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A controversial measure that will allow 25 Yellowstone National Park bison to graze on land outside the park's North Entrance has been set in motion.

The Park Service corralled 23 bison on Tuesday that will be tested for exposure to brucellosis, a disease that can cause cattle to abort. An estimated 40 to 60 percent of Yellowstone's bison have been exposed to the disease.

Once enough bison — an estimated 60 to 80 — are captured that 25 test negative for exposure to brucellosis, those animals will be tagged, collared with GPS tracking devices and moved to 2,500 acres of Gallatin National Forest land. Female bison also will have intrauterine monitors inserted that would be activated if they give birth.

“This is progress. This is an important step forward,” said Al Nash, Yellowstone's chief of public affairs. “We, the National Park Service, have been clear that we are looking for increased tolerance for bison outside Yellowstone National Park.”

Sounding off

Some critics call the measure an expensive, contradictory and half-hearted way to meet the terms of the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which guides supervision of bison.

“Montana and Yellowstone both know that wild bison pose no economic nor disease threat to the state,” said Stephany Seay, a spokesperson with the bison advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign. “In fact, if protected, wild bison would enhance the ecological, economical and cultural health of the state, the nation and Native American buffalo cultures.”

Ranchers see it differently.

“We recognize that this was part of the IBMP compromise, so we anticipated this would happen eventually,” said Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “However we are more focused on the other part of Step 2 in the IBMP, which is the in-park vaccination of bison. We submitted extensive comments on the issue to the Park Service and hope Yellowstone National Park will move expeditiously to begin vaccination of bison.”

Grazing rights

Under a 2008 deal, the Church Universal and Triumphant was paid $3.3 million for a 30-year lease that allows bison to pass through its Royal Teton Ranch in Yankee Jim Canyon to reach forest land. The National Park Service and nongovernment groups paid the bulk of the fee with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks contributing $300,000.

The land wasn't used last year because few bison left the park. That's partly because there were fewer bison after 1,600 were killed by hunters and slaughtered in the winter of 2007-08. Last winter also was relatively mild.

Seay criticized confinement of the bison, saying the corrals increase the chances of injury to bison as well as the chance for transmission of disease.

“We prefer to limit our handling of wild animals,” Nash said, “but this is an important and necessary step for us to move forward.”

Buffalo Field Campaign also sees the measure as contradictory since elk are known carriers of brucellosis, yet are allowed to wander freely.

Snowy winter

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More than 3,900 bison were counted in Yellowstone this summer. The park received significant amounts of snow early in the fall, which could lock forage in ice and prompt bison to move out of the park. In the past, migrating bison have been hazed back into the park when they wander past the northern boundary near Gardiner. When those efforts fail, the bison are corralled at the Park Service's Stephens Creek capture facility. Once corralled, the bison that test positive for exposure to brucellosis have been sent to slaughter with the meat donated to food banks and American Indian tribes.

Nash said there is no “definable trigger” when the decision is made to corral, test and kill park bison.

Allowing the bison to utilize traditional winter range outside the park could eventually end the need for a bison slaughter, but ranchers and the state's Department of Livestock have resisted such moves. Cattle that test positive for brucellosis are a costly burden, requiring testing of the entire herd and slaughter of infected animals.

“We're looking at the long-term issue about bison and recognize that we are going to have to take initial steps to get to the desired long-term position,” Nash said.

To that end, once the 25 seronegative bison have been identified, they will be hazed toward the ranch and forest land. Once there, the bison will be monitored to see how they utilize the habitat. The other bison that test positive for exposure to brucellosis will be hazed back into the park.

“Our goal is to learn,” Nash said. “We don't know how the bison may use that land.”

Depending on what is learned, more untested bison could eventually be allowed on the land outside the park. The Interagency Bison Management Plan allows up to 100 bison to use the area. Nash isn't sure how long it might be before that many bison are allowed outside the northern park boundary. The state of Montana will make that call.

By spring, the 25 bison would be hazed back into the park, despite the fact that no cattle graze on the ranch or forest land. Nash said the decision on when to haze the bison will be made based on the condition of the animals and the land inside the park.

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