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Yellowstone bison
A Yellowstone bison ambles through a snowstorm in the park.

Yellowstone’s iconic wild bison received an early winter solstice gift from the Gallatin National Forest: permanent closure of the Horse Butte public grazing allotment.

This is huge, wonderful news for America’s only continuously wild bison population.

Horse Butte is a large, cattle-free peninsula that juts into Hebgen Lake on the west side of Yellowstone National Park. The butte has broad, exposed, south-facing slopes that green up early in the year. As such, many bison leave snow-covered Yellowstone and migrate to Horse Butte in the spring to graze and give birth.

But current bison-management regulations under the Interagency Bison Management Plan prevent bison from occupying Horse Butte after May 15. Instead, bison have been needlessly hazed from Horse Butte back into the park with helicopters, horses, ATVs, and snowmobiles. A lot of time, resources and your taxpayer dollars are unnecessarily wasted along the way.

Scrap hazing deadline

The ostensible justification for the deadline is a fear that wild bison may transmit brucellosis — a disease that causes pregnant animals to abort — to domestic cattle. Such fear is unfounded, however, because Horse Butte is cattle-free, and thus no risk of brucellosis transmission from wild bison to cattle exists whatsoever there.

The permanent closure of the U.S. Forest Service’s Horse Butte grazing allotment should be the final straw for the May 15 hazing deadline on Horse Butte.

While the grazing allotment has been vacant for eight years and Horse Butte has been cattle-free for multiple years, the Horse Butte allotment was still technically open and hanging out there. Now it’s closed. Forever.

The suitability analysis for the allotment prepared by District Ranger Lauren Turner found that the “Horse Butte peninsula is used by bison. Consequently, cattle grazing in this area may contribute to the controversy associated with bison management and could be perceived as a barrier to year-round bison use of Horse Butte peninsula. Some believe that if cattle are not on Horse Butte, then bison would be allowed to use the area all season long. Removing cattle from Horse Butte would allow the opportunity for this discussion to proceed and focus on resolving any safety, private property or other concerns that exist on the butte relative to bison.”

District Ranger Turner ultimately concluded that “[t]his allotment has high value for rare plants and wildlife, including grizzly bears, bald eagles and bison, and there is no demand for domestic livestock grazing. Therefore, the recommendation is to close it permanently.”

‘High wildlife values’

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On Nov. 17, Mary Erickson, Gallatin National Forest Supervisor, agreed with Turner’s recommendation and permanently closed the allotment. In her closure letter, Erickson directly stated that “this allotment is not viable given the inherently high wildlife values in this area” and “[t]his decision will help reduce potential conflicts with wildlife and sensitive plants on Horse Butte.”

With its permanent closure, Horse Butte is now totally devoid of cattle and grazing allotments. Furthermore, none of the private residents on Horse Butte run cattle there. Quite to the contrary, many of them want to see wild bison free to migrate to Horse Butte year-round (and don’t want government agents trampling their property rights to needlessly haze bison to protect cattle that literally don’t exist).

No longer can anyone try to justify an arbitrary hazing deadline on Horse Butte without his or her face blushing redder than the hair of a newborn bison calf. Thank you, Supervisor Erickson, District Ranger Turner, and the Gallatin National Forest.

The path for Horse Butte to become year-round bison habitat is now crystal clear. It’s time for the Interagency Bison Management Plan agencies to act.

Matt Skoglund is a wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston.

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