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Know the West

Montana won't bend for bison

  The Montana Department of Livestock continues to play hardball with bison leaving Yellowstone National Park despite urging from federal agencies to let the animals roam. In mid-March, state workers removed protesters blocking a Forest Service road near West Yellowstone, Mont., and arrested six members of the group, Buffalo Field Campaign. That cleared the way for the state to set up a new pen to capture migrating bison.

Up to this point, federal officials have treated the state gently, encouraging Montana's livestock department to allow bison that pose little threat of spreading brucellosis to cattle to roam outside the park (HCN, 12/22/97). But the latest action drew stinging criticism from the Department of the Interior.

"The state of Montana has chosen not to exercise any flexibility and decided to force the bison issue when there was no apparent threat to public safety or health," said Interior spokesman John Wright. "We don't feel the state's actions were necessary to protect the state's brucellosis-free status and we really don't understand why the DOL is doing what they are doing."

The U.S. Forest Service has shown more flexibility. It modified cattle-grazing permits on the park boundary to keep bison and cattle separated.

"The Forest Service deserves enormous credit," says Greater Yellowstone Coalition spokesman Jon Catton. "It's a tangible conflict-reducing step they've taken. With that goes any justification for killing buffalo."

In March, the Montana Legislature's agriculture committee tabled a bill that would have stripped the state's livestock department of its authority over low-risk bison bulls, calves and non-pregnant females. The state has killed 45 bison so far this winter.

*Rachel Odell