This spring, some 10,000 Montana hunters will apply for a few dozen, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to hunt bison near Yellowstone National Park. These hunts offer the opportunity to put hundreds of pounds of healthy meat in the freezer in a way that connects people with ancient traditions. Hunter-conservationists saved bison from extinction a century ago by pushing for protective laws and digging deep into their pockets to pay for habitat conservation. The opportunity to hunt bison today is among the tangible benefits of conserving a viable population of wild bison. It’s also the best
prospect for managing bison populations to protect livestock.
Yellowstone National Park boasts America’s largest herd of wild bison. It’s secure habitat, where bison are protected – and greatly appreciated by millions of tourists. But the park can be inhospitable to grass-eating bison in winter, especially when snow piles deep. As they always have, some bison try to leave the park for better winter range. Some Yellowstone bison test positive for brucellosis exposure. Brucellosis is a cattle disease, although there has never been a case of brucellosis transmission from wild bison to cattle. Bison and cattle do, however, compete for grass.
An inter-agency management plan to maintain bison populations in the park and protect livestock operations on adjacent lands sets a population objective of 3,000 to 3,500 bison. The herd currently exceeds 4,000 animals.
For obvious reasons, Yellowstone doesn’t allow hunting. The only way to control the bison population within the park is to pay government agents to capture or slaughter the animals. This is a terrible waste of money. We also know from painful experience that it is socially unacceptable. Such slaughter outrages and confuses many Americans.
There’s another way to manage Yellowstone’s bison. If bison were allowed to roam beyond park boundaries, Montana hunters – as well as tribal hunters who have treaty hunting rights – would be effective in reducing bison numbers.
Last year, Montana proposed to allow Yellowstone bison to access public land adjacent to the park. Support for the plan has been tremendous, with over 110,000 supporting comments. The proposed expansion area covers 400,000 acres, almost entirely public land, free of potential conflicts between cattle and bison. The National Wildlife Federation and others negotiated agreements with willing sellers, paying fair-market value to “retire” grazing allotments or move cattle to more suitable areas.
Within the area, wildlife managers can enlist public hunters to manage bison numbers to the levels set in the management plan. It’s a win-win-win for agencies that manage bison, ranchers keen on protecting cattle from brucellosis, and public hunters who want a fair-chase shot at a once-in-a-lifetime hunt.
Unfortunately, Montana’s Board of Livestock opposes the plan. BOL wants to ignore principles of modern wildlife management and a simple, common-sense solution to the conflict. It’s as if BOL wants to see the conflict over bison worsen.
Sportsmen, ranchers, agencies and environmentalists have sat down at the table to work out ways to manage Yellowstone bison. We’ve rolled up our sleeves, studied the issues, and found compromises that protect livestock, respect the management needs of agencies, and provide public hunting opportunity. It hasn’t been easy, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
BOL certainly deserves a say in the matter, but its refusal to accept reasonable compromise shouldn’t dictate wildlife management.
Playing politics, digging in your heels, and hoping for failure isn’t how we do things in Montana. Tens of thousands of Montana hunters are hoping that Gov. Steve Bullock will help guide BOL toward a more reasonable approach and secure the board’s support of the proposed habitat-expansion plan. It’s the right thing to do – to manage bison populations respectfully and to protect Montana’s livestock industry.
Kit Fischer is sportsmen’s outreach coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation; Dave Chadwick is executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation; Jim Posewitz is a board member of Helena Hunters and Anglers; Casey Hackathorn is president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers; Chris Marchion is a board member of Anaconda Sportsmen; and Glenn Hockett is president of Gallatin Wildlife Association.