Bison live to wander, but bison with the audacity to wander beyond the invisible northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park have long been chased back into the park, sent to the slaughterhouse or simply killed outright. Recently, Montana has been trying some new approaches, and this is a very good thing for North America's only wild bovine.
The first change occurred last spring, when Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer effectively halted the shipment of bison to slaughter and negotiated an additional 70,000 acres in the Gardiner area for them to roam north of Yellowstone. Though most locals seem willing to live with bison, Montana's wildlife department is addressing the concerns of those residents who are less tolerant of wandering animals, putting up fences and using other tools to keep the creatures from roaming a little too far.
Some bison have been quarantined for as long as six years, and now those animals may finally have somewhere to go. They were confined because of worries about the potential spread of brucellosis, a disease that can cause some animals, including elk and cattle, to abort their young. The animals still in confinement have survived extensive testing, confirming they are brucellosis-free; those that failed the testing were slaughtered. But the remaining healthy bison have been kept penned up ever since, waiting for state wildlife officials to decide what to do with them.
In September, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released a draft environmental assessment that looked at moving these long-held Yellowstone bison to up to four different locations across the state. The state operates two of the sites as wildlife management areas; the other two are on American Indian reservations.
This is great news for bison conservation, which has essentially stagnated in recent years without more places to put Yellowstone's recovering herd. Descendents of just a couple of dozen bison saved from poachers in Yellowstone in the early 1900s, about 3,500 bison now thrive within the confines of the park, and they are among the few that have never been crossbred with cattle. All these bison are long overdue for fresh stomping grounds.
Some ranchers, however, fear the prospect of Yellowstone bison in their midst. Though the chances of bison infecting cattle with brucellosis are low, many in the livestock industry oppose relocating bison for fear of the disease - and the animals -- spreading. When Gov. Schweitzer gave Yellowstone bison some room to roam north of the park last spring, the county and local stockgrowers responded by suing to stop the plan. Then the livestock industry lobbied hard in the Montana Legislature to prohibit bison from going back to the tribes or onto public lands -- even though 70 percent of Montanans surveyed by the National Wildlife Federation said they were in favor of bison restoration.
It's doubtful that the state's bison plan will allay all the ranchers' fears, even though it is loaded with compromises. Each of the four recovery areas under consideration will be fenced. Both the state of Montana and the tribes involved have action plans in place to monitor and quickly deal with any bison that escape. The plan is also only an interim solution until a more comprehensive restoration plan is completed by 2015.
Of course, most conservationists would rather not see bison behind a fence, no matter how large the area it encloses. But wildlife supporters and Montana officials have not yet done the work to get us there, despite state commitments to identify large landscapes for restoration. Still, what we have now is a step forward that allows Yellowstone bison new places to roam.
The plan also creates a model for returning wild bison to Montana's Sioux, Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes at the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations. For thousands of years, these tribes depended on bison for food and materials, and the animals can still provide these products today. The tribes have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on fencing and other preparations to get ready for the bison; they shouldn't have to wait any longer while healthy animals languish in quarantine.
Someday, I think we will see wild bison fanning out across the Great Plains as they re-occupy some of their historic home turf. But for now, we should applaud these small steps that free some bison from confinement and create a few new places for the animals to flourish.
Mike Leahy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the Rocky Mountain program director for Defenders of Wildlife in Bozeman, Montana.