Bison from Yellowstone National Park would be allowed to remain year-round in new areas of Montana if their numbers were reduced below recent levels, according to a proposal up for a Tuesday vote by the state Board of Livestock.
The draft proposal would allow bison, also known as buffalo, to roam year-round across more than 400,000 acres in Montana whenever the population totals 3,300 or fewer animals. That includes some areas without any bison now, such as the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River, and other locations where the animals have been allowed only during winter.
But bison movements would be increasingly restricted when the number of animals is higher. For example, if the population exceeds 4,000 animals, no new areas would be open to bison.
Wildlife advocates have lobbied for decades to allow more bison to migrate from the park during winter. Yet Montana's livestock industry has opposed lifting bison restrictions because of worries about disease and competition between bison and cattle for grazing space.
State veterinarian Marty Zaluski said the latest proposal aims to ensure that bison in new areas don't add to existing problems, such as the risk of disease transmissions to cattle and conflicts with private property owners.
David Hallac, Yellowstone's chief scientist, said he had not received the state's proposal until Monday and would need time to review it.
A representative of a conservation group that wants more bison hunting opportunities said state officials should focus on how many bison could live in Montana, not how many should be in Yellowstone.
"They're trying to assert authority over a national park," said Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. "It's irrelevant if there's 10,000 bison in the park in my mind. It's what your tolerance is for bison in Montana."
Park biologists counted 4,600 Yellowstone bison last summer. That was before hunting and shipments of bison to slaughter removed more than 630 of the animals over the past several months.
The population last dropped below 3,300 in 2009, after more than 1,600 bison were captured and shipped to slaughter or killed by hunters during the prior winter. The capture and slaughter program operates under a 2000 agreement between state and federal officials that sharply limits the animals' periodic migrations into Montana.
The proposal to link bison movements to population size was developed jointly by the Department of Livestock and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It came after livestock board members in January said population numbers needed to be considered when deciding where bison should be allowed in the state.
Population levels would be determined through an annual count conducted after hunting and other population reduction activities were over for the winter and prior to the spring calving season.
State officials said the proposal is a draft document that livestock board members can alter.