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Published May 22, 2009, 07:28 AM

Montana’s messy bison situation

It would be difficult to imagine a more convoluted, mismanaged entity than the Yellowstone bison, and there is plenty of blame to go around because of it. Montana managed almost to exterminate the bison even before Montana Territory became a state in 1889. It hasn’t done much since to re-establish the species within the state. In fact, just recently, three dozen bison were transplanted from a quarantine facility in Montana to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, because the Montana State Legislature has made it clear that it doesn’t want free-ranging bison in Montana.

It would be difficult to imagine a more convoluted, mismanaged entity than the Yellowstone bison, and there is plenty of blame to go around because of it. Montana managed almost to exterminate the bison even before Montana Territory became a state in 1889. It hasn’t done much since to re-establish the species within the state. In fact, just recently, three dozen bison were transplanted from a quarantine facility in Montana to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, because the Montana State Legislature has made it clear that it doesn’t want free-ranging bison in Montana.

Bison can be found in a number of places in the state, including that National Bison Range near Moise, Ted Turner’s Flying “D” Ranch near Bozeman, and the Fort Belknap Reservation in the north-central part of the state. But large expanses of BLM and state land are curiously absent of bison, as is the enormous Charles Russell Game Range, mostly because landowners don’t want any competition for their cattle grazing. Another reason is the brucellosis issue. More about that later in this piece.

Yellowstone National Park currently has a bison population of about 3,000 animals, following the capture and sent-to-slaughter of some 1,700 bison last year. The National Park Service, with its institutional phobia regarding hunting, does not allow hunting inside the park. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has made a feeble attempt at controlling bison numbers by conducting a late season bison hunt the last half dozen years, but hunters have taken fewer than 50 bison each season because most of the bison stay inside the park boundary.

The park bison, a great many carrying brucellosis — a disease that causes female ungulates to abort their calves — caused the State of Montana to lose its brucellosis-free status a couple years ago, which is a blow to cattlemen all over the state.

The State Livestock Dept. hazes bison from private land back into the park every year, arousing the ire of many, including some small landowners who don’t mind seeing the bison on their places. The claim is that the bison are a threat to spreading brucellosis to cattle, even though there are no cattle in the area at the time of hazing. Like I say, you would have difficulty finding a crazier, more convoluted issue.

Then last December several government agencies and private conservation groups reached a $3.3 million deal with the Church Universal and Triumphant to remove all cattle from its Royal Teton Ranch south of Livingston and make it available to 25 bison that had tested brucellosis-free. But due to a mild winter in that part of the country, bison didn’t even use the CUT Ranch last winter, sparking more outrage from critics.

The Obama Administration also has gotten into the act, funding $650,000 to the Greater Yellowstone Brucellosis Committee (GYIBC), which ranks right down there with the United Nations in its ineffectiveness. During my last few years with FWP while holding the position of information manager, I was “impressed into service,” so to speak, as FWP’s communications representative at GYIBC’s two-day twice-a-year meetings. GYIBC is a motley consortium of federal and state bureaucrats (mostly federal) whose major accomplishments are the aforementioned, much-criticized bison quarantine program that is going nowhere, and holding meetings. (I found it laughable to read the news releases produced by GYIBC. The “news” was that they were going to hold a meeting!)

In spite of talking around the problem, GYIBC members know that to eradicate brucellosis in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, Wyoming’s 26 feedgrounds need to be shut down. Second, the Parks’ bison herd must be reduced to a few hundred animals, which must be quarantined and rid of all sero-positive animals. Both of these are politically impossible. Without the feedgrounds, northwest Wyoming would lose up to two-thirds of its elk herd. And the public would never stand for such a drastic reduction in Yellowstone bison.

So taxpayers and, of course, the bison are the losers here. And GYIBC will continue to hold meetings and pontificate about a problem they have chosen not to solve.

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