For the next 90 days, bison migrating outside of Yellowstone National Park and into Montana will have a "get out of slaughter free" card - issued to them especially by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
On Tuesday, Schweitzer issued an executive order that prohibits the animals from being sent to slaughterhouses, seemingly saving the more than 500 bison now confined in the Stephens Creek holding pasture northwest of Gardiner from being killed. Schweitzer said in a phone interview with the Chronicle Tuesday that it was a move to keep the bison from being transported through the state and spreading brucellosis.
But what seems like an order that could please both ranchers and environmentalists - groups that typically butt heads over bison management - has puzzled representatives from both groups.
The order came just one day after U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled that the slaughter of bison could go forward. His decision was a response to several environmental and American Indian groups that had requested that the slaughters be stopped.
But now slaughter has been ruled out for the time being, and many are left with questions about the order and what it will mean for wild bison in the state.
In Montana, bison are typically not tolerated outside of Yellowstone National Park because of a fear that they will spread brucellosis to nearby cattle. The disease can cause bison, livestock and other animals to miscarry.
However, bison often migrate outside of the park during the winter in search of lower, less-snowy grounds where they can find better grazing. That wandering has caused controversy between ranchers who want to keep the bison away from their livestock and environmentalists who believe bison should be free to roam public lands.
The Interagency Bison Management Plan has been developed by state and federal agencies to control the disease while giving bison more room to roam, but Schweitzer said Tuesday the plan was obsolete.
His said his order was aimed at disease control. Sending the bison to slaughterhouses across Montana makes the risk of the animals spreading brucellosis more of a statewide problem, rather than keeping it confined to the area just around the park.
But brucellosis is spread when animals make contact with infected fetuses, uteruses or afterbirth, raising questions of how transporting the animals in trucks to slaughterhouses raised disease concerns.
Schweitzer gave several examples Tuesday.
In one scenario, he imagined a bison cow aborting a fetus on the truck and the fetus bouncing out of the vehicle. A magpie could move it into a pasture and a cow could sniff it.
"Bang! Brucellosis," he said. "It doesn't make sense to take this risk."
He also suggested brucellosis could be spread by bison carcasses after the animals are slaughtered.
Errol Rice, executive vice president for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said he had not heard any concerns from ranchers about the risk of brucellosis spreading during the bison's transportation to slaughterhouses.
"(Officials) are very professional in removing those bison," he said, adding that the association is "puzzled by the order."
He also called slaughter "one of the only management options" available to protect cattle from brucellosis when bison leave the park.
Schweitzer said he made the order effective for 90 days because by May 15, winter will be over and green grass will be much more abundant inside Yellowstone and bison will return to the park.
But for now, the executive order could cause problems. Currently, about 525 bison are being held in a fenced pasture at Stephens Creek to prevent them from migrating too far outside the park.
Al Nash, a park spokesman, said the pasture is very near the capacity for what it can hold for even a short-term amount of time. He said the park has sought legal counsel on the governor's order, which should help officials understand how exactly bison management will be affected.
Outside the park, feeding the bison hay to keep them near its border could be an option.
Hazing the bison, or herding them to certain areas, could also become much more necessary.
"There's definitely going to be some hard work in the future for our ground crew," said Christian Mackay, the executive officer to the Montana Board of Livestock.
Dan Brister, executive director of the Buffalo Field Campaign, said the group is grateful for the governor's order, though he said he doesn't understand Schweitzer's motives.
"It's kind of sad. It seems like bison become chess pieces between agencies," he said. "The real answer is to allow the bison to access their habitat."
Mark Pearson, the national parks program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, called the order an "interesting twist on affair."
Pearson said it seems like a positive step because it will save hundreds of bison from slaughter, and said it demonstrates that the governor is sensitive to public concern about the animals' management.
Still, Schweitzer's order is only a temporary solution.
What will happen next winter, when bison again migrate outside of the park? That's not for Montana to figure out, according to Schweitzer.
"It's time for the Department of Interior to come up with a plan," he said of the federal department that oversees the National Park Service. "Montana won't bail it out anymore."
Carly Flandro can be reached at 582-2638 or firstname.lastname@example.org.