What to do about bison
When it comes to bison in Montana, there are widely divergent points of view
on whether and how this species should fit into today’s environment.
Montana FWP, in cooperation with other state and federal agencies, is working
to manage bison within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as well as looking
for ways to expand the bison range in other parts of the Great Plains where
the animals would be socially and biologically acceptable.
Yellowstone National Park (YNP) bison numbers are growing rapidly, from 3,000 just a few years ago to 4,000 animals today. They are outgrowing the park’s capacity and spilling out into surrounding private and national forest land.
The problem is that the bison could transmit brucellosis to cattle, causing the livestock to abort. Montana, which has a no-tolerance policy on brucellosis, has spent $30 million to eradicate the disease among cattle. If the disease returned, ranchers would have to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of cattle and would have difficulty shipping their cattle to states concerned about the disease.
Under the Interagency Bison Management Plan developed in 2000 by FWP and state and federal conservation, agriculture, parks, and livestock agencies, several tools are now being used or considered to manage the expanding YNP bison population:
• Under the plan, bison near the park boundaries are hazed back into the park. When hazing doesn’t work, the bison may be captured, tested for brucellosis, and then sent to a meat processor if they test positive or returned to the park if not.
• FWP, YNP, and other agencies are working on developing a vaccination that would render bison immune to brucellosis.
• The 2003 Montana legislature has authorized the FWP Commission to initiate a bison hunt in Montana. If such a hunt were to occur, conditions would be as similar to other big game hunts as possible, with free-ranging bison and elements of fair chase maintained. This would not be a population control measure but rather a limited opportunity for hunters to have some role in bison management. Currently FWP is working on an environmental assessment of a bison hunt.
• Currently FWP is working with the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on the feasibility of quarantining some of the bison that leave YNP. The idea is to stringently quarantine brucellosis-free bison for several years. Then the young of these animals, if also free of the disease, could be reintroduced to parts of the bison’s historic range. Just as elk and pronghorn restorations were in the latter 20th century, this could be one of the great conservation accomplishments of the early 21st century.
There is still a lot to be learned and worked out before that occurs. But I think it can and will be done. I’m confident because there are two strong movements underway. One is to eliminate the threat of brucellosis to Montana’s valuable cattle industry. The other is to restore bison to parts of their historic range. FWP, other agencies, ranchers, and Indian bands are now working to combine these two movements so that brucellosis-free wild bison may once again be part of Montana’s natural landscape.
M. Jeff Hagener is Director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks