June 10, 2006
The Billings Gazette
Governor's bison ideas irk ranchers
By Mike Stark and Jim Gransbery
If Montana continues its current approach to bison that leave Yellowstone National
Park, eventually brucellosis will be transmitted to cattle, according to Gov.
"I don't want to be the governor of Montana when we lose our brucellosis-free
status," Schweitzer said.
He traveled to Miles City on Thursday to speak at the mid-year meeting of the
Montana Stockgrowers Association to float his idea for fixing the problem: Pay
ranchers to remove cattle from the area just outside the park, don't allow bison
to wander any farther than they already do and expand the annual bison hunt
to keep the numbers in check.
The first step is acknowledging that the current plan, which relies on hazing
and sometimes killing bison that leave Yellowstone in the winter, isn't a long-term
solution to keeping the disease from spreading to Montana cattle, he said.
Already, Wyoming and Idaho have been stripped of their brucellosis-free status,
which means millions of dollars will have to be spent for extra testing and
other steps before cattle can be exported.
Montana should take steps, beyond what's happening now, to make sure the disease
doesn't hit cattle outside the park's western and northern borders and put an
extra squeeze on the entire state's cattle industry, he said.
"My point is: Why should we risk 2 million head of cattle for a very small
area?" Schweitzer said in a telephone interview after the meeting in Miles
"We'd prefer to eliminate the disease rather than the cattle (from the
grazing areas)," said Bill Donald, president of the MSGA. In a phone interview
from Miles City on Friday, he said the landowners adjacent to the park are opposed
to selling their grazing rights.
"We were looking at having the Interior Department, Agriculture Department
and the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana reach a memorandum of understanding
to work to eliminate the disease in the bison," Donald said.
He added that Schweitzer was still willing to have bison hazed back into the
park in the spring so that no bison cows had their calves outside the park.
Donald said the MSGA passed a resolution opposed to eliminating the cattle
for grazing near the park. The group endorsed expanded bison hunting as a secondary
management tool he said.
Montana reactivated its bison hunting plan this past year, distributing 50
permits to hunters. The Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission is considering
expanding the bison hunting to 100 or more this year.
"The governor issued an invitation for us to keep working on it,"
Donald said. "We appreciate that."
Nearly every winter, bison leave Yellowstone in search of food and lower elevations.
A state and federal plan approved in 2000 allows bison to be pushed back into
the park and, in some cases, captured and sent to slaughter.
The plan is designed to reduce the risk of transmitting brucellosis, which
can cause abortions and other problems, from bison to cows. Although there is
no documented case of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle in the wild,
controlled studies have shown it is possible.
This winter, more than 900 bison were captured on Yellowstone's northern edge,
and about 850 were sent to slaughter. Some 300 were caught and released later
in the spring.
Schweitzer said the federal government spends about $750,000 a year managing
bison that wander out of Yellowstone.
He's proposing that money could be used to pay property owners not to run cattle
on the land where bison go each year. An expanded bison hunt could reduce the
population, and natural, geographic "choke points" could keep the
animals from moving too far, he said.
"I am not proposing to increase these zones, which buffalo would be allowed
to roam," Schweitzer said.
He has also suggested that a quarantine area could be set up for cattle outside
Gardiner where cows would have to be tested for the disease as they enter and
as they leave and would not be used for breeding in Montana or any other state.
This proposal is similar to a resolution passed in March by the Western States
Livestock Health Association, which stated, "When co-mingling cannot be
avoided, the Western States Livestock Health Association strongly supports quarantine
of the exposed cattle herd until herd testing and epidemiological investigation
indicates the herd presents no evidence of brucellosis infection."
The association added that if its recommendations are not implemented, it may
consider additional requirements and sanctions upon the Greater Yellowstone
Area states, i.e. Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.