Montana officials are pushing ahead with a plan to let Yellowstone National Park bison roam more freely within a sprawling river basin formerly off limits to the disease-carrying animals because of livestock industry concerns.
The move is aimed at ending a dispute on Yellowstone bison that has resulted in almost 4,000 of the animals being hauled to slaughter since 2000. It will allow at least some of the animals to carry out their natural migration to lower elevations outside the park during harsh winters.
Bison will be allowed within the Gardiner Basin, which straddles the Yellowstone River and stretches roughly 13 miles north of the park, a top aide to Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Thursday.
Bison that go any farther — entering the Paradise Valley south of Livingston — would be shot by state officials, said Mike Volesky, the Democratic governor's natural resources adviser. He also said that if too many of the animals crowd into the basin they could be hazed back into the park.
"This doesn't mean they turn open the gates and let a bunch of bison loose," Volesky said. "It's a limited amount (of habitat) and how many bison can be there will be dictated by how much grass there is and the snowpack."
But a Republican lawmaker said Thursday that the Schweitzer administration was letting "a creeping cancer" into Montana by opening new areas to bison.
"You can't have free roaming buffalo in a society like we have today, it doesn't work," said Sen. John Brenden, a Republican from Scobey, who has a measure pending in the Montana Legislature to largely prohibit free-ranging bison across the state
An earlier effort to give more room to the park's iconic bison herds ended in failure this year when 25 of the animals refused to stay within 2,500 acres of dedicated habitat within the Gallatin National Forest. The Gardiner Basin is estimated to be roughly 10 times larger, which state officials say should give them more flexibility in their dealings with bison.
More than 600 bison have been captured trying to leave the park this year.
They faced impending slaughter until Schweitzer put a 90 day ban any shipments of the animals to packing plants outside the Yellowstone region, which includes portions of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Park officials have since said that most of the animals will be held for release in the spring, when they would be expected to return to the park as the snowpack melts. However, the fate of about 250 bison that tested positive for exposure to the disease brucellosis remains unknown.
Roughly half the park's approximately 3,500 bison carry the disease, which could potentially infect livestock causing pregnant cattle to abort their young. No bison-to-cattle transmissions have been recorded.
U.S. Department of Agriculture brucellosis rules have been eased in recent months, with ranchers no longer required to slaughter entire cattle herds if just a few animals get infected.
Construction began this week on a cattle guard along Montana Highway 89 to block the bison's route out of the Gardiner basin through an area known as Yankee Jim Canyon. Plans still are being hashed out to connect the cattle guard with fencing that would be built on adjacent public land controlled by the U.S. Forest Service.
Spokeswoman Andi Falsetto said the Gallatin National Forest needs to conduct environmental reviews of the fencing, but supports opening more of the landscape around Yellowstone to bison.
She said an agreement on the issue is being worked out between state and federal agencies involved in bison management — the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture and Montana Departments of Livestock and Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"Whatever they end up coming up with for this current adaptive management change, we will accommodate it and make sure it can happen on Forest Service land," Falsetto said.
Conservation groups have long pushed for greater tolerance for Yellowstone bison.
"If you're looking at the landscape, (Yankee Jim Canyon) is the natural barrier right there," said Peter Bogusko with the Buffalo Field Campaign, a bison advocacy group. "We'd like to see more habitat than that, but it's an obvious choice, a good choice."
But some lawmakers, livestock industry representatives and ranchers around Yellowstone remain skeptical about letting bison roam freely.
At a state Senate hearing Thursday, supporters of Brenden's bill to restrict the animals' movements said there would be no way to stop free-roaming bison from busting through fences and coming on private land.
The measure cleared the Senate last month, and must now pass several votes in the House before it could go to the governor to sign. Brenden carried a similar measure last session that also cleared the Senate but then died in a House committee.
Opponents to the measure included Fish Wildlife and Parks Director Joe Maurier. He said bison have been neglected by conservation efforts and the genetically pure Yellowstone buffalo are a treasure to be protected.