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