The plan could end the annual capture and shipping to slaughter of many of the bison that leave the park each winter in search of food and may help set the stage for restoring the animals to other parts of the state, according to the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, which has committed funds to the effort.
The eight partners of the Interagency Bison Management Plan are hosting an open house to discuss changes to the plan tonight at 5 pm in Gardiner, Montana.
The cooperating agencies are the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Montana Department of Livestock, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the InterTribal Buffalo Council, the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, and the Nez Perce Tribe.
Bison cow and newborn calf in Yellowstone National Park, May 2010 (Photo by Michael Cramer Madison)
The stated goals of the Interagency Bison Management Plan are to maintain a wild, free-ranging bison population; reduce the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle; manage bison that leave Yellowstone National Park and enter the state of Montana; and maintain Montana's brucellosis-free status for domestic livestock.
Brucellosis is an abortive disease that can spread amongst species, but there has never been a documented case of transmission from bison to cattle, and the two species do not occupy the same area during birthing season.
"The agreement reached between state, federal and tribal wildlife managers to allow wild bison to roam Montana's Gardiner Basin outside Yellowstone National Park is an important step forward," said Jonathan Proctor, Rocky Mountain Region representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
"For decades, pressure has been building in Montana and around the country for an alternative to slaughtering bison that leave the park in search of food during harsh winters," he said.
But in the past Montana has always objected to allowing bison to roam into the state, fearing that its ranching industry would lose its valuable brucellosis-free status.
The proposed bison plan would open 75,000 acres in southern Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park, to bison during winter months. A cattle guard has already been installed to prevent bison from traveling beyond Yankee Jim Canyon, a narrow spot at the north end of the basin. A short fence is soon to be built.
The plan includes a provision to allow expanded public bison hunting as an alternative to sending the animals to slaughter.
Defenders of Wildlife has committed at least $50,000 for fencing and related costs for projects to help restore bison to tribal lands and Montana's Gardiner Basin.
Over the past two decades, more than 6,800 bison have been sent to slaughter in Montana after migrating beyond the park boundaries.
This year, however, when hundreds of bison began leaving the park in search of food, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer issued an executive order that prohibited the shipping of bison into Montana through May 15. Since then, 600 bison are being kept in a capture facility and are expected to be released into the park later this spring.
In his executive order, Governor Schweitzer said, "Over ten years management under the current court-ordered Interagency Bison Management Plan has resulted in no reduction in the prevalence of brucellosis in bison, nor has it resulted in a sustainable population control model for Yellowstone bison."
"Ranchers' concerns about potential conflicts with cattle do not justify the mismanagement of bison that has been going on for years," Proctor said. "Those are workable issues, and with a little extra effort we can help protect cattle without confining bison to Yellowstone National Park. This plan provides a path forward that will help demonstrate that it is possible to live with bison outside of the park."
"Governor Schweitzer is well positioned to be the first governor in the history of the country to restore bison as wildlife in a meaningful way," Proctor said. "We thank Governor Schweitzer for his leadership and all the state, federal and tribal agencies involved for their efforts to create some space for wild bison in Montana."
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