HELENA — Two state agencies have released an environmental assessment regarding plans to let bison roam year-round in Montana to the north and west of Yellowstone National Park.
The idea of exploring where and when to possibly allow free-ranging bison in certain areas was raised about a year ago by a citizens’ advisory group. The state went through the public scoping process, where it received more than 3,500 comments that helped craft the current 120-page draft document, which was released late Friday.
The draft EA provides information and analysis to determine whether taking one of the proposed actions would result in a significant effect on both people and the landscape. Officials with the Montana Department of Livestock and Fish, Wildlife and Parks created the document. They note that one of the six alternatives, or a blend of them, could be adopted or the process could trigger a more in-depth environmental impact statement if additional information is deemed necessary.
Six potential scenarios that were laid out range from continuing to haze bison back into the park each spring to allowing some sort of limited room to roam, in some cases based on their sex. Currently, bison that migrate out of Yellowstone are hazed back into the park around May 15 each year as part of an effort to keep female bison away from cattle, due to the fear that when they give birth they can transmit brucellosis to cattle. The disease causes animals to abort their fetuses.
Regardless of which alternative may eventually be chosen, the EA notes that the divergence of opinions for bison management within Montana will remain complex and controversial.
“Those who have championed the cause for the reintroduction of bison to Montana’s landscape would likely see the proposed action for year-round bison as a positive impact …” the EA states. “However, those who want bison to remain within the boundaries of YNP and/or see the expansion of bison within Montana as a threat to livestock and agricultural industries would potentially view the implementation of this alternative as a major negative impact.
“Another view is that with the availability of new year-round habitat, the need for slaughter could be decreased, and bison using more of their historic range brings back a romantic image of the Old West.”
Pat Flowers, the FWP regional supervisor out of Bozeman, and Christian Mackay, the DOL director, said both state agencies didn’t come out with a preferred alternative because they want to hear from the public first about the range of proposals.
“I don’t think we have gone through the process where we can come out with a proposal that all the agencies agree on,” Flowers said. “We want to consider the affects of our analysis and the feedback.”
“We really want the public to weigh in on this one,” Mackay added.
Under the “No Action” alternative, bison would be confined to specific tolerance zones in the Gardiner and Hebgen basins during the winter and hazed back into YNP in May each year. On the northern boundary, when hazing is no longer effective, the National Park Service would continue to capture all migrating bison and keep them at the Stephens Creek facility up to its holding capacity. Captured bison that test positive for exposure to brucellosis would continue to be taken to slaughter.
This alternative isn’t expected to create any new impacts to the physical or human environments.
Under Alternative B, Yellowstone bulls could roam year-round in the Gardiner Basin and both sexes could use portions of the Gallatin National Forest near West Yellowstone. The area where they could roam totals 421,821 acres, including 141,870 currently used seasonally by bison.
Those areas for both sexes include portions of the Gallatin National Forest west and northwest of the park boundary, including Horse Butte, the Madison Flats, south of U.S. Hwy 20, Monument Mountain Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, Cabin Creek Wildlife and Recreation Area, and Upper Gallatin River corridor to Buck Creek.
Yellowstone bull bison could use habitat on Forest Service and other lands north of the park boundary and south of Yankee Jim Canyon year-round. Bison would be prohibited from traveling north by the mountain ridge tops between Dome Mountain/Paradise Valley and the Gardiner Basin on the east side of the Yellowstone River, and Tom Miner Basin and the Gardiner Basin on the west side of the Yellowstone River.
With this alternative, additional surveys would be undertaken to determine the bison’s natural routes and timetables for moving in and out of the park, as well as within their year-round habitats.
It’s anticipated that a few bison would move beyond the defined year-round habitat’s boundaries because the bison wouldn’t be familiar with the new area and would be hazed back. If they don’t respond to the hazing, they would be shot.
Alternative C proposes also allowing Yellowstone bison to use Gallatin National Forest lands known as Horse Butte and north along the U.S. Highway 191 corridor north to Buck Creek, but is a smaller geographic area to the north than Alternative B. It covers about 255,714 acres.
Alternative D proposes an even smaller year-round habitat on Gallatin National Forest lands near West Yellowstone on Horse Butte and Madison Flats, and a small area along U.S. Highway 8. These areas encompass approximately 37,870 acres and were identified in 2000 as Zone 2.
Alternative E is similar to Alternative D, but even smaller, with year-round roaming only on 11,500 acres on Horse Butte.
Alternative F would allow only bulls to use existing bison-tolerant areas year-round within the Gardiner Basin, which includes about 104,000 acres between the northern boundary of the park and the southern entrance to Yankee Jim Canyon. Again, bison would be prohibited from traveling across the ridge between Dome Mountain/Paradise Valley and the Gardiner Basin on the east side of the Yellowstone River, and Tom Miner basin and the Gardiner Basin on the west side of the Yellowstone River.
Mackay notes that they already allow bison to roam year-round in the Eagle Creek and Bear Creek area north of Gardiner.
He said his agency has some concern about letting bison roam on the west side of the park in Montana because it’s a much different landscape and more difficult to keep them from traveling even farther.
The draft EA lists the pros and cons of free-roaming bison, noting that while it may increase hunting opportunities and create enhanced opportunities for viewing wildlife, it also could pose additional management problems including property damage and conflicts with humans and pets.
Steps would be taken to mitigate impacts to public safety, recreation and livestock, including addition signage, public education and outreach, bison-resistant fencing and appropriate bison management to decrease bison-human conflicts.
“There’s a lot of discussion that has to happen and consideration of the pros and cons,” Flowers said. “We laid those out as clearly as we could do.”