State, federal agencies weigh changes for bison

By Matthew Brown
Bozeman, Montana (AP) May 2011

Government officials started mapping out their next steps in letting bison roam beyond Yellowstone National Park, after a tumultuous winter in which almost 900 of the animals were captured during their annual migration.

State and federal agency representatives suggested allowing bison into new areas west of Yellowstone. They also suggested increased hunting opportunities, vaccinating the animals against disease and relocating bison to other parts of the state.

Overshadowing the discussions were a pair of court orders last week from a state judge in Park County. Judge Nels Swandal halted an effort that had opened 75,000 acres in Montana’s Gardiner Basin to bison.

“There are some viable things to talk about with increasing habitat, but given ongoing litigation, we may get a court decision that reframes how far we can go,” said Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson. The Forest Service is one of five federal agencies and three American Indian groups that oversee bison management in Montana.

The orders underscored the continued resistance to free-roaming bison in Montana – despite progress toward resolving concerns over a disease carried by the animals.

State officials say they will contest the orders, which resulted from lawsuits from Park County and a livestock group. A hearing is set for next week.

In the past, the debate over bison had centered on their potential to spread the disease brucellosis to cattle.

But after at least 500 bison were allowed into the Gardiner Basin this year, the focus is shifting to the broader question of whether bison belong on the landscape outside the park.

Park County officials based their lawsuit largely on public safety concerns.

“Even without disease, you’re going to have social challenges,” state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said Tuesday.

Park officials reported that only about 300 of the 875 bison captured this winter remain in captivity. They have been held since late January at a holding facility along the park’s northern border.

The animals had left the park in search of food at lower elevations in Montana. Those released have been returning to the park, where warmer weather is melting the snowpack and uncovering grass for grazing.

On the west side of Yellowstone, state livestock agents expect to begin driving about 150-200 bison back into the park next week after earlier delays caused by late winter snows.