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The Board of Livestock meets on Monday and Tuesday in Helena. On the agenda for Tuesday is the bison environmental assessment for year-round tolerance. Approval of the measure would allow bison to more freely roam outside of Yellowstone National Park on the west side, mainly on Gallatin National Forest land.

Christian Mackay, executive director of the Montana Department of Livestock, told the Environmental Quality Council on Thursday that the DOL plans to hold Yellowstone officials’ “feet to the fire” and only allow the expansion of the tolerance zone if the bison population is kept at a lower level, 3,300 animals or less. The Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks is in agreement with the DOL. FWP director Jeff Hagener told the EQC that FWP’s intent is to require the park to meet the objective.

At its March meeting, the Livestock Board rejected the initial proposal, saying they wanted more details and feedback from the cattle industry.

Lowering the bison population to that level would require the removal of about 1,000 or more bison. The park’s bison population hit 4,600 last year but was reduced by about 630 over the winter as bison were shipped to slaughter, diverted to testing programs and killed by state and tribal hunters.

Speaking of bison, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks is seeking a new home for about 140 disease-free Yellowstone bison that have been held on Ted Turner’s Green Ranch. A contract to hold the animals is expiring and the department has to find the bison someplace to go.

Out of 10 applications seeking the bison, Hagener told the EQC that the Fort Peck tribe has submitted a bid to take the animals, as has the American Prairie Reserve, both of which already have bison herds in Eastern Montana. Out-of-state tribes are also seeking the animals, as has the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is seeking 30 bison for a captive-breeding program to supply zoos in the United States.

“The question we have to answer is are we giving up a public trust asset and can we do that,” Hagener said.

FWP was previously sued by wildlife advocates for transferring bison to Turner’s ranch for holding under an agreement that he would get to keep a portion of the offspring. The groups said it was a violation of the public trust. The bison have to be moved by Nov. 15.

FWP will also soldier on in its development of a Montana bison management plan with a draft environmental impact statement possible by this fall and a decision by spring of 2015, Hagener told the EQC.

“We expect to get a tremendous amount of comments,” he said.

EQC chairman Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, said out of state comments should be ignored.

“They have no skin in the game,” he said.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.