For bison in the Gardiner Basin, tolerance is a new word.

For years, the animals have been hazed, fenced, shot and sent to slaughter for migrating to the basin north of Yellowstone National Park.

But on Thursday, an agreement was finalized that will allow bison to roam on the same land they've been pushed away from for decades.

Nine signatures from tribal, state and federal representatives were needed to make the agreement valid. The InterTribal Buffalo Council was the last to sign the document Thursday evening.

The agreement calls for installation of fences and bison guards at the southern end of Yankee Jim Canyon, and bison hunting on all public lands outside the park, and private land with permission, during the hunting season. However, the plan's biggest impacts won't likely be felt until next winter.

That's partly because the fences have not yet been constructed, so the 667 bison being held in fenced pastures will not immediately be released. And due to standing bison policy, the bison that are allowed to roam north of the park will have to be hazed back into the park by May 1.

The agreement is being praised for providing the bison more winter rangeland north of the park, and seems to reflect a growing acceptance for bison on Montana's public lands.

But - even as bison are being given more room to roam - hefty restrictions will continue to be placed on their movement. And for the livestock industry, that's good news.

Traditionally, bison have not been tolerated outside park boundaries because of a fear that they could spread the disease brucellosis to cattle and threaten the livestock industry. Brucellosis can cause pregnant animals to miscarry.

Christian Mackay, executive director of the Montana Department of Livestock, said the new agreement has "some very positive things about it for the livestock industry."

For one, the fence and bison guards will help keep bison from leaving the Gardiner Basin and heading north toward Paradise Valley, Mackay said. There are more cattle herds in the Paradise Valley.

Secondly, there will be zero tolerance for bison outside the new boundaries of the plan. That means if the animals leave the Gardiner Basin, they'll immediately be "removed lethally," Mackay said.

"It's a no-second-chances plan, so there's no herd memory of getting out," he said.

Mackay added that agency partners are still deciding whether all bison will be able to roam the basin, or if that will depend on whether the animals test positive for exposure to brucellosis. If an animal tests positive, it means that it could potentially be infected with the disease.

Environmental groups have also praised parts of the agreement.

Bonnie Rice, a representative for the Sierra Club, called it a "very positive step" and said the group has "long wanted to see bison managed more as wildlife."

Stephany Seay, of the advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign, said the agreement has been a "long time coming" and will offer a "much-needed respite for the buffalo."

"It's not the end of the line from our perspective," she added. "We're going to keep pushing for more habitat."

Gardiner residents, on the other hand, seemed more cautious than celebratory about the bison management changes.

Tom Gauthier is the principal at Gardiner Public School, where bison are often seen grazing on the football field.

"I have mixed feelings obviously," he said, adding that he understands residents' concerns about property damage, but also enjoys the bison.

"I like seeing them," he said. "I won't lie about that."

An open house hosted by the agencies that oversee bison management was held in Gardiner Thursday evening. The agencies hoped to provide the public with an overview of the recent changes.

Carly Flandro can be reached at 582-2638 or cflandro@dailychronicle.com.

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