss them as misleading or inaccurate suggests that only your opinion could possibly be correct. I do not often agree with you, but I don't think my opinion is the only prisim through which one can view the political or, in the case of NPT, the consevation landscape.


To dismiss them as misleading or inaccurate suggests that only your opinion could possibly be correct.

I didn't just dismiss them - I provided the evidence they weren't true. m13cli claimed ranchers had failed "to clean up their businesses" citing mad cow disease and e coli and I showed that there have been a miniscule number of mad cow cases in humans and e coli is transmitted during/after slaughter - not while in the ranchers domain. That's not "opinion" that is fact.

Similarly, tomp2 indicated there was no effort to expand year-round buffalo grazing outside of Yellowstone. I provided evidence that is exactly what was being attempted. Again, not opinion, just fact.

If there is anyone being dismissive, it is those that dismiss the facts because they don't conform with the targeted outcome.