Ranchers await ruling in Montana bison case

Nov 16, 2012

Some long for a home where the buffalo roam, but in Park County, MT, ranchers are asking a federal judge to keep a migratory herd of American bison from making a home on their range.

Ranchers are protesting a plan to allow hundreds of bison to migrate north out of Yellowstone National Park in winter to seek feed and shelter in an area called Gardiner Basin. Ranchers claim that the Yellowstone bison—50 percent of which are known to carry brucellosis—will endanger the health of their cattle. Federal District Judge E. Wayne Philips heard closing arguments on Nov. 5 for the case, which has pitted the Park County Stockgrowers Association against the Montana Department of Livestock and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP). Philips will issue his ruling in less than two months.

In a separate lawsuit, Park County claimed that the bison are a public nuisance in the Gardiner Basin area, endangering the health and well-being of county residents. Because of similarities between the two cases, they were combined by the judge.

Litigants are disputing the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), a collaborative strategy drawn up by five state and federal agencies to manage bison that wander out of Yellowstone Park, common in harsh winter weather. Created in 2000, the IBMP evolved in 2011 to give residents some tools to cope with the increased winter movement of bison into Gardiner Basin.

The Montana Department of Livestock, FWP, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the National Forest Service, and Yellowstone National Park are joint authors of the IBMP.

Jeff Cahill, vice president of the Park County Stockgrowers’ Association, said that the IBMP was recently amended to allow bison access to an additional 50,000 acres in the Gardiner Basin area, expanding their range into a populated area.

“Historically, the bison were held west of the Yellowstone River,” said Cahill, who questioned whether the agencies were serious about controlling the bison population. “They’re not managing them,” said Cahill. “Because of the public outcry, they’re choosing not to make these hard decisions in controlling this bison herd. Until that population is controlled, this issue is going to get worse.”

According to Christian Mackay, executive officer to the Montana Board of Livestock, the plan provides an important safety valve for bison, whose current population of over 4,200 is testing the resources of Yellowstone Park. Hard winters mean that there is less feed available, and some bison leave the park in search of greener pastures.

To help prevent conflicts with humans, the IBMP includes “adaptive management” measures such as herding bison away from cattle pastures and private property onto Forest Service land. To help calm fears of brucellosis infection, the Department of Livestock has also built heavy-duty fences to deter bison from mixing with cattle on the two ranches in the area, which run a total of approximately 50 head.

FWP has been working with Gardiner Basin residents without livestock to provide similar fencing.

“We’ve been as responsive as possible to concerns of private landowners,” said Mackay.

Officials have questioned whether ranchers’ fears of brucellosis are well founded. According to Montana State Veterinarian Dr. Marty Zaluski, Gardiner Basin is also home to numerous elk, which can carry the brucellosis bacteria. With the disease already present in local wildlife, Zaluski said that the increase in bison numbers would not significantly increase risk of infection.

With herding and fencing to keep the bison away from ranches, he said the risk may even be lower.

“That risk has to be taken into context with the large numbers of elk that already inhabit the landscape down there that also carry brucellosis,” said Zaluski. “We don’t live in a zero risk society, and we basically feel that the risk mitigation that we have in place [is] going to be effective.”

But locals aren’t overly impressed, either with the agencies’ promises to herd bison away from people, or with the fences.

“They had this three-wire power fence out there that they spent a quarter million dollars putting up,” said Park County Commissioner Marty Malone. “[The bison] went through there just like it was butter.”

Malone doubted that herding bison onto Forest Service land would be effective, either, saying that the bison were likely to return to lower elevations.

“They say they’ve made a deal with the Forest Service to go up into the mountains, so all these critters will come out of the park, and wander dutifully up into the hills, instead of stay in the valleys,” said Malone. “They left the park [because of] the snow. They’re not going to go into the snow again.”

For years, area residents have hosted the Yellowstone bison in varying numbers from November until May, when the bison are hazed back into the park. The winter of 2011–2012 brought conflicts to a head when more than 1,000 bison exited Yellowstone Park to escape deep snows. While agencies scrambled to manage the wandering herd outside the park’s boundaries, human–bison relations weren’t exactly rosy.

“They were all over the highways,” said Malone, who blamed bison for three car wrecks. “There were reports of bison on the roads so kids couldn’t get on the school buses. “[B]uffalo were out there grazing on some flowers in some guy’s backyard.”

According to Cahill, the threat to public safety from the bison was very real.

“When those bison came out the winter before last … there were literally hundreds of bison that crossed the river and marched right through people’s yards, through people’s cows, through people’s horses, rubbing on houses, rubbing on wheel lines sprinklers,” Cahill said.

In years past, overspills of bison from the park were often handled by “harvesting” the animals—shipping them to slaughter facilities for processing. This approach to population control has caused outrage among members of wildlife and environmental groups, several of whom have sued the National Park Service to prevent further culling. In August, the Park Service won a case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals against Western Watersheds Project, which had demanded an end to bison slaughter.

Zaluski maintains that slaughter remains on the table as an important management tool.

“[Slaughter] remains an option,” said Zaluski. “A viable and necessary option.”

But even though culling bison is not against federal law, bison slaughter remains a touchy subject. In 2011, when bison were exiting Yellowstone Park in large numbers, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer scotched all possibility of a bison cull by releasing an executive order blocking transportation of brucellosis-infected bison on Montana roads. The ban made transport of bison to slaughter facilities entirely impractical, leaving agencies struggling to manage the herd as it wandered through yards and pastures.

Such events have put pressure on agencies to come up with ways of managing bison by non-lethal means.

But ranchers complain the agencies are ignoring an important management option just to prevent public outcry.

“They’ve had lethal control as one of their tools all along,” said Cahill. “…[I]n light of the public push-back on lethal removal of these bison populations, they’ve just chosen not to do it.”

Cahill maintains that the agencies have to “go back to the drawing board” to come up with an effective plan for bison control with the help of local residents. The current regime of fencing, herding, and “bison guards” in the roads, in Cahill’s assessment, is just going to postpone the inevitable: the expansion of the Yellowstone bison herd into new communities.

“It doesn’t look like they’re real interested in doing anything to control those numbers,” Cahill concluded. “This bison population is going to continue to grow unabated, and thus going to need more land.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent