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04/25/2011

Yellowstone Bison Get More Room to Roam as a Result of Historic Agreement

Bison Last week, driving south down highway 89 to Yellowstone National Park, I was treated to a rare, and indeed historic sight: dozens of wild bison roaming free in the Gardiner Basin.

Winter is a hard time for bison in Yellowstone.  Though these iconic creatures have evolved to withstand much of the harsh winter weather and deep snows for which Yellowstone National Park is well known, in some heavy snow years, such as this one, hundreds of bison attempt to migrate out of the Park, as they did historically, to lower elevations in search of food. 

But for many years, bison trying to migrate and find sustenance to survive the winter have been hazed back into the Park, captured and corralled, or shot at the Park boundary. Why?  Primarily because the state of Montana and some in the livestock industry fear a disease called brucellosis, which causes cattle to abort their young, will spread from wild bison to livestock.  And so each year bison are either hazed back into the Park when they attempt their historical migration to the west or north, or captured and corralled until spring, or shot.  Yellowstone bison, the only remaining genetically-pure bison population, is the only wild species confined to the boundaries of a national park.  There has never been a case of wild bison transmitting brucellosis to livestock (in fact, research shows that bison very likely first contracted brucellosis from cattle). And many more elk carry brucellosis than bison – and migrate freely – but you don’t see elk being shot at the Park boundary.

Last week, however, there was good news for bison that we hope ushers in a new era of tolerance for wild bison in Montana and growing awareness that these iconic animals deserve to be treated like the wild and special creatures they are. An historic agreement signed last week by federal and state agencies and Tribes allows bison, for the first time, to migrate out of the Park in the winter and spring. Under the new agreement, bison will be able to migrate up to 13 miles north of the Park over 75,000 acres in the Gardiner Basin.  Because this lower-elevation habitat doesn’t receive the heavy snow that the Park does, it provides critical winter forage for bison.

3 bison Each year, the sight of hundreds of wild bison on the high plateaus of Yellowstone National Park thrills millions of visitors. Wild bison are a key part of what makes Yellowstone such a unique and wonderful place. With the exception of Yellowstone bison, the plains bison is considered ecologically extinct across North America. Conservation of the migratory and nomadic tendencies of Yellowstone bison , as well as their genetic integrity, is therefore absolutely crucial for the long-term well-being of the species.

Sierra Club believes that bison should be managed like other wild species, not like livestock. Wild bison – or any other species – should not be confined to the boundaries of a national park. Earlier this year, Sierra Club joined a citizens advisory group to help find solutions to what has been, for a long time, an intractable problem and national disgrace. It’s been a long time coming, and there’s a lot more to do to build increased public tolerance for these incredible animals in the areas surrounding Yellowstone National Park, but today we have something to celebrate. 

As I was coming home from the Park, I reflected on the single bison I snowshoed past in the Lamar Valley earlier that day, and felt hope knowing that next winter, that bison would be able to leave the Park to find what it needed to sustain itself through the winter, and come back – when it chose to – to spring in Yellowstone. 

-Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club Greater Yellowstone Campaign

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