Spared slaughter, some bison migrate into Montana

By Matthew Brown
Corwin Springs, Montana (AP) January 2011

For the first time since the 1800s, a small group of wild bison were herded last week through fresh-fallen snow to reach their historical grazing grounds north of Yellowstone National Park.

As pronghorn antelope and mule deer scattered to avoid the procession, park employees and state livestock agents on horseback pushed the 25 bison about ten miles down the Yellowstone River valley. It took about three hours to reach an open meadow in the Gallatin National Forest, where the animals will be allowed to remain until spring.

The move could provide at least some relief from government-sponsored mass slaughters of the iconic Western animals,
often called buffalo. Past winter journeys by bison seeking to graze at lower elevations have been blocked over fears that a
disease carried by some could infect cattle.

During the last major migration, in 2008, 1,600 Yellowstone bison were killed – about a third of the park’s total.

Yet progress toward ending the slaughters remains tenuous. Deep snow in Yellowstone’s interior has set the stage for another major migration this year, meaning hundreds of bison could yet be captured and killed.

“It seems like the progress is slow, but it’s slow because it’s so complex,” said Colin Campbell, Yellowstone’s acting superintendent. “In all reality, there will always be limits, like there are with any wildlife species.”

Wildlife officials said the Forest Service land where the 25 bison will be allowed to roam is roughly 2,500 acres, or less than four square miles. If this year’s “test” operation goes well, the number of bison allowed eventually could be increased to 100.

Access to the land came at a steep price: Government agencies and private conservation groups paid more than $3 million to establish a bison travel corridor through the Royal Teton Ranch, a sprawling property just north of Yellowstone owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant.

Electrified fencing now lines the dirt road that passes through the ranch – a reminder that the newfound tolerance for bison in Montana has its limits. Critics dubbed the route the “corridor to nowhere” because bison that attempt to migrate much farther will be turned back or killed.

One bison advocate watching last week's herding operation warned that it would establish a scent trail other bison could follow to their doom.

“You can’t treat bison like livestock. This is a wild animal and they’ve set up a livestock operation” said Stephany Seay with the Buffalo Field Campaign.

To keep close tabs on the animals, they received ear tags, radio collars and, for females, tracking devices implanted in their vaginas in case they abort their young. The disease some bison carry – brucellosis – can cause animals to prematurely abort. No bison-to-cattle transmissions have been recorded.

Prior to European settlement an estimated 60 million bison roamed North America, from Canada to northern Mexico. They were hunted to near-extinction by the end of the 19th century, with only about 300 survivors remaining.

Yellowstone was the first place the species was restored in significant numbers. But as the herd rebounded, fears over the disease brucellosis grew more acute. Since the 1980s almost all bison that attempted to leave the park in search of food at lower elevations were killed, or hazed back into the park.

A 2000 agreement committed federal and state officials to pursue more room for the animals to roam in Montana. But its successes have been few and 3,800 bison have since been killed.

In the last several years, tolerance has increased somewhat as the number of cattle that graze around Yellowstone has been sharply reduced.

Hundreds of bison now regularly winter just west of the park. And there are tentative plans to relocate onto a state wildlife management area several dozen disease-free bison that have spent the last several years in quarantine.

A prior effort to relocate those quarantined bison ended in what many considered failure, after Montana officials declined to offer any state land for the animals and turned down proposals from several American Indian tribes.

The first group of quarantined bison were eventually placed north of Bozeman on a ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner, who accepted them in exchange for a pledge that he could keep the animals’ offspring to supplement his large private herd.

Opposition to relocating more bison runs strong within the state’s ranching industry. Last week, state lawmakers were scheduled to consider a bill that would prohibit bison from being relocated inside Montana other than onto the National Bison Range in the northwest part of the state. It was not immediately clear how that could impact the 25 animals moved recently.

“If I was the boss, I would say there wouldn’t be a buffalo come into the state of Montana until the federal government can clean up the brucellosis in the buffalo herd,” said Bill Hoppe, who runs a small herd of cattle near Corwin Springs.

But Mark Pearson with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group, said he remained hopeful that attitudes are changing.

“It’s important for the state of Montana to finally step up to the plate here and accept some of the responsibility for these bison,” he said.