Bison allowed to roam outside of Yellowstone; Ranchers respond
December 31, 2015
On Dec. 22, Montana Governor Steve Bullock announced the decision to allow bison to roam the perimeter of Yellowstone National Park year-round, a change that has alarmed and outraged many area ranchers. The decision will expand the roaming ground by 400 square miles.
In a press release, Bullock explained his decision saying, "This decision is a very modest expansion of the conditions under which bison may remain outside of the Park, in response to changing science and changing circumstances on the ground. While at the same time I am confident our livestock industry is protected. Further, I remain committed to continuing to pressure the Park Service to reduce the bison population in the Park, and keep those numbers to manageable levels."
The decision is an adaptive management adjustment to the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), established in 2000 in coordination with five agencies including Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Montana Department of Livestock, National Park Service, United States Forest Service – Custer Gallatin National Forest, and United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Despite Bullock's reassurances, many in the livestock industry are speaking out against the decision, arguing that the ramifications of the year-round presence of bison outside of Yellowstone could be detrimental to not only livestock producers, but the environment, as well.
“The large bison herd creates multiple problems. First, they are eating everything in sight; the riparian areas are gone, and there are no deciduous trees left. With more bison occupying areas outside of the park, it takes away pasture land for livestock; plus, it impacts the habitat for other species like moose, beavers and even birds.” Bob Sitz, Montana rancher
"The Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFFB) members have expressed their concerns over this decision, and we will continue to contest this in the future," said John Youngberg, MFFB executive vice president. "We have three major concerns about the implementation of this decision: risk, cost and the precedent it sets."
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Youngberg says the risk of brucellosis continues to grow, particularly as the bison herd numbers expand. The herd is supposed to be controlled at a 2,500 cap; however, he says the bison numbers currently are well over 5,000 head.
"We understand that APHIS has downgraded the incidence of the disease over the years," said Youngberg. "However, the truth is, as these bison are allowed to occupy habitat outside of Yellowstone's perimeter, the risk of exposure of brucellosis to cattle increases. Outside of Montana, state veterinarians will decide whether or not to allow cattle from our state to cross into their borders; already, Texas has placed a quarantine on Montana cattle."
Youngberg's second concern – cost – is highlighted by the amount of funding that is needed to test cattle for brucellosis, manage the herds, and maintain the areas that these animals roam to throughout the year.
"The governor says this decision will be less costly to implement; however, we don't see that," said Youngberg. "Managing these bison outside of the park year-round allows the herds to move to a lot of places. The Department of Livestock doesn't have the money to fund this. I'm certain the livestock industry isn't going to want to fund the extra costs. And even though hunting and fishing licenses have increased in price, I doubt many of the state's hunters and anglers will want their licensing dollars to be allocated to managing the bison residing outside of the park's borders."
Youngberg's third concern is the precedent this decision sets.
"If we don't control the number of bison in the area, the herd will continue to outgrow the area they are allowed to be in," said Youngberg. "As long as the public continues to complain about slaughtering bison, the reality is the situation isn't going to get any better. The geography outside of the park is very similar to what is in Yellowstone's borders; during the winter, there won't be much feed available. The good areas are on private land where the bison aren't allowed to go. Ultimately, we don't think the governor listened to our concerns, and we are extremely disappointed. We believe this decision will only exacerbate the problem."
For Bob Sitz, of Sitz Angus Ranch in Harrison, Mont., this is a multi-faceted issue that has directly impacted his ranch, as well as the neighboring outfits in his area.
"We live in the designated surveillance area, which runs from Laurel to Dillon and includes everything below I-90," said Sitz. "The large bison herd creates multiple problems. First, they are eating everything in sight; the riparian areas are gone, and there are no deciduous trees left. With more bison occupying areas outside of the park, it takes away pasture land for livestock; plus, it impacts the habitat for other species like moose, beavers and even birds."
Sitz believes bison grazing needs to held to the same standard as livestock grazing, meaning if an area is destroyed by overgrazing, someone should be held accountable to fix the damage.
"In the 1960s, the government was pretty close to eradicating brucellosis in Yellowstone National Park through testing and slaughtering those infected, but they were stopped by environmentalists before they achieved that goal," said Sitz. "The issue has only gotten worse in recent years, and because we haven't addressed the brucellosis problem impacting nearly 50 percent of the bison herd, it has now implicated the elk herd, which is estimated to be 15-35 percent infected with brucellosis."
Sitz says the state has spent more than $1 billion on fighting brucellosis, yet it still remains in Yellowstone, and with dwindling funds available within the Department of Livestock, it becomes uncertain who will foot the bill to test and manage for brucellosis in the state's beef herd.
"What happens when there is no money to fund the testing of cattle?" asked Sitz. "Who will foot the bill? At what point do we have enough bison? We are just making a big problem even bigger."
Sitz Angus recently gave up a 2,000-acre lease on a ranch near the park because of commingling issues and the requirement from the governor that everything needs to be quarantined and tested in that area.
"We've been in the Angus business for 100 years, and the threat of brucellosis and having to eradicate our herd if infected was too great for us to continue grazing on that lease," said Sitz. "Of course, you can test out of the brucellosis problem, but it's very difficult. If your herd is infected, you can't sell calves for six months. You can't move your cows to new pastures. You have to test your cattle three times and quarantine them out. It's just too risky for us."
The location of Sitz Angus requires the operation to test their herd every three years; however, any animal sold off the ranch must be tested prior to the sale.
"For our production sale, we had to test all 425 bulls for brucellosis," said Sitz. "Right now the state is paying for the tests, but we still have to do all of the labor to get the tests completed. While funding is a major concern, the biggest issue I have is we've reversed the progress we've made on tackling this disease; there are no plans to eradicate or slow this disease now, and that's frustrating. It's a real burden on the rancher."
Monte Eayrs, a rancher from Glasgow, Mont. shares Sitz's concerns.
"This decision won't be good for the cowboys, that much I know," said Eayrs. "The announcement surprised just about everybody I've talked to. It's certainly not going to help the brucellosis issue. It seems like instead of lowering the number of bison in the area, the governor's plan will help to increase the herd."
Eayrs said the recent announcement has left many off-guard and scrambling to figure out the ramifications. Ultimately, the burden is placed on the ranchers, who will now be competing for pasture ground by free-roaming bison.
"If I wanted to double my cow numbers, somebody else would lose pasture," said Eayrs. "If we raise the number of bison occupying the area, pastures for livestock will also be lost to the growing herd. I seriously hope this decision is contested before it is implemented; 2016 is an election year, so maybe something positive will shake up then."
Montana State Veterinarian Martin Zaluski, DVM, said with the announcement coming just before Christmas, the industry is still scrambling to figure out how the decision will play out.
"This is such a complicated issue and goes back decades, so it's difficult to know how this will play out on the ground," said Zaluski. "The most dramatic change is we won't herd the bison back into Yellowstone National Park on May 15, which is something we do annually. With year-round tolerance, the bison will no longer be managed in that way."
Addressing the brucellosis risk, Zaluski said calving time is the greatest risk for exposure, and by the time ranchers move their cattle on summer pastures where the bison will be nearby, the bison and cattle have already calved, reducing the risk of transmission.
"Transmission has been a major concern of ranchers," said Zaluski. "In fact, that's one of the reasons why we've been managing bison fairly intensively over the years. Having said that, I think we've been very successful in preventing the transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle. We know more about when the risk is the highest, and we've worked with land owners to reduce the risk by putting up fences, calling for help to move the bison off of their properties, and of course, these activities will continue even throughout this change."
Zaluski said the concerns of ranchers are oftentimes very legitimate, and many years of controversy has fueled the discussion of bison management in and around the park.
"The basis of the bison plan is to learn from experience and make adaptive changes and readjustments," he said. "I would expect things to continue in that same vein. In the meantime, there are a few things ranchers can do to reduce their risk. It's important to prevent commingling, particularly during spring calving time for cattle and late pregnancy for bison. Fortunately, there are no year-round operations in the area due to snow fall, so much of the risk is reduced because cattle are moved at those times. Ranchers in the area are familiar with the risk. They also know to contact the Department of Livestock to help prevent commingling and move those bison away from the beef herds."
The governor's decision will be implemented under IBMP procedures. However, it must first be approved by the IBMP partner agencies before it can be implemented.