Montana debates bison-hunting season

 

Critics say bison should simply be allowed to roam

Montana lawmakers are considering a new way to control Yellowstone National Park's bison herd, following a winter in which the Park Service and Montana Department of Livestock killed 244 of the animals. "Rather than slaughter them," asks state Sen. Gary Perry, R, "why not sell permits and hunt them in a fair manner?"

Perry introduced a bill in March to re-instate a bison hunt. In the process, he has heated up a debate already close to the boiling point (HCN, 1/31/00: Political war continues over bison herd). The last state-sanctioned bison hunt in Montana was in 1991, when national media attention - and the public outrage that followed - shut it down. "It was making hunting look bad," says Bernie Kuntz of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. TV footage showed hunters shooting bison along roads with the help of game wardens. Protesters stood in front of the rifles and poked hunters with ski poles.

Despite e-mail messages from across the country and Europe opposing his bill, Perry wants citizens to be back in on the hunt. "Those people in New York and New Jersey don't understand our buffalo problem here," he says. "The number of buffalo in the park has exceeded the capacity of the range."

The "range" Perry refers to is Yellowstone National Park, not the historic bison range from Alaska to northern Mexico. The Yellowstone herd is not welcome in Montana because an estimated 45 percent of the animals carry brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort. Although there is no documented case of wild bison passing the disease to cattle, the bison endanger Montana's "brucellosis-free" status, which is important to ranchers for livestock trading purposes.

According to a management plan released in 2000, bison leaving the park are to be captured and tested for brucellosis. Animals that test positive are slaughtered. Once the herd is over 3,000 animals, however, bison can be killed without testing. Last November, the bison population was close to 3,800. "The (hunting) season would be to control populations, but also to get hunters back into the mix," says Kuntz.

But Indian tribes, conservationists, and even hunting groups have denounced the plan. Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, a nonprofit sportsmen's group, sees the proposal as a way to pass the blame from the state to hunters. Hockett wants bison that leave the park to be the responsibility of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, rather than the Department of Livestock, which manages them now. He says there is "a very workable solution" to protect livestock while allowing the buffalo to roam: Keep cows off federal lands near Yellowstone until July, when the bison return to the park on their own, and any threat of spreading disease passes.

Although the hunting bill may not make it to the governor's desk this year, the debate has brought people from all sides of the issue to the bargaining table. Sen. Perry says he discovered that most people want a long-term solution to the problem of wandering bison. "I learned we all had a common objective," he says, "having free-range, disease-free buffalo in our national forests."

But while both sides await a cure for brucellosis, they disagree on what should be "free" first - the disease or the range.

"Montana wants a zero-risk equation, something which is not feasible in the world today," says Mike Mease, co-founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign, an organization monitoring the bison kills. "We used to have 60 million (bison) and now anything over 3,000 is too many. It's insane."

The author is a High Country News intern.