Some roaming Mont. bison to be culled
January 14, 2016
Yellowstone bison that normally take refuge inside the park will be culled again this winter for meat and hides as they migrate outside park boundaries into Montana for better grazing.
At the same time, Montana may soon allow bison to stay in the state year round in select areas. If it does, that will be for the first time in more than a century.
Brucellosis risk from wild ranging bison to domestic cattle remains a concern for some ranchers. Montana maintains its brucellosis-free status in domestic livestock, despite the fact that roughly half of Yellowstone bison test positive for exposure to the disease,
The Interagency Bison Management Plan guides the management of bison and brucellosis in and around Yellowstone National Park. It is administered by federal and state agencies, as well as tribal bodies.
“It was a relief. It was kind of a cushion, to know it was there. It was a safety net, and it takes a hell of a lot off your mind when you know it’s there.” Dave Buser, Grace Buser’s husband
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This year's cull will involve capture and slaughter as well as hunting. The park's superintendent says he hopes to replace the costly practice of capture and slaughter with hunting in the coming years.
At the same time, Montana's governor has announced his wish to open certain grazing areas to the animals outside of winter months. Bison are currently only allowed to stay outside the park during winter months.
The proposed tolerance zone lies between the Madison and Gallatin rivers, and includes Horse Butte, running north along U.S. Highway 191 up to and including the Taylor Fork Drainage as well as wildlife management and wilderness areas.
The decision, signed by Montana Governor Steve Bullock, cites changes in grazing allotments and land use that made room for the change, as well as science that suggests elk are more likely than bison to infect cattle with brucellosis. IBMP has yet to approve it.
There are no active cattle allotments on the west side of the proposed tolerance area. In areas where there are allotments, the decision says state agencies and producers will cooperate to keep cattle and bison from comingling. Grazing practices and fencing will be evaluated to maintain separation.
"The only reason we don't have a case of bison infecting cattle with brucellosis is that they have not been allowed to comingle," says rancher Jim Hagenbarth of Dillon, Montana.
Hagenbarth served on one of the citizens working groups that studied alternatives for the bison and reported to the IBMP. He also served on the Montana Board of Livestock from 1985-97, and recently met with the governor.
Hagenbarth thinks the governor's decision is a bad one, and that the park has mistreated the bison and park neighbors.
"It's time that the park came up with a new model based upon the resource that does not depend on range outside the park," Hagenbarth says. "It's been a mess for years. It's time to clean it up and find a solution."
Hagenbarth says park bison are mistreated, and that even some activists get that right.
"These animals, they have the choice to come out and get shot or stay in the park and starve to death," he says. "If we managed our livestock the way the park manages the bison, society would crucify us."
The governor's decision acknowledges that bison are nomadic, and allows for the use of authorized hazing, trapping, and lethal means when necessary.
Culling bison from the animals that migrate out of the park is one strategy officials say reduces the likelihood that brucellosis exposed animals will even come in contact with domestic cattle. Culls also keep the park population from expanding.
In a typical year, 700 calves are born to the population of 4,900. Current managers want to shrink the population to 3,500.
Authorities say no cases of wild bison infecting range cattle have ever been documented, but brucellosis was introduced into the bison herds by domestic livestock grazed by early settlers.
There are two herds at the park's western and northern boundaries, considered some of the most genetically pure in the world. Bison have inhabited the park without interruption since prehistoric times.
The harsher the winter, the more likely bison are to leave the park in greater numbers for lower elevations.
This year's culling will be handled over the next few months, and officials say the total number of culled animals will be in proportion to the number that migrate. It is not a fixed number, but the minimum is expected to be 600.
Public and tribal hunting will be allowed, and meat and hides will be donated to tribal agencies for distribution to native people.
Hopeful hunters will wait just beyond the border of the park for the opportunity to harvest an animal. Native American tribes have treaty rights in the region.
Also at the border are holding pens that the park uses until captured animals can be shipped to slaughter.
Managers recognize that allowing more animals to be hunted instead of captured and shipped could save money and provide recreation.
The better grazing is around Gardiner, Montana, near the park's northern boundary.
Bison advocates say the animals should be able to roam freely, just like elk and other wildlife that seasonally migrate in and out of the park.
Bison can pose a safety hazard and damage property when wandering into populated areas.
"Many people are uncomfortable with the practice of culling bison, including the National Park Service," Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a prepared statement. "The park would gladly reduce the frequency and magnitude of these operations if migrating bison had access to more habitat outside the park, or there was a way to transfer live bison elsewhere."
Brucellosis exposed bison may only be moved to approved meat processing or research facilities, in accordance with state and federal law. Park officials are studying the feasibility of quarantining animals that repeatedly test negative, so that those animals could be relocated to other public, private, or tribal lands.
Conservation, hunting, and food production are priority. Public comment is being used to help draft an environmental impact statement to be finalized next year by IBMP.
Millions of bison once roamed the American West, but the animal was almost driven to extinction by hunting, the fur trade, development and wholesale slaughter.
At one point, fewer than 30 remained, taking refuge in Yellowstone, where they have since flourished. Peak populations of 5,000 bison were recorded in 2005, and Montana started letting bison roam free for the winter in 2011.
Hunting outside the park is still heavily restricted.