The Montana state legislature briefly considered a bill that would classify bison as a wildlife species and return their management to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). However, it never made it out of committee. Currently Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) has management jurisdiction over bison migrating out of Yellowstone National Park (YNP). Our only wild bison in Montana are those that come out of YNP during winter. Over the years there has been a concerted effort by ranchers and politicians to prevent bison from leaving YNP – at issue is a bacterial disease call brucellosis. Some bison and other wildlife in the YNP ecosystem are carriers of this bacteria, while cattle are classified as brucellosis free.
When DOL was put in charge of bison back in the 1990s, they built capture facilities near Gardner and West Yellowstone where bison typically leave YNP. Somehow DOL promoted the idea that capturing bison, loading them onto livestock trailers, and trucking them long distances to slaughter houses was a humane method of killing migrating bison. Let’s see, their term was “shipped to slaughter”. The main thing here was that DOL was able to control access and conduct their dirty work out of public view. When FWP managed bison, they were shot by wardens and licensed hunters as they left YNP. This was done in full view of the public and it received considerable public criticism.
I have worked with bison for many years and know full well what happens when wild bison are crowed into small spaces such as pens, loading chutes, and trailers. I believe a former DOL state veterinarian said it best when I discussed this issue with him – “They do tend to lash out at each other”. During the winter of 1996/97 over a thousand bison were killed by DOL. I had an informant in the slaughter houses that reported the conditions of bison coming in: gored out eyes, broken ribs, broken pelvises, intestines hanging out, and animals held in pens without water since the number of animals arriving overwhelmed the staffs at Montana’s small slaughter houses. Meat inspectors were sawing off whole portions of carcasses and condemning the meat because of the trauma. This was no surprise to me. (buffalofieldcampaign.org has a good accounting of the annual slaughter of YNP bison)
During the winter of 96/97, I wrote a bison quarantine plan for the Fort Belknap Wildlife Department. This plan, which was judged by the US Department of Agriculture as being technically correct, proposed to take brucellosis test-negative bison from YNP and hold them in a quarantine facility for at least 3 years for repeated testing to certify that they were brucellosis free. Once certified brucellosis free, a separate bison herd would be established on the Reservation with YNP bison. The Tribal Council was supportive of this plan and a site was designated for the quarantine facility. However, this plan was rejected by the state of Montana. The government did finally build a quarantine facility just north of Gardner, MT (north entrance of YNP) and the first group of bison are now ready to come out. The Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Reservations say that they will take these bison, but there are already ranchers organizing against this. It is important to establish other herds with YNP bison because these bison are the closest we have to wild bison. They live on a large landscape and obtain all their yearly forage needs from this landscape, disease and predation are allowed to function, and the sex ratio is not artificially skewed to minimize male/male rivalry during the rut. Moreover, establishing YNP bison herds in other areas (note: the Henry Mountains herd in Utah originated from YNP bison) would create more flexibility in management of YNP bison as it relates to brucellosis (brucellosis is a long and complicated story, and is too much to discuss here).
A few years after I wrote the quarantine proposal, I wrote a paper on the suitability of Montana wild lands for bison reintroduction. In this paper I identified several large blocks (few hundred thousand acres and more) of landscape in Montana that were primarily (around 90%) public land that contained habitat suitable for bison. I outlined the techniques of how to establish a bison herd and imprint the herd to a specific landscape (we have twice done this successfully with our own bison). This paper did not propose to eliminate cattle grazing from public land, but instead recommended that bison be managed similar to deer and elk through public hunting to balance bison numbers with forage availability in relation to other grazing ungulates. I gave this paper to FWP. To reintroduce native wildlife in Montana, the state requires that an environmental assessment (EA) be written and that public meetings be held to discuss the proposed reintroductions. In Montana, wildlife is held in trust by the state and FWP is the agency designated with management authority over wildlife (except for YNP bison). So if FWP does not act, there is no legal way to reintroduce a native wildlife species. Shortly after I wrote this paper, I organized a meeting to discuss bison reintroduction with State, Federal, and private conservation agencies. From FWP, I heard that their “plate was full” and they did not have time for bison, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) claimed that they just got cattle grazing under control and didn’t want bison destroying the riparian habitat, and Glacier National Park, where bison reintroduction was recommended at the time of establishment (this was also the case for the CMR) refused to allow their biologist to attend the meeting. Every time I see FWP bragging about restoring wildlife in Montana, I just think about bison – once the dominant ungulate on the prairies – and there is not even one wild public bison herd in Montana, despite large areas of suitable habitat. Apparently FWP’s plate has been full for a century.