Activists involved in the ongoing controversy over Yellowstone National Park’s bison say they’re still trying to digest the state’s final bison management plan released last week.
“We haven’t had time to fully review the document,” says Valerie Coulter of the Buffalo Field Campaign, formerly known as Buffalo Nations.
The group has played a key oversight role as officials from the National Park Service, Gallatin National Forest, the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the state of Montana wrangle over how to manage hungry bison that wander out of park boundaries and onto surrounding land. Disagreement between federal and state officials has been so severe that each party opted to draw up its own management plan. The new document from the Montana Department of Livestock and Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) outlines the state’s proposal to deal with the herd.
While strikingly similar to the federal plan, the state’s version alters certain boundaries outside the park where the bison can roam and includes different scenarios for protecting the public and surrounding lands from the animals.
State and federal officials are concerned that errant bison will mingle with domestic cattle and spread brucellosis, which can cause cows to abort their fetuses. Threat of the disease has triggered the specter of sanctions against the sale of some Montana-produced beef. There are still questions, however, about whether brucellosis can be transmitted from bison to cattle in the wild.
The past slaughter of about 1,500 park bison drew international criticism from the public and created a public-relations nightmare for state tourism efforts. In 1995, the state sued the federal government in an effort to keep bison herds trimmed down and contained within the park. As part of the litigation, an interim management agreement was forged among the parties, and groundwork was laid to create a permanent interagency plan to manage the main herd, now estimated at 3,200 animals. But disagreement between the state and federal agencies resulted in the issue being dragged back to court last winter after the federal government accused the state of dragging its feet. In response, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena told the parties to quit fighting and mend their fences. Operating on their own, federal agencies produced a separate management plan earlier this fall.
Next on the agenda, participants say, is to meld the state and federal proposals into one coherent management plan. That step will not likely come easily.
“This has been a lengthy and difficult issue to address,” says FWP Director Pat Graham. “We remain hopeful that the state and federal governments can resolve our differences and reach agreement on the final decision.”