Guest opinion: Montana can have cattle and bison, too

2013-09-17T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Montana can have cattle and bison, tooBy HANK FISCHER The Billings Gazette
September 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

State and federal agencies that manage bison in and around Yellowstone National Park are poised to remedy a sorry situation that has heaped national disgrace on Montana. I’m speaking of the sometimes brutal hazing of bison back into the park by helicopters, four-wheelers and horses under a policy that treats this iconic American animal worse than any rancher would treat his domestic livestock.

A proposal now on the table would allow bison to roam in key areas outside the park on a year-round basis, negating much of the harassment.

Cattle, bison and elk share certain diseases, most notably brucellosis. Montana needs to manage the bison/brucellosis issue the same way it handles the brucellosis concern with elk: focus on separation at the time of year when the potential for disease transmittal is highest – when each are having their young. Wild bison and cattle can – and in at least one other state do – coexist in the same landscape. It’s a false choice to say if we are going to have cattle, we can’t have bison.

Horrors of hazing

Most of Yellowstone Park lies above 6,000 feet in elevation. Deep snows and harsh winters force bison to lower elevation outside the park boundaries. The bison often remain outside the park boundaries – primarily on public lands – into the spring when they give birth to their calves.

Right in the midst of the birthing season, Montana’s Department of Livestock starts the hazing. It can be a real horror show: newborn bison calves bawling as they search for their mothers, and calves suffering broken legs or worse in the mayhem. Female bison in the final stages of pregnancy are often driven long distances by helicopters and ATVs.

The National Wildlife Federation has been actively working with Yellowstone livestock producers for more than a decade to resolve this conflict. We have negotiated grazing allotment retirement agreements with ranchers on several key parcels of public land that provide important winter habitat. In partnership with Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, we negotiated an agreement that resolves livestock conflicts on the Royal Teton Ranch, a key piece of private land in the bison migration corridor north of the park by Gardiner.

NWF pays willing ranchers fair-market value when they agree to retire an allotment, resolving wildlife-livestock conflicts on a win-win basis. These agreements have been instrumental in making more than 400,000 acres of public land adjacent to Yellowstone Park available to bison with little or no risk of contact with cattle.

U.S. Department of Agriculture rules involving how agencies must manage brucellosis have changed dramatically, so the consequences of a disease outbreak are much less onerous.

Montana FWP plan

The state and federal plan for managing Yellowstone’s bison requires agencies adapt their management in response to changes. That’s why Montana FWP recently issued a plan including alternatives that would allow bison to roam outside of Yellowstone Park without harassment. This plan has been a long time coming.

The state of Montana has the opportunity to adopt a new policy that would allow bison to roam year-round in key areas outside the park. The decision comes down to a choice between wallowing in conflict or resolving it.

What’s more, allowing bison to range over a larger landscape will allow for improved population control through regulated, fair-chase hunting, which is possible only outside park boundaries. It’s far better to have Montana sportsmen and tribal members keep bison in balance with available forage than it is for government agencies to do the job through quarantine and slaughter.

Bison now have more room to roam outside Yellowstone with minimal conflict with livestock. It’s time Montana’s bison management reflected that reality. It’s time for Montana to treat bison as the valued native wildlife species they are.

Hank Fischer works for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula.

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