Breaking news: Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s bison plan has been approved.
The gist of Governor Bullock’s plan: allow bison to roam year-round west of Yellowstone on Horse Butte (near West Yellowstone) and north to the Buck Creek drainage (south of Big Sky, MT). Male bison would be permitted north of Gardiner into Yankee Jim Canyon.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, state, federal, and tribal agencies under the Interagency Bison Management Plan signed off on the initiative earlier today:
At an Interagency Bison Management Plan meeting here, none of the tribal or federal agencies objected to the governor’s December decision, meaning the plan has essentially been approved.
“This a day to be celebrated,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor Sam Sheppard.
The change comes as an amendment to the 2000 Interagency Bison Management Plan, which specifies procedures and population goals for the nearly 5,000 bison that live in the Yellowstone region.
Some tolerance for the animals had already existed outside of the park, but the governor’s decision adds significantly more land to the tolerance zone on the west side, where bison had been hazed back each year.
The decision sets seasonal limits on the number of bison allowed to remain west of the park — 450 from September through February, 600 from March through June, 250 in July and August. When bison numbers exceed that, the state could chase them back across into Yellowstone.
Those figures reflect the number of bison officials expect to see outside of the park in each season. They expect many of the bison that come out in the spring will migrate back into Yellowstone on their own before July, meaning they wouldn’t need to be hazed. Sheppard said the decision “allows bison to do the work for us.”
Governor Bullock previously announced his bison plan last December. And we previously reported on the contentious debate raging between the governor and a coalition of lawmakers, stockgrowers, and select area residents. The announcement comes after a thoroughly packed year in bison news, between the lawsuit filed against the Park regarding the Stephens Creek Bison Facility, a quarantine proposal that would permit Yellowstone bison to be transported to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and either be kept on site or transferred into other herds, and a proclamation from superintendent Dan Wenk on how “progress is being made on behalf of the bison.”
The announcement comes shortly after the end of bison operations for 2016, which saw fewer animals taken than last year.
As we noted when the news initially broke, Bullock’s proposal will include standard hazing procedures. Bison won’t be allowed to roam near the South Fork of the Madison River, and managers will be allowed to push them into either into the park or into one of the state’s new tolerance zones.
Further, managers will strive to keep female bison out of Yankee Jim Canyon—in deference to livestock producers concerned about brucellosis. The supposed danger is female bison would leave behind infectious material—blood, amniotic fluid, afterbirth—during calving season. To date, however, there have been no documented bison to cattle brucellosis transmission.
However, according to the Montana Department of Livestock, the Yankee Jim hazing rule isn’t ironclad. From the Chronicle:
Montana Department of Livestock state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said if there is a mixed group of male and female bison that are in that area, officials won’t attempt to sort the male bison out.
“If there’s a mixed group, then that group will go back,” Zaluski said.
“We’re not in the business of sorting bison,” added Rob Tierney, bison program manager for the Department of Livestock.
Sheppard said that by that time, most bison have usually left the Gardiner Basin for lands inside the park anyway.
The move has predictably drawn praise from environmentalists and wild bison advocates. “We hope this decision drives further advancements for Yellowstone bison, which unfortunately continue to be shipped to slaughter when they leave the park in search of food in the winter,” Stephanie Adams of the National Parks Conservation Association said in a statement.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled. Jay Bodner, natural resource director for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, plainly told the Chronicle, “I don’t think our concerns have been addressed,” adding that he (and the MSGA) are worried state agencies won’t be able to handle more bison on more land. Indeed, the MSGA previously spoke out against the quarantine proposal.
Currently, the IBMP agencies are at work drafting a new plan, which will be released later this year. The current plan will be amended to include Governor Bullock’s proposal, and will be released online later this month, after each agency formally signs off on the changes.