WEST YELLOWSTONE – Living in bison territory near West Yellowstone and Gardiner, most landowners accept that they can never grow an elaborate garden. But a new fence might allow simpler gardens to survive.
On Horse Butte north of West Yellowstone where bison roam from mid-winter until the middle of May, Debbie Fleming has replanted several trees and learned that irises are a good choice because they still flower after being browsed by bison.
The Horse Butte housing covenant doesn't allow homeowners to completely fence their property. So she and her husband have erected a flimsy wire fence around her small vegetable garden, but sometimes the bison still barge through it.
“The bison have nailed the willows and the aspen, but they'll survive if they can get tall enough,” Fleming said, pointing to the stunted trees in her backyard. “It can be a little frustrating when you look out the kitchen window and see them eating your flowers, but there's not much you can do.”
Thanks to four environmental groups, there is a little more that landowners can do, as far as improving their fencing.
For the past three summers, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club have contributed more than $40,000 to a bison coexistence fund to help landowners shore up their fencing.
“Bison aren't going to break through a fence unless they need to. The main reason bison break through fences is usually because they're confined or they're being hazed,” said Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains director Jonathan Proctor. “People appreciate the help no matter how they feel about bison. If we can help them, why wouldn't we?”
The groups pay half the cost of a fencing project up to $1,000. The only requirements are that landowners must apply before they build and the fence must be tall enough to deter bison.
In some cases, a fence must also leave space open at the bottom for antelope to shimmy through.
The idea has been a little slow to catch on, but word finally seems to be getting around.
Only five fences were built in each of the first two years. But this year saw a surge in applications, with 13 fences either finished or still in the works.
Last week, Karrie Taggart finished fencing a small portion of her backyard on Horse Butte.
She decided her wobbly wire fence was insufficient after a neighbor took a picture of a dozen bison milling in her backyard inches away from her dogs.
With not much money to spare, Taggart said she couldn't have built the fence without the money provided by the fund.
“I love the bison, but there's a reality here. This summer, there was quite a few bison,” Taggart said. “I wanted a secure area for my dogs.”
Out near U.S. Highway 191 northeast of Horse Butte, houses are a little more spread out. The trees disappear and sagebrush fills in. But bison can still be a problem.
On an isolated property, outfitter Mike Bryers used the project money to build a jackleg fence around his small backyard. He was so pleased with the results that he became an impromptu ambassador.
That's how neighbor John Burns recently learned of the offer.
After living in the Duck Creek area, Burns was used to bison. But when he built his house in the open country a few years ago, he didn't expect they would follow.
“I didn't think it would be a problem on this side of the highway, but I get surrounded,” Burns said.
Burns doubted Bryers at first. Now he is scrambling to get a fence in before the ground freezes.
“It seemed like a good deal, but I thought there's no way they'd be putting money into fencing out buffalo – these groups want free-roaming buffalo. But it checked out,” Burns said. “As long as there's no property damage, I'm all for it.”
Proctor said the fund has about $6,000 remaining.
But if more people apply, the environmental groups will raise more money, especially if a recent proposal is approved to allow bison to roam year-round outside Yellowstone National Park.
Currently, bison are hazed back into the park every May.
“If they open it up year-round, we'll ramp up the program accordingly,” Proctor said. “The best projects are where you can find common ground and work together. That doesn't always happen.”