Two extra-wide, ankle-busting, road-blocking cattle-guards; 900 feet of jackleg fencing tied into rock outcroppings and other natural obstacles; a handful of heavy-duty gates: All to ensure that Yellowstone's renowned wild bison can roam more freely than they have in years. Starting in full next winter, the animals will be permitted on 75,000 acres surrounding Gardiner, Mont., between the national park's northern boundary and the brand-new barriers, until May 1.
When Yellowstone is buried in snow, bison tend to leave for lower ground in search of food. And for decades, each winter they've been rounded up for slaughter, shot, and, more recently, hazed back into the park with horsemen, vehicles, even helicopters. That's because around half the park's bison test positive for exposure to abortion-inducing brucellosis, which many ranchers fear could spread to cattle in surrounding areas. The Interagency Bison Management Plan, adopted in 2000 by the National Park Service, two other federal agencies and the Montana Department of Livestock and Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, incorporated many of the aggressive tactics, but was intended to both control the disease and allow wild bison more leeway. Over the years, though, as officials continued hazing, herding and capturing bison -- sending thousands to slaughter -- those goals have appeared more and more at odds, leading critics to charge that the plan is still overwhelmingly weighted toward cattle.
That balance may finally be tipping, not just for Yellowstone's bison but for the species in general in Montana. Combined with strides towards increased tolerance on the western edge of the park, the Gardiner Basin plan, finalized April 14, "is really a problem solved," says Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation. "I liken it, on a much lesser scale, to the Berlin Wall coming down."
Momentum for bison conservation has been building since the early '90s, but has accelerated under Democratic Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Obama administration. And this year's unusually brutal winter, which drove hundreds of bison across the park's northern boundary, brought things to a head. By February, more than 500 had been captured, and Schweitzer -- fed up with the longstanding deadlock -- forbade their transport for slaughter, even as holding facilities bulged and animals continued to migrate north.
Something had to give, and the invisible barriers against bison were crumbling. A 30-year retirement of grazing rights on the Royal Teton Ranch, brokered by the agencies and conservation groups in 2008, had opened a new cow-free route to winter range and left just 50 cattle in the Gardiner Basin. In 2009, two tribes and a tribal collective became formal participants in the Bison Management Plan, adding strong support for freer-roaming bison. And this December, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service relaxed federal brucellosis rules, ending the draconian measures that have inspired much of the anti-bison furor. Instead of destroying whole herds, ranchers whose cattle get sick now have to kill only infected animals. It's also much harder for a state to lose its brucellosis-free cattle status.
Meanwhile, Montana itself seems to be evolving towards treating bison more like wildlife than livestock. This winter, Fish, Wildlife and Parks began assessing locations outside the Yellowstone area -- including tribal lands -- where about 130 bison shown to be brucellosis-free can be moved for longer-term monitoring. If that pans out, says the agency's Regional Supervisor Pat Flowers, such bison could help seed new wild herds or augment existing ones elsewhere, taking some pressure off the overrun park. In a separate effort, the agency is weighing broader species restoration, provided it can find areas roomy enough so that "bison can act like bison," says agency wildlife chief Ken McDonald. Having bison outside of Yellowstone "just makes sense," explains Mike Volesky, the governor's natural resource policy adviser, "to ensure against the threat of listing under the Endangered Species Act, but also for preserving genetic diversity in the herd."
But it's unclear whether either effort will survive the swinging pendulum of state politics. Republicans -- who tend to align with ranchers in opposing bison's spread -- swept both houses of the Legislature last fall. This session, they considered around 10 bison-related bills, many of which restricted relocation; one senator even described the animal as "a creeping cancer." Only the most temperate bills made it past the governor, but he's term-limited in 2012.
Due to their size, tendency to roam and the fact that they compete with cows for grass, bison are politically tricky even without the threat of brucellosis, says McDonald. And despite the new rules and advances in cattle vaccination, the disease still worries ranchers. "It's hard to get them to understand that things have changed," says Jim Hagenbarth, who ranches outside Yellowstone's western boundary and is a member of a new citizens' group advising the Bison Management Plan agencies. "I've seen grown men lose whole herds and families break down bawling. Those memories stay around."
It's not surprising, then, that reactions to bison in the Gardiner area this spring have been mixed. The day after officials signed off on the new plan, a man opened fire on a herd in alleged self-defense, killing at least two. Some residents complained of property damage, while others admired the great shaggy beasts. The county commission and local stockgrowers' association filed suits to stop the plan, which will be heard May 25. The decision alienated many, says Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, which opposes the change. "There was no transparency for anyone." Conservation groups and Fish, Wildlife and Parks are urging patience, mounting education campaigns and pooling money to help landowners fence bison out. But it's going to take much more work to get bison conservation moving on a broad scale, says Keith Aune of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who worked for Montana's wildlife agency on bison for decades before retiring in 2007: "We have to get past that it can't happen to 'How would it look?' "