Fence Protects Trees from Bison

Melissa Alder built fences around her trees to protect them from the bison that frequent her neighborhood north of West Yellowstone. The fence was built with help from four environmental groups, and is one of 32 projects the groups have helped with on both the north and west sides of Yellowstone National Park.

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(Editor’s note: Because of a production error, a partial version of this story appeared in Friday’s edition. The complete version appears here.)

WEST YELLOWSTONE — Four metal fenceposts hold up checkerboard metal wire around a couple of aspen trees in Melissa Alder’s front yard. It’s hard to understand why until Alder points out the dilapidated pair of trees next to it.

Their remnants poke out of the snow, broken off at the top, leaning a little to one side, nowhere near full potential. Each year when Yellowstone’s central bison herd migrates west, they often wander up a road and into Alder’s neighborhood, munching roadside grass and rubbing up against trees, sometimes leaving them looking a little rough.

“The trees are easy to get to,” Alder said.

When she decided to plant new ones, she wanted to have a fence around them. So last summer, she made plans to do so, and like several other people in her neighborhood, she got help.

Since 2011, four environmental groups — the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council — have been offering to foot half the cost of fencing projects meant to keep bison out. The program has helped build 33 fences both on the west and north sides of the park — 21 in the Hebgen Basin area, 12 near Gardiner.

The idea behind it is to help people live with bison, and to shore up social tolerance of bison by helping people deal with their individual problems. How people feel about having animals around — whether it’s squirrels or grizzly bears — is an important part of the equation, and can determine how state agencies manage the animals. Defenders of Wildlife rockies and plains representative Steve Forrest said the groups want to do whatever they can to “make it possible for people to live with wildlife.”

With bison, the idea of living with them may become more real for some who live outside the park. In December, Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock issued a decision to allow bison year-round west of the park from the Hebgen Basin north to the Buck Creek drainage and to allow male bison year-round north of Gardiner to Yankee Jim Canyon. The different federal and state agencies that manage bison have agreed to implement the decision, meaning the animals have more room to roam.

The decision will likely create the most change on the west side. In the past, bison had been chased from their springtime stomping grounds near Horse Butte back into Yellowstone National Park. Now, unless the bison exceed seasonal population limits — which officials don’t expect to happen — they will be left alone.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor Sam Sheppard said that most people who live around the borders of the park don’t mind bison, but they’d rather not have 50 or 100 camped out in their yard.

The program aims to help with that. When it started, Sheppard was the warden captain for the region and his staff regularly dealt with calls about bison trampling gardens or beating on trees. When this program began, he was able to offer people a new resource, and now he fields calls from people who want to apply to have part of their fencing costs covered.

“This kind of project and this kind of effort demonstrates that people are willing to help,” Sheppard said.

And they want to do more, said Shana Dunkley, wildlife program associate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

“This year we’re hoping to ramp up our program,” Dunkley said.

Three projects are already lined up for this year, and the groups hope to do at least 15, something of a lofty goal. In years past, the highest total they have reached is nine. Most of the fences end up being reasonably inexpensive too, Dunkley said.

For example, Alder’s fence project — fencing around three trees — cost about $300, meaning she only spent about $150 and the groups kicked in another $150. They will pay up to $1,000 for a project, and will consider bigger projects on a case-by-case basis.

Alder, who has lived in her Horse Butte house since 2004, has been happy with the fence. The trees inside them are growing well, and she likes the idea of living with bison and giving them space.

“They were here first,” she said.

She keeps a “Buffalo Safe Zone” sign in front of her house, as do a number of people who live in the neighborhood. A muddy road dotted with bison dung winds through the subdivision, past house after house with sturdy fences around trees and backyards.

“I think we helped build a lot of these fences,” Dunkley said.

One of the fences surrounds the backyard at Karrie Taggart’s log house, where she has lived since 2002. Wood posts and metal wire form a square around the yard, which is home to her two dogs, Horse and Bandit. She said she didn’t want to build the fence at first but decided it would be best to separate the canines from bison.

“I needed something just to give me a little peace of mind when I went to work,” Taggart said. She added that she likes having bison in her yard, but recognizes “their wildness and unpredictability.”

She and some neighbors had a barbecue and built the fence, which also cost about $300. It has kept bison out, though they do sometimes chomp on the grass at the bottom of it.

“I’m glad I have it,” Taggart said.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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