Biodiversity: Yellowstone bison get more room to roam

bison, buffalo
A bison grazes near a highway in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A long-running battle over Yellowstone bison was at least partly resolved this week, as a Montana judge upheld a state policy allowing the animals to roam outside Yellowstone National Park without facing harassment and death.

The state rules were challenged by ranchers opposed to allowing bison to graze in the Gardiner Basin, just north of the park, important habitat in the winter and early spring. Federal and state biologists decided last year to allow bison seasonal access until May 1 of each year, opening critical foraging lands when higher elevations in the park lack spring grasses for bison and other grazing animals.

“Today’s ruling represents a victory for all those who want to see wild bison as a living part of the Montana landscape,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who defended the bison policy in the case on behalf of the Bear Creek Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Yellowstone region’s bison herds are the descendants of the last wild bison in the American West, and today they stand as some of the last genetically pure bison in the world.  The court rejected the idea that the law requires slaughtering these magnificent animals whenever they cross the park boundary.”  

The Park County Stockgrowers Association, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, and Park County, Montana went to court to try and block the policies, raising concerns about about the potential for bison to infect cattle with brucellosis. But the only two cattle ranchers operating year-round in the Gardiner Basin did not join the legal challenge.

This week’s court decision rejected the challengers’ lawsuits and upheld the new policy. It follows five days of trial during which many Gardiner Basin residents voiced their support for bison tolerance in the area.

“Bison are native wildlife in Montana and are in critical need of habitat outside the Park,” said Mark Pearson, conservation program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.  “Practical solutions exist to provide native bison with habitat outside the park while also ensuring they don’t commingle with livestock. We are focused on addressing concerns by some local landowners about bison coming onto their property, and we are pleased that the judge allowed the bison tolerance policy and our ongoing co-existence work to go forward.”

“We are so glad this decision reaffirms the place of wild bison on the landscape here in our part of Montana,” added Julia Page of the Gardiner-based Bear Creek Council.  “We are privileged to live with these animals and now we can continue the work of learning their ways and getting along with them as we have with other wildlife.”

Bison are the only native wildlife species still unnaturally confined to the political boundaries of Yellowstone National Park for any part of the year.  As recently as 2008, more than 1,400 bison — about one-third of the current size of Yellowstone’s bison population — were captured and slaughtered by government agencies while leaving Yellowstone in search of food.

Conservation groups said they’ll work with government agencies and private landowners to help mitigate potential conflict areas outside of Yellowstone where bison should have more room to roam and be treated like Montana’s other wildlife.


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