On Friday, three national wildlife organizations released their ideas of what should be included in a new Yellowstone bison management plan so that bison have more room to roam.
The National Parks Conservation Association, the National Wildlife Federation and the Wildlife Conservation Society published a 44-page report detailing more than a dozen recommendations as Yellowstone National Park and the State of Montana begins to revise the out-dated 2000 Interagency Bison Management Plan.
The 90-day public scoping period closed Monday on proposals for the new IBMP. The recommendations in the report are just some of the more than 3,000 comments received.
Sportsmen and wildlife advocates want Yellowstone bison to be managed as wildlife in larger areas of Montana using more science- and risk-based analysis than was in the previous plan.
“Rather than doing broad-stroke management, we want to target management to high-risk areas,” said NPCA spokeswoman Stephanie Adams.
Much of the 2000 plan was driven by risks that many believed bison posed to cattle, primarily that of brucellosis.
But, over the past 15 years, changes in agriculture policy and knowledge of the disease have negated the need for certain controls. So the report recommends bringing more voices to the table, including sportsmen and area businesses that depend on park tourism.
Brucellosis causes cattle, elk and bison cows to abort their calves. That can cost cattle producers, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture used to have tough restrictions.
Prior to 2010, if one cow in southwestern Montana tested positive for brucellosis, ranchers statewide might not be able to sell cattle or beef outside the state. That caused even greater economic hardship.
Fortunately, that rule has been softened. Now, a limited set of restrictions applies only in an area around park known as the Designated Surveillance Area. If a cow is infected there, only the affected rancher need test his cattle.
Also, elk - not bison - have been responsible for the cows infected in Montana. That’s based upon DNA tests of brucellosis bacteria in the few cows that have been infected. But bison are still managed more strictly than elk.
Recent FWP studies of elk in and around the DSA have shown between 10 and 50 percent of elk have been exposed to brucellosis. Up to 50 percent of bison have also been exposed.
That doesn't mean half are infected. Biologists measure certain antibodies in the blood to see if animals have been exposed to bacteria or viruses. Wildlife can build up antibodies without becoming infected.
The report recommends that bison be kept away from cattle mainly during bison calving, usually in May, and for a short period after. No disease risks exists the rest of the year.
That’s because cows can contract the disease only if they come into direct contact with a recently aborted calf or connected tissue. Scientists have found that bacteria in the tissue die within a short period after being exposed to the elements.
Others have proposed similar ideas.
Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association developed his “swiss-cheese model” where bison can roam everywhere except in the “holes,” which are properties where bison aren’t welcome. The emphasis becomes keeping bison outside those small areas, not inside the park, Hockett said.
Also, bulls cannot transmit brucellosis at all, so they are not a disease threat.
The NPCA recommendations come as Gov. Steve Bullock is still considering what to do with an environmental study of expanded year-round bison range west of the park. One of the alternatives - supported by a majority of the almost 120,000 comments received - would allow bison to exist on almost 422,000 acres of the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
That would open more area and opportunity for hunting, which is another recommendation of the report: use hunting as the primary method of bison population control.
Howard Burt, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 3 wildlife biologist, said FWP currently has to limit the number of state tags because the area where people can hunt around the park is so limited.
Four tribes already have treaty rights to hunt bison, leaving Montana hunters to compete each year for 80 bison tags.
The livestock industry as opposed any expansion option until the park brings the bison population below the 2000 IBMP target of 3,000 animals.
Recent numbers put the population at more than 4,000 after more than 700 were killed during the 2015 hunt and capture operations.
The report recommends that capture-and-slaughter be a last resort and that the population target in the new plan should be more flexible based upon environmental factors and social tolerance, Adams said.
Now, as the park begins developing a more concrete plan, the NPCA wants to keep the IBMP process moving forward.
“It’s really important with the upcoming (park) centennial. We also want to make sure that it’s either completed or significant progress is made by the time the Obama administration is out the door in about 20 months,” Adams said. “The last process took 10 years and a lawsuit. We think it’s important that we take advantage of the time left in this administration – there are so many unknowns with the next one. So the opportunity is now.”