County officials want roaming bison reined in

By Matthew Brown
Billings, Montana (AP) April 2011

Park County commissioners and livestock industry representatives are seeking to block a new agreement that allows bison from Yellowstone National Park to roam freely in a southern Montana valley for the first time in decades.

The agreement lets the burly animals linger during their winter migration inside the 75,000-acre Gardiner Basin, an area just north of the park where bison previously were barred over disease worries. State, federal and tribal officials said they hoped to curb the periodic and widely criticized slaughter of bison leaving the park.

But Park County officials said that hundreds of bison now roaming the basin were knocking down fences and irrigation systems and frightening residents. The three-member County Commission directed County Attorney Brett Linneweber to prepare a potential lawsuit seeking to block the agreement and get the bison back into the park.

Illustrating the tension over the issue, authorities said that someone fired multiple gunshots at a group of bison in the Gardiner area, killing one instantly. A second bison that had been shot died recently after and “multiple” others were wounded, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden Sam Sheppard.

Linneweber said his office received a complaint from an individual who said he shot a bull bison after the animal rushed his pet dog. Authorities were investigating the case and Shepperd said it was too soon to say if charges will be filed.

“It’s a total mess here and we’re looking at our options to protect the county’s public health and safety,” Commission Chairman Randy Taylor said. “Haze them back into the park and feed them and take care of them there. If they have to come down here to eat food, they’ll form that habit and come down here every year.”

State and federal officials said in response that they would attempt to keep bison off private property but otherwise planned to stand by the new agreement.

Taylor said that two horses have been gored and killed by bison. But state Department of Livestock Executive Officer Christian Mackay disputed that claim and said it has been four or five years since a bison from Yellowstone last killed a horse in Montana.

Linneweber said the county is talking with an attorney representing ranchers about joining forces in the litigation. A lawsuit is not inevitable if federal and state officials agree to reconsider the agreement, county officials said.

“We’re just getting to the point where we have to do something if no one else is willing to,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of complaints about public safety, let alone property damage.”

During harsh winters, thousands of Yellowstone bison periodically attempt to migrate to lower elevations in search of food. Previously, most of those bison were herded back into the park, captured or killed to protect against transmission of the disease brucellosis.

Almost 700 were captured this year and many faced potential slaughter, but those plans were put on hold in February under an executive order from Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Agencies involved in bison management planned to begin hazing a large group of bison now outside the park away from populated areas. An unspecified number of the animals were to be herded west across the Yellowstone River to areas considered more suitable for bison, Yellowstone spokesman Dan Hottle said.

The agreement to expand where bison are allowed was adopted after the federal government eased its rules for the disease in recent months, softening sanctions against states and ranchers that experience brucellosis infections in cattle. Yet local officials and some livestock producers see the animals as a continuing threat.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association also has criticized the new bison agreement, which was unveiled only after it had been approved. The industry group wants the agreement revoked, said vice president Errol Rice.

The agreement is supported by conservationists and bison advocates critical of the heavy-handed approach government agencies historically have taken with bison.

“Bison should be allowed to come into the state just like elk and grizzly bears and anything else,” said Glenn Hockett with the Gallatin Wildlife Association. Let’s fence out where there are problems, create a corridor where bison can get through and get them to a winter range.”