Montana officials have proposed allowing bison to roam year-round in large areas adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, a plan that would ease restrictions on the park's iconic herd and potentially bring to a close the slaughtering and hazing of years past.
While such a solution is long overdue, we salute the state for taking what could prove to be a momentous position in how Montana deals with the bison that wander across the park's borders in search of grazing each year.
The proposal announced last week would allow bison to remain year-round in the Hebgen Basin and the surrounding areas of the Gallatin National Forest. Some bison would also be allowed year-round in the Gardiner Basin north of Yellowstone.
Yellowstone bison are currently allowed to migrate into Montana each winter, but they must return to the park each spring, largely for fear that they will spread brucellosis to the state's livestock. In the past, that has meant hazing the animals back across the border or, in the worst cases, slaughtering the bison outright.
Montana has rightfully scaled back its restrictions in recent years, allowing bison to enter new areas and extending out the date before they are forced back to the park. The proposed rules would go even further, eliminating the deadline for the park bison to be out of Montana.
The proposal will undoubtedly raise strong opposition from within the livestock industry that remains mostly steadfast in its concern that bison will spread brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant animals to miscarry. However, there has never been a documented case of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle in the wild. In fact, elk – not bison – are often to blame for such transmissions.
While we appreciate the livestock industry's desire to protect its cattle, the state is correct that it can no longer base its management of Yellowstone bison on a threat that to date has not been realized.
Montana officials will consider comments on the proposal through Aug. 24, and public meetings are planned in both West Yellowstone and Gardiner. These are important steps; unintended consequences of this proposal need to be fully considered. On its face, however, the state's plan is a positive step toward ending its previously shameful treatment of Yellowstone bison.