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May 07, 2013

Killing of Bison in Wildlife Area Prompts Sierra Club Response


The Montana Department of Livestock's recent killing of a bull bison, pictured above, in a designated wildlife area has raised questions about how migrating bison are managed by state agencies. In response to the killing, Montana-based Sierra Club organizer Zack Waterman co-authored this editorial, reprinted here courtesy of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

Bison management out of touch with reality

On the morning of Friday, April 12th, 2013, a bull bison was spotted several miles north of Yellowstone National Park on the remote Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Unfortunately, the MT Department of Livestock (DOL), with assistance from MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks responded to this situation by aggressively pursuing this lone bull and killing him.

After laying waste to the bull under the auspices of disease control, the MT DOL left the carcass to rot. This situation is particularly troubling given the DOL knows bull bison pose no risk of transmission of brucellosis to domestic cattle, not to mention the fact the Dome Mountain "Wildlife Management Area" was purchased specifically to provide habitat for migrating wildlife in an area that is completely free of cattle. Furthermore, there were no conflicts with private property as the adjacent Dome Mountain Ranch has already made it clear that bison are welcome to use their land just like elk, mule deer, grizzly bears, and other wildlife that live in Greater Yellowstone.

In an effort to justify this extreme response, Department of Livestock Chief Executive Officer, Christian MacKay explained the bull had to be lethally removed because he was outside of the bison "tolerance zone".

When government agencies slaughter a bison in a remote area that was posing no threat whatsoever to livestock, private property, or public safety, it's time to revisit how we manage migrating bison in Montana.

Let's begin by abandoning the assumption that all bison that leave the state's negligibly small "bison tolerance zone" are de facto problems that must be immediately removed.  We agree that we do not want cattle to contract brucellosis. But can we also agree to manage bison as valued native Montana wildlife, at least on some public lands owned by all Americans?

The good news is there are many public lands like the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area that are located outside of the state's arbitrary "bison tolerance zone" that provide critical winter habitat for elk -- and they can do the same for bison without harming private property. Each year approximately $3 million of tax-payer dollars are spent to remove migrating bison from public lands in Montana. In an era when Americans are tightening their belts and national debt continues to grow, it's nonsensical to waste limited taxpayer resources.
Elk from Yellowstone National Park have migrated and wintered in this same area for years. Grizzly bears and wolves also use the same area. Now a lone bull bison found this conflict-free habitat near Dome Mountain and the DOL needlessly intervened and killed it. What gives? It's time for a new approach that takes meaningful steps towards managing bison as valued native wildlife while respecting both public and private property rights. Let these animals show us the way to a habitat solution rather than continue to harass and slaughter them for crossing an imaginary government line.

Unfortunately, we lost a valuable opportunity to learn from the April 13th Dome Mountain bull bison. Such an opportunity will arise again. If we seize that chance to learn, and begin to explore what it means to consider bison-on-public-lands as an asset rather than a catastrophe for the state of Montana, ranchers, hunters, tourists and all Montana citizens will reap the benefits  Overwhelming public support exists for managing bison as wildlife on appropriate landscapes in Montana. If we adopt a learn-as-you-go approach and tailor bison management as needed, including public hunting, it will become clear the sky is not falling.

Zack Waterman represents the Sierra Club; Glenn Hockett is volunteer president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association; Sabina Strauss is owner of the Yellowstone Basin Inn in Gardiner, MT; and Becky Weed is owner of the Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company. The authors are members of the bison citizens working group, which formed to develop consensus recommendations to improve the management of Greater Yellowstone bison.

American-bisonPhoto courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


The American bison, commonly known as the buffalo, once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds. In the early 1800s it is estimated that some 60 million bison roamed an area stretching from what is now northern Canada as far south as northern Mexico, and east nearly to the Atlantic Ocean.

By 1833, bison had been extirpated east of the Mississippi River, and by the 1890s, following decades of wanton slaughter, a mere 500 individuals remained alive in total. Thanks to aggressive conservation efforts initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt, the American bison was pulled back from the brink of extinction, and its numbers have now rebounded to about 500,000, half in Canada and half in the U.S. Most live in captive commercial operations or on privately-owned ranches -- meaning they are owned, fenced, and considered livestock, not wildlife. Only about 15,000 are truly wild.

Yellowstone-bisonPhoto courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Yellowstone National Park bison herd -- a group of which is pictured above -- is the largest remaining wild herd, estimated at about 4,000 individuals. For the last 15 years, groups like the Sierra Club have been working with Native American tribes to cull animals from the Yellowstone herd and restore them to portions of their former range in Montana and Wyoming.

But resistance to the idea of free-roaming bison is fierce, especially among cattlemen, many of whom are concerned about the transmission of brucellosis, an infectious bacteria-borne disease, to domestic cattle, even though the National Academy of Scientists states the risk of this is close to zero.

Below, bison grazing in western Montana's National Bison Range.

National-Bison-Range-in-MTPhoto courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While Yellowstone bison remain within the national park boundaries, they are protected. But as soon as they cross out of the park onto either private land or public land that is leased for grazing, they are considered fair game for killing or removal. Legislation now being considered in the Montana legislature would ban the spread of wild bison beyond Yellowstone's borders.

One recent bill in the Montana Senate would have required the immediate slaughter, removal, or sale of any wild bison that enter the state of Montana from Yellowstone, whether they are on public or private land. The so-called Anti-Montana Bison Bill would also have prohibited the transfer of Yellowstone bison anywhere in the state and created a new bison hunting season.

"Why do you want to spread this creeping cancer, these wooly tanks, around the state?" asked Senator John Brenden, the bill's author, who characterized wild bison as heathens and domesticated bison as Christians.

A coalition of Native American tribes, bison advocates, and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks rallied to defeat the measure, prompting Senator Brendan to remark that, "People who think you can have free-roaming buffalo in modern society are crazy."

Among the crazies, apparently, is Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who has fought for the transfer of bison onto tribal lands. He believes the conflict boils down to a competition for grass.

"Cattlemen make a great part of their living off subsidized grazing," Schweitzer told the New York Times. While the federal government charges $1.38 per month to graze a cow and a calf, private landowners charge $22. "Buffalo are large animals that could become active competition for cheap grazing on federal land."

But the April bison-killing in the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area suggests that migrating wild bison aren't safe outside Yellowstone even in areas where they do not compete or even come into contact with domestic cattle.

Learn more about what the Sierra Club is doing to protect wild bison, wildlife habitat, and wild forests, rivers, and landscapes in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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