Montana to let hunters enforce bison control line

By Matt Volz
Helena, Montana (AP) March 2012

Montana’s wildlife commission voted to authorize hunters to shoot bison that stray beyond extended “tolerance areas” north of Yellowstone National Park, an attempt by officials to ease resistance to bison roaming in more parts of the state.

The authorization also applies to areas outside the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations, where state and tribal officials are negotiating terms for the transfer of 68 Yellowstone bison that are part of a disease quarantine program.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials say that allowing hunters to enforce those tolerance areas is an adjustment to an Interagency Bison Management Plan change that expands the boundaries where bison can wander.  It would allow hunters to shoot bison that stray beyond designated areas during or outside of the bison hunting season.

The authorization is meant to be a tool to complement other bison management efforts, such as hazing the animals back to the park, and not all situations may require the use hunters, FWP officials said.

It’s not an authorization for hunters to shoot any bison that wanders outside the park, and the terms of the agreements with the tribes would come first before lethal force is used to remove bison that escape their land, commissioners said.

The plan was approved in a 4-1 vote. Commissioner A.T. “Rusty” Stafne, a former Fort Peck tribal chairman, voted against the measure, saying the agreements with the tribes should be in place first.

Neighboring farmers and ranchers fear the bison will spread disease and destroy their property.

Two lawsuits are pending over allowing bison to leave Yellowstone in search of food at lower elevations in the winter. A third lawsuit aims to block the relocation of the 68 bison to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap.

The proposed tolerance area north of Yellowstone park, which FWP officials say would be an expansion of 75,000 acres, would keep bison south of the divide between the Gardiner Basin and Paradise Valley on the east side of the Yellowstone River, and south of the divide between the Tom Miner Basin and the Gardiner Basin on the west side of the river

Commissioner Ron Moody, who last month opposed the proposal in a preliminary vote, said he changed his mind after taking a tour of the boundary area. The mountainous terrain is so rugged that a bison has a chance to escape any hunter, easing Moody’s concerns that the plan would violate fair-chase hunt principles.

“That was my concern, that it would be a firing line,” Moody said. But, he said, the terrain is such that “anybody who shoots one there is going to earn that” kill.

Because of mild weather, bison have yet to leave Yellowstone National Park in significant numbers this winter, according to park administrators.

Along the park’s border with Montana, a capture facility has been set up as part of a plan to reduce the 3,700-bison population by up to 330 animals this winter. Captured animals could be shipped to slaughter, transferred to a research program or held for later release.

Yellowstone Chief Ranger Tim Reid said state, federal and tribal agencies are still working out details on whether bison that attempt to migrate into Montana will be captured or allowed to pass into areas where they can be hunted.

“We would sit down with our partners including the tribes to figure out how that’s going to work and what’s the balance on that,” Reid said.