New bison management plan fails to impress

Interagency Bison Management Plan administrators are seeking public opinion on a proposed agreement for bison management that manages to underwhelm and fail to address the larger issues posed by wildlife management in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

The plan, which could be set up as early as this winter, would put down fencing in the Royal Teton Ranch, located directly north of the Park in Paradise Valley, allowing 25 Yellowstone National Park bison to head to grazing land within the Gallatin National Forest – after the bison tested negative for brucellosis.

This seems like a drop in the bucket; after all, last winter National Park Service officials killed 1,600 bison who failed to recognize the arbitrary boundaries set by humans.

So, if this plan had been in place last winter, only 1,575 bison would have been killed.

The absurdity of the situation is magnified when you tally the costs of this project. Right now the minimum estimated cost of allowing this grazing for the next 30 years is more than $3.6 million: $1.87 million upfront to the owners of Royal Teton Ranch, $76,500 annually for the next 19 years, and $300,000 to build fencing to guide the bison on the straight and narrow to the holy Gallatin National Forest grazing land. Add in the cost of testing the bison for brucellosis before they’re allowed out of Yellowstone National Park, and you’ve got the makings of what some might call a boondoggle.

That had better be some damn fine grazing land.

State and federal officials say this is just the first step toward a comprehensive bison-management plan brought on by fears the Yellowstone bison are spreading brucellosis among Montana cattle. Whether or not the fear of brucellosis exposure is real – and the best science says it’s not – the fear of brucellosis exposure is a political reality, one that must be addressed by state and local officials. Dealing with that political reality is the real solution, but political leaders in the area have a fear of confronting local ranchers. Remember, Montana is a state where the Republican candidate for governor is being criticized because he allegedly was a vegetarian at one point in his life.

But this plan is a poor way to address the fear. Even if you assume the number of bison heading across Royal Teton Ranch rises to 100 in future years, you’re talking about fewer than 2,000 bison allowed out of the Park over 20 years. Do the math: that’s at least $1,800 every time a bison leaves the Park’s north entrance. Even more if there’s a year or two where the bison don’t feel the need to leave.

Now, we will acknowledge that this is a difficult issue, and it’s hard to argue a bison has more rights than a rancher. And we think there are other steps being taken that may end up being more promising than this limited plan, like researching a brucellosis vaccine. But in the end, this Interagency Bison Management Plan is more public relations than a real solution: it addresses the wrong problem.

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