The price of bison tolerance
A new joint Environmental Assessment being developed by the National Park Service and State of Montana that could result in significant changes to Yellowstone bison management outside of Yellowstone National Park is still in the early stages, but already being met with opposition from the agriculture community.
“What is being considered is an expansion of tolerance on the west and north sides of Yellowstone National Park into Montana, providing more grazing area for bison in exchange for a reduction in total bison population numbers,” said Montana Department of Livestock executive officer Christian Mackay, whose department becomes responsible for any Yellowstone bison not within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.
The proposed EA would be based on a three-tiered series of population thresholds, with a corresponding number of additional acres outside the park being made available for grazing as each threshold is met.
“Our members are in opposition to allowing bison outside of Yellowstone National Park. They feel the NPS should maintain their own bison herd within their park boundaries much as ranchers are expected to maintain their herds on their own lands. These are not whitetail deer, but rather 2,000 pound animals that will cause destruction to fences, buildings and other improvements. Furthermore, the Yellowstone herd is infected with brucellosis at a rate of 50 percent testing seropositive, and maintaining acceptable spatial and temporal separation between the bison and cattle herds if they are allowed to roam on these additional acres will be increasingly difficult,” said Montana Farm Bureau vice president of government affairs John Youngberg of the primary issues his constituents have with the proposed EA.
Mackay echoed the fact that preventing the spread of Brucellosis to domestic livestock is and would remain and top concern regarding Yellowstone bison roaming outside the Park’s boarders.
“For a while the Park considered an EA that would remotely vaccinate bison, but then decided on a no-alternative action, meaning they will not be taking such steps. The question we must answer is how can we reduce risk of spreading brucellosis from a known seropositive herd? We see a population reduction as a very important and effective way of mitigating that risk,” said Mackay.
The current Yellowstone bison herd is between 4,600 and 5,000 head. Should that be reduced enough to meet the first tier requirements, which have not been defined at this time, the herd would be allowed free range access within the Horse Butte area. While not an area with many cattle present, it is a heavily visited tourist destination that would pose issues in keeping the bison separate from people, campgrounds and traffic according to Youngberg.
“They will have an impact there with the number of visitors, campgrounds and summer homes. We have also heard the DOL and Montana Fish and Game say they believe it can run 200 head on a year-round basis, while others state 50 head would be the maximum it could support on an annual basis. Overstocking outside the Park won’t help the issue either,” he said.
A further reduction in population to the second-tier levels, also not currently defined, would result in additional acres being opened to the herd in southern Montana.
“This area includes two or three significant cattle operations, and someone will have to make sure those cattle and buffalo are kept separate. That could be accomplished through fencing or hazing, which is not always popular. But, somehow they would have to stay off grazing allotments and private properties with cattle on them,” said Youngberg.
The third and final tier would reduce the Yellowstone herd’s numbers to 3,000 head, and consequently open acres spanning from the park to Big Sky and Taylor Fork and consist of 400,000 acres of additional land the herd would be allowed free-range on.
“They’re envisioning a small herd that would stay in those areas, but there is nothing significantly different about them and Yellowstone National Park in terms of climate. The winters are long, the snow is deep, and I don’t see it working very well as winter ground.
“Furthermore, that would result in a big cost to numerous livestock producers, and we want to know who is going to pay for that and manage it? Hunters are asking who will pay the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to be in the area helping, and what role will the Park play? Once outside the park, the NPS do not consider the bison to be their concern, and in their eyes the full responsibility rests with the DOL,” said Youngberg.
Such questions and concerns were voiced in a public comment period following the proposed changes. However, Mackay noted that as whole, the comments ran the gamut from wanting to allow the bison full access and tolerance to those not wanting to allow for any tolerance.
“We are still in the early stages, but what I’ve heard thus far is that the industry groups would like a more comprehensive approach to managing brucellosis and mitigating the associated risk in the greater Yellowstone area. There was initially some opposition to any reduction in population from the public, while the ag groups seriously opposed expanding the area without a population limitation and threshold,” he said.
Mackay further explained that the EIS is being considered a pilot project of sorts, with annual reviews of necessary management actions. He also reiterated the fact that upon implementation of the EA, no expansion of tolerance would occur until the necessary reductions in population had occurred.
“Bison management is very expensive for the DOL in terms of resources we have to put out compared with what we put forward for the rest of our DSA (Designated Surveillance Area). It’s not quite equal, and in my opinion it is time we to take a more holistic approach to managing brucellosis. We’re very proud of the success of our brucellosis program in Montana, and want to maintain its success,” he said.
For area ranchers, the price of the successful brucellosis program is felt personally, and not something they look forward to dealing with to a greater extent.
“While the producers located in the DSA do receive some monetary compensation for testing their cattle annually, which is required, they continue to see suppressed prices when they go to market. The effects of the disease impact them whether they have it or not. This EIS is rife with additional potential problems for the producer, but we will continue to work on it with the governor’s offices in hopes of coming to an agreeable resolution,” said Youngberg.