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Bison & Boundaries

Can Yellowstone's signature mammal and the region's ranchers just get along?

Text and photos by Molly Loomis

Bison roam a residential neighborhood in Montana's Hebgen Basin, just outside Yellowstone National Park. | Photo by Molly Loomis

Since 1934, brucellosis has been listed as a federally controlled disease—with nationwide eradication being the goal. But so far, bison have infected cattle with brucellosis only once, and that was in a lab.

The issue became compelling with the release of a 2012 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society's Dr. Keith Aune on the persistence of brucellosis bacteria in the soil. Aune's study showed that the bacteria linger for only two weeks under the vast majority of conditions, and in any event do not last beyond June 10. Holding out for a few weeks longer could negate the necessity of a May 15 hazing date. Regardless, Montana Department of Livestock director Christian MacKay says that the risk of infection, however slight, still persists. "If you want to have zero risk for disease transmission between livestock and wildlife, forget it," Aune says. "The truth is [ranchers] don't have zero risk anywhere in the industry."

Aune's research is thrusting the true conflict in the bison debate into the spotlight: Bison opposition isn't just about brucellosis; it's also about how bison impact grazing lands.

"Bison are hard to live with because of their size and their behavior," explains wildlife biologist Rick Wallen, team leader for the Yellowstone's Bison Ecology and Management Program. "Deer and elk are willing to hide in the mountains if they have to. Bison select habitat along river and stream corridors. But that's where the humans want to be."

In July, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and the state's Department of Livestock released the Year-Round Habitat for Yellowstone Bison Environmental Assessment, which includes six options. Come next spring, bison could be roaming free year-round on as many as 421,821 acres adjoining Yellowstone. Or nothing could change, and existing zones could remain in place. A decision is expected by early 2014.

Photo by Molly Loomis

By mid-afternoon, my companions and I have curved back to the Madison River. The herd has traveled just six miles, but that's a lot for newborn calves that have to cross terrain littered with dead trees. As the animals approach the stream, I hear a shout from the trees. "How does it feel to kill babies?" I look to Jeremy for an explanation. "Oh, that's Justine," he says. "Yesterday one of the rangers got sick of it and yelled back, 'Talk to your congressman. I have nothing to do with it.'"

The herd steps into the river and swims in—a brown mass moving across the current, mothers swimming upstream of their young. I feel like I've stepped back in time. Except that waiting on the sidelines is an assortment of horse trailers and law enforcement rigs.

Bison management is caught in a complicated web of state, tribal, and federal agencies, each with its own agenda. The next day I head to Bozeman for a meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan working group responsible for determining the mammal's fate. As participants introduce themselves at the table, Ron Trahan, councilman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says, "I don't know if we're sitting on the right side of the room."

"There is no side," the moderator says. "That's the point."

It doesn't always play out that way. It wasn't until 2009, nine years after the initial Interagency Bison Management Plan was produced, that tribal interests were invited to the table, despite their deep connection to bison. And since the working group operates by consensus, in effect the Department of Livestock must agree with all decisions.

Yellowstone biologist Wallen's quiet voice sounds over the microphone. If the bison were given just another two weeks beyond the May 15 deadline, he says, they'd move back into the park on their own following the "green up."

"I don't want to affect the permittees' ability for grazing," responds Department of Livestock director MacKay, explaining how hay purchases for those additional two weeks could create undue burden on his constituents.

One rancher is upset over the eight instances when bison had to be moved away from his cattle. "Put an eff'n fence in," mutters an un-uniformed ranger sitting near me.

She's got a point. Montana is a "fence out" state, which means that it's the landowner's responsibility to fence out bothersome animals. When I ask Povah about it, he says that bison can tear through barbed wire and jump any fence shorter than eight feet high. Wooden rail fences are expensive and at that height would affect the movement patterns of all other wildlife, he says. But each year the Interagency Bison Management Plan spends some $3 million on hazing bison back into Yellowstone. Perhaps that kind of money might fund the R&D necessary for constructing a wildlife-friendly bison fence.

Two rows in front of me sits Becky Weed, a sheep rancher and former Montana Board of Livestock member, clicking away at her knitting. Weed, who along with Waterman participated in the Citizens' Working Group, which advised on the management plan, is hopeful that change is coming despite the glacial pace. While anti-bison advocates like Montana senator John Brenden (who recently called bison "vermin . . . in need of extermination") and the Montana legislature (which brought 14 anti-bison bills to the floor this year) might give the impression that it's the old rerun of environmentalists against ranchers, Weed says that the reality is more complicated. "Big trade organizations represent one point of view," she says, "but at the grassroots level, it's a lot messier." Weed says her ranching peers ought to direct their attention to issues bigger than bison. "When you look at the changes facing ranchers—drought, climate change, changing consumer preferences, increasing concerns about where meat comes from—there are unfathomable implications. Bison are an easy target," she says. "They aren't a threat to agriculture, but they are a threat to agriculture as it's currently practiced."

Driving back to my home in Idaho, I think about how bison once roamed the entire 200-mile distance. I'm reminded of the cross-country ski trip I took around Horse Butte after my first visit with the Buffalo Field Campaign's Seay. Racing against the setting sun, I was distracted. I raised my head just in time to greet three large bison in my path.

We watched each other for a while, as a band of lodgepoles cast a dark shadow across the snow. I wanted to welcome them, to somehow tell them to cross the line, to join me in the sun and venture to the far side of Horse Butte, where I'd just been. No success. But I sense that we might be getting closer to the day when North America's largest mammal and its most impactful one can coexist.

Molly Loomis is a regular contributor to Sierra.

This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.


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