HELENA – Montana wildlife officials are seeking approval to create a bison management plan and scope out sites that would be suitable to relocate dozens of bison from the genetically pure Yellowstone National Park herd.
The goal is to find areas that could support a population of at least 50 bison now involved in a quarantine program testing for the spread of the disease brucellosis, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials.
The animals would be temporarily relocated to an interim site for the five years they must remain under quarantine, then be permanently settled at either that site or in another part of Montana after a management plan is created that would include a hunt for the animals.
“This is one species in the state we have really, in a management effort, ignored,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said Tuesday.
The bison in the Yellowstone herd are genetically pure, as opposed to others where the genes of cattle have been introduced, making them highly valued targets for conservation.
There are 50 Yellowstone bison that can be relocated from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s quarantine facility north of Yellowstone park. Media mogul Ted Turner is keeping another 86 bison in the program on his Montana ranch in exchange for 75 percent of the animals’ offspring.
FWP plans to study temporary relocation sites, such as the Spotted Dog, Marias River and Beartooth wildlife management areas. The relocated bison would be contained in an area with a “wildlife-friendly fence” that would allow elk, deer and other wildlife to pass through, but not the bison.
That measure is a requirement of the quarantine program, but FWP officials suggested that the bison may have to be contained beyond the five years of quarantine.
“I doubt that we’ll ever get to a truly ‘free-ranging’ bison herd, but we want to see if we can find the right place where bison can roam behind a wildlife-friendly fence,” FWP director Joe Maurier said in a statement.
Conservationists applauded the agency’s efforts to relocate Yellowstone bison to parts of Montana where the animals had been wiped out, but said the number of relocated bison should be increased and they should be allowed to roam free after the quarantine period is up.
Fencing should be the last alternative to managing bison, said Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association.
“We don’t propose putting elk on a (wildlife management area) and fencing them in, so why should you do it for bison? We need to find a landscape where we have a lot of buy-in from various landowners,” Hockett said.
Keith Aune, who started the quarantine project when he ran the FWP bison program and now works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said this genetically important group of bison merits bigger thinking to make sure the population is secure.
“What you’ve got with the commission, they’re thinking small right now: What can we do with this certain set of animals?” Aune said. “It really comes down to human tolerance capacity. Will we tolerate a large landscape with free-ranging bison?”
No, says the state’s ranchers.
“Bottom line, our ranchers don’t support bison relocation,” said Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers’ Association. “Our ranchers are just very fearful that bison restoration will result in the elimination of cattle grazing.”
Rice said the state should focus first on eradicating brucellosis, which can cause pregnant bison, cattle and elk to abort their fetuses. Ranchers fear bison could spread the disease to their livestock, even those that have tested negative for it.
“The stakes are pretty high for our family ranchers here in Montana,” Rice said.
The agency will seek the blessing of the FWP commission to identify relocation sites and draft a management plan when the commission meets Jan. 13.
Aasheim said the agency plans to take into consideration all comments on the proposal and there is no set timeline to begin relocating animals.
“If there is a better alternative, we are listening,” he said.
Meanwhile, National Park Service officials herded 23 mixed bison from Yellowstone Tuesday with the aim of releasing them into the adjacent Gallatin National Forest until spring.
Park officials say they plan to release 25 bison after testing the animals for brucellosis and fitting them with monitors. In later years, they plan to allow first as many as 100 of the animals to roam the Gardiner Basin area.
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