THE state of Montana has been spending big bucks in Seattle and other cities across the U.S. to entice people to visit its great state. You’ve probably seen the billboards, bus ads and store banners across town with beautiful, scenic images of Yellowstone National Park and its wildlife. Unfortunately, for one of Montana’s most recognizable animals, wild bison, this idyllic image doesn’t match reality.
Bison have been at the center of controversy this spring as they leave Yellowstone National Park in search of grass and calving grounds in Montana adjacent to the park. Instead of being allowed to roam outside the park year-round like other wildlife, bison are hazed back into the park, or captured and shipped to slaughter. Hundreds of bison were killed this year.
This policy stems from a disease called brucellosis, which can cause infected pregnant animals to miscarry. Cattle introduced brucellosis into the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem about a century ago, and some wild bison and elk still carry it. The livestock industry is concerned about wild bison transmitting the disease back to livestock. Such a transmission has never been documented, but the potential, although incredibly small, exists.
Over the last decade, several changes have opened the door for better management of wild bison in Montana. With retired grazing allotments and fewer cows on the landscape, there are tens of thousands of acres of public land where there are no potential conflicts with cattle, ever. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also made sweeping changes to brucellosis regulations a few years ago, and they are now more reasonable and livestock-producer-friendly.
It’s clear that the old ways of bison management need to be updated. Working together, a broad set of conservationists, wildlife experts, ranchers, hunters and interested citizens came to consensus in support of significantly expanding year-round habitat for bison in Montana. Last summer, the state issued a formal proposal based on that recommendation. Ninety-nine percent of the more than 100,000 public comments on the proposal supported increased year-round habitat.
But in late May, the Montana Board of Livestock voted to indefinitely delay any decision on year-round habitat for Yellowstone bison, even though the Department of Livestock was a co-lead in formulating the state’s proposal. It’s now up to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and it’s unclear how he will proceed.
Science, economics, public opinion and common sense make clear that opening up significant year-round bison habitat in areas without livestock conflicts is the logical path forward. Doing so would give the state more management options and flexibility. More fair-chase hunting opportunities would be created. Fewer taxpayer dollars would be wasted on unnecessary hazing, capture and slaughter. Wild bison would finally be allowed to roam portions of Montana, bringing ecological and economic benefits and sharing the landscape with all of the other wild animals that call Montana home.
Of course, negative publicity for the state of Montana would be reduced, too. Tourism is responsible for a huge portion of the state’s economy, and many of the tourists that visit Montana in response to the state’s tourism campaigns come to see wild bison and Yellowstone National Park.
The proposal for significant year-round habitat is not a choice between wildlife or livestock that would benefit one at the expense of the other; it would be a step forward for both Montana residents and visitors alike. No compelling reasons have been advanced for not moving forward with significant year-round habitat in Montana. In fact, to not move forward — given all of the major recent changes — would be a great setback and failure for the state.
It’s time for Gov. Bullock to do what science and the public have demanded: allow for year-round habitat for wild bison in Montana. It’s time to make the picture-perfect advertisements a reality.
Bonnie Rice of Bozeman, Mont., is with Sierra Club’s “Our Wild America” campaign. Glenn Hockett of Bozeman is with the Gallatin Wildlife Association.