Yellowstone National Park's iconic bison herd has fought year after year to roam free in Montana. And every spring, animals that have strayed beyond the park boundary are turned back by officials on ATVs and horses and in helicopters.
That annual eviction may be less extreme from now on. Last month, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced a proposal to allow bison to occupy certain areas adjacent to Yellowstone year-round. The proposal, issued alongside the Montana Department of Livestock, is nearing the end of its public scoping process. The agencies hope to make a final decision by mid-December.
FWP regional supervisor Pat Flowers says the latest move to accommodate bison beyond the park sprang from recommendations over the past year from the Citizens Working Group on Yellowstone Bison. Many landowners have expressed a desire to see free-roaming bison outside the park, Flowers says, and increased habitat availability would allow FWP to better manage the roughly 4,230-strong herd through hunting.
Bison have historically migrated north out of the park in winter months in search of better forage. Concerns over transmission of brucellosis to cattle have prompted officials to haze the ungulates back before the onset of summer. But livestock grazing has scaled back in those areas proposed for year-round occupancy, significantly lowering the risk of contact between cattle and bison.
Some conservationists have hailed the proposal as another step toward greater tolerance for free-roaming bison. A court ruling from July still stands in the way of establishing new bison herds elsewhere in Montana, but Defenders of Wildlife regional representative Jonathan Proctor says the Yellowstone proposal is "a great test for whether we can successfully co-exist with free-roaming bison."
Proctor adds that Defenders, along with the Sierra Club and other conservation groups, has started a fund to help landowners in the Gardiner and Hebgen basins who are less than enthusiastic about the proposal. The fund will cover 50 percent of the cost for materials and labor—up to $1,000 for fencing to keep bison out of yards and gardens.