In an effort to blunt an unnecessarily heavy-handed attack on Yellowstone bison, three conservation groups have requested permission from a court in Park County, Montana to oppose two lawsuits filed recently by the Park County Stockgrowers Association and Park County. The groups include Gardiner-based Bear Creek Council, as well as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Specifically, the organizations have requested the opportunity to “intervene” in state court, asking the judge to reject the Stockgrowers’ and county’s demand to essentially keep bison confined to Yellowstone National Park.
“We are pleased to have bison out here in the Gardiner Basin,” said Julia Page, Gardiner resident and president of Bear Creek Council. “There is no reason not to treat bison like the other wildlife we have here. We are fortunate to live near the boundary of the world’s first national park. We can learn to live with bison the same as we live with bears, elk, deer, rattlesnakes and other wildlife.”
This past winter, the agencies responsible for cooperatively managing bison around Yellowstone National Park agreed to make available more habitat in the Gardiner Basin area between the park’s northern boundary and Yankee Jim Canyon. The adaptive management changes opened up to bison thousands of acres of public lands managed by the Gallatin National Forest where there are no cattle present at any time during the winter. The adaptive changes were proposed in part to avoid the need to capture and ship to slaughterhouses hundreds of bison that migrate out of Yellowstone during severe winters such as this one.
The Stockgrowers and Park County filed their lawsuit in May. Their lawsuit asks a Park County state judge to order the Montana Department of Livestock and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to prevent bison from making use of the newly available wildlife habitat.
The changed circumstances in the Gardiner Basin began in February when Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued an executive order that prohibited transport of bison that had tested positive for brucellosis exposure across Montana highways to slaughterhouses. As bison moved out of Yellowstone during this winter’s deep snows, the park captured almost 700 bison and corralled them at Stephens Creek. More bison roamed along the Yellowstone River valley and throughout the Gardiner area. In past winters, the bison management agencies likely would have killed most or all of these bison. This year, managers instead chose to modify their management plan and open more public land habitat to bison rather than slaughter them.
“From my home, I can see bison walking on a hillside within Yellowstone National Park,” Page said. “Until this winter, I was saddened to know that those bison, the smart ones trying to find something to eat in the winter, would be captured and slaughtered if they crossed the boundary out of the park. This winter, I was thrilled that bison were treated with greater tolerance and were not slaughtered when they left the park in search of grass to eat.”
The Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) finalized in 2000 dictates how bison are managed outside of Yellowstone and calls for adaptation to changing circumstances. The IBMP agencies used this provision this spring to give the beleaguered bison population more access to habitat in the Gardiner Basin.
Bison are the only native wildlife species still unnaturally confined to the political boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. In past years, as many as 1,400 bison—about one-third of the nation’s only remaining continuously wild bison population—were slaughtered for leaving Yellowstone in search of food.
“Bison are native wildlife in Montana and are in critical need of habitat outside the park,” says Mark Pearson, GYC’s Conservation Program Director. “Practical solutions exist to provide native bison with habitat outside the park while also ensuring they don’t commingle with livestock. We need to focus on addressing concerns by some local landowners about bison coming onto their property, but that requires a scalpel and not the sledgehammer brought by the Stockgrowers and Park County via their lawsuit.”
“Capturing wild bison at the northern border of Yellowstone National Park makes no sense,” notes Matt Skoglund, a Wildlife Advocate for NRDC in Livingston. “We were thrilled to see the agencies recognize this and make the change to give bison access to more habitat in the Gardiner Basin. It’s now time to embrace this decision and work together to make it a lasting success.”
The three conservation groups seeking to intervene in the lawsuit—Bear Creek Council, GYC and NRDC—are represented by the Northern Rockies office of Earthjustice, a public-interest environmental law firm. Bear Creek Council is a Gardiner community group whose purpose includes promoting responsible use of area resources in order to ensure quality of life and protection and integrity of the environment. GYC and NRDC are committed to continuing their work with government agencies and private landowners to provide conflict-free zones outside of Yellowstone where bison have room to roam and are treated like the state’s other wildlife.