Montana and federal officials are negotiating a proposal to open a large area north of Yellowstone National Park to roaming bison during winter — a move that could sharply reduce pressure to slaughter the disease-bearing animals when they leave the park.
Officials from several agencies told The Associated Press Wednesday that behind-the-scenes discussions on the proposal have been taking place for about a month.
Montana Department of Livestock Executive Officer Christian Mackay said details could be ironed out as early as next week and officials are aiming to get the plan in place this winter.
An estimated 568 bison have been captured so far this winter during their migration into Montana. Many carry the disease brucellosis and have faced potential slaughter to prevent transmissions to livestock.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer last month ordered a 90-day ban on slaughter shipments. He says a better alternative is to create "buffer zones" around the park where bison could freely cross the Yellowstone-Montana border and be managed through more aggressive hunting.
For the past two decades most bison that entered Montana have been captured and slaughtered, hazed back into the park or shot by livestock agents, except in limited areas where they have been allowed to linger during the winter.
"Why treat the bison in this way? When they cross an imaginary line — boom boom boom — shoot them like a couch," Schweitzer said. "We're attempting to enlarge the area where bison are allowed to leave the park, within the constraints of keeping them away from livestock."
Schweitzer said hunting in the buffer zone eventually could be used to keep the park's bison population in check — to prevent herds from spilling into parts of Montana where they could potentially infect livestock.
The Democratic governor and other officials described a north side buffer stretching roughly 13 miles north of the park, encompassing the Gardiner Basin and ending at Yankee Jim Canyon along the Yellowstone River.
Schweitzer suggested a second buffer zone in the Madison River Valley, stretching west from the park border about 20 miles to Quake Lake. But other officials said that area has not factored into the recent discussions.
Park Superintendent Daniel Wenk already has rebuffed Schweitzer's suggestion to include parts of Yellowstone in the hunt area during a Tuesday meeting in Helena.
But Wenk and representatives of the U.S. Forest Service said they embraced the more immediate plan to allow bison to roam as far as Yankee Jim Canyon. Fences and other barriers would be erected to prevent the diseased bison from heading into the Paradise Valley, which has numerous cattle ranches
Forest Service spokeswoman Marna Daley said details on the barriers still need to be worked out. But she said the agency wants to give bison more room to roam.
"We're thrilled they're considering it," she said. "It is something we have stated for many years we would support."