Montana, feds find common ground for bison

Greens find no good news for the animals


After nearly eight years of negotiations and months of court-ordered mediation, the state of Montana and National Park Service have agreed on a final plan to manage Yellowstone's bison. Environmentalists, however, say the new plan looks a lot like the old one.

Under the old plan, Montana livestock officials slaughtered roughly 3,000 bison in the 1990s because they fear the animals could spread brucellosis to cattle. Environmentalists contend that no one has ever proven that bison pass the disease to cows, and that the animals should be free to leave the park to find winter forage on surrounding national forest lands (HCN, 1/31/00: Political war continues over bison herd).

The new plan should please both sides, says Glenn Plumb, supervisory wildlife biologist at Yellowstone. This winter, Montana officials will continue to capture and test bison for brucellosis, slaughtering some and hazing others back into the park. But beginning next year, the state will pay to vaccinate bison, and up to 100 of the animals will be allowed out of the park.

Beyond the 100 mark, bison will be hazed back across the park line, and all of the animals must be back in the park by mid-April at the north entrance and May 15 at the west. Plumb says bison outside Yellowstone after the deadline could be shot, but insists that most of the animals will return to their summer pasture in the park.

"The bison are not being pushed back to allow cattle to come on the lands," says Plumb. Instead, the bison will leave national forest grazing allotments on their own each spring, and the Montana state veterinarian will determine when it's safe for cattle to return.

Of particular concern are pregnant females, whose afterbirth could pass brucellosis to cattle. In the past, says Plumb, all pregnant females caught outside the park have been sent to slaughter. Under the new plan, pregnant females that test negative for brucellosis will be allowed outside the park, and vaginal transmitters will alert biologists when the animals have given birth.

Plumb acknowledges that overall, the final plan is "not a major change, but it is real. We are now operating under a joint plan; we are working together."

But Jon Catton with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says that while the Park Service and state of Montana are smiling, the new plan doesn't help the bison. "If you clear away their rhetoric, this is a sugarcoating for a slaughter plan," he says. "It is a bureaucratic plan for more killing of a very special animal."

The author reports for the Jackson Hole News.

For more information ...

    Find the Record of Decision on Bison Management for Yellowstone National Park and the State of Montana on the Web at or call 307/344-2159.
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