It’s been slow but steady progress lately for bison conservation in Montana. Tribal wildlife managers at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations are busy making preparations to receive 65 disease-free, genetically pure bison from a quarantine facility near Yellowstone National Park—a move that was approved late last year by the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission. Litigation from a handful of local private landowners threatens to stop the move, which could occur any day. Defenders is preparing to intervene in support of Governor Schweitzer and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and their decision to transfer these bison to the tribes.

Meanwhile, the state has agreed to open more land outside the park for bison to use during the winter when heavy snow sends them in search of food at lower elevations. Last week, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released its updated interagency bison management plan that will allow bison to continue roaming north of Yellowstone National Park into Gardiner Basin during winter months.

The revised plan is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction for Yellowstone bison, the most important bison population in the United States. These genetically pure wild bison are essential to the ecological restoration of the species, and there is no better place than Gardiner Basin for Montana to learn how to live with free-roaming bison.

Yellowstone bison were first allowed to roam Gardiner Basin last year when deep snow pushed hundreds of bison to leave the park in search of food. In previous years, bison that strayed beyond park boundaries were promptly hazed back into the park, shipped to slaughter, or held in captivity. But the new policy allows bison to remain in the area until May 1 each year. Just as with the proposed move to tribal lands, litigation threatens to end this progress as well.

Montana Governor Schweitzer has also weighed in, once again prohibiting the shipment of Yellowstone bison to slaughter, thereby forcing the state and federal agencies involved to seek alternatives. Defenders supports this move to prohibit needless slaughter and will continue to help in the effort to find alternatives. In 2011 Defenders contributed $7,000 to pay for fencing to keep bison off private property in Gardiner Basin where they are not wanted. This new effort, managed by the state wildlife department, increases tolerance for bison by allowing local landowners and bison to coexist.

The revised plan for Gardiner Basin is not all that these bison deserve, as some bison will continue to be hazed and held in captivity should more than 300 or so roam the basin at any one time. Ultimately, we believe bison should be allowed to roam year-round in Gardiner Basin – and other locations around Yellowstone – without confinement. Still, this is a start, and our hope is that we will see greater tolerance in the near future based on the success of coexistence projects.

Photo: USFWS Mountain Prairie

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