April 13, 2006

Bozeman Chronicle

Governor presents bison plan to West Yellowstone landowners

By Ted Sullivan

WEST YELLOWSTONE - Landowners here expressed skepticism Wednesday about Gov. Brian Schweitzer's bison-management plan.

They told the Democratic governor that the problem with bison leaving Yellowstone National Park and wandering out into the state's cattle fields belongs to the park, and the solution ought to be coming from federal officials.

"We're dealing with a federal problem," landowner Ray Stinnett said. "We're the solution to what the United States should be handling."

But federal officials aren't taking responsibility, Schweitzer said.

Instead, he has proposed the state pay Montana ranchers to remove their cattle from grazing grounds in the West Yellowstone area and the Gardiner basin.

In addition, he wants a bigger bison hunt to reduce the bison herd to a manageable size.

The combination would save the state money it now spends hazing and slaughtering bison, as well as help preserve Montana's brucellosis-free status, Schweitzer told the small group of landowners who gathered to meet him at the Holiday Inn.

"It doesn't make any sense to haul (the bison) up and bring them to slaughter," Schweitzer told the ranchers as they sat around a large conference table.

"We're putting the entire cattle industry at risk," he said. "I think we can do it better, and I think we can do it cheaper."

Landowners said they appreciated Schweitzer's visit and his willingness to hear their opinions on bison issues, but they had their doubts about his plan.

Mike Manship, owner of Red Creek Ranch on Hebgen Lake, told Schweitzer bison should be placed into their natural environment in eastern Montana, or at the very least, moved to public land somewhere else.

But Schweitzer countered that, "Through a hunt, we can control that population on this end. We can get that down to a manageable number. A lot of people want to shoot these bison."

How many bison could be killed in a hunting season, a landowner asked Schweitzer.

"Well, we hauled 1,000 to slaughter this year," Schweitzer responded. "That doesn't make any sense."

Asked whether a bison hunt could create a tourist boycott and bad press from national media, Schweitzer said people will still come to Montana.

"If people were going to be angry with us, then they would have been angry with us this year when we sent 1,000 of them to slaughter," he said.

But a bison hunt near West Yellowstone could lead to trespassing, property damage and dead bison remains left on private property, Manship said.

Manship then asked the governor what he should do when bison are in his front yard.

Schweitzer told him he could call an agency to remove them.

"I've heard that one before," Manship responded.

Despite a few differences of opinion, the landowners and Schweitzer agreed something must be done before bison spread brucellosis to Montana's cattle, ruining the state's beef industry and brucellosis-free status, they said.

"We're going to lose our brucellosis-free status; it's just a matter of time," Schweitzer said. "We have a mixing zone."

Schweitzer's proposal is a 10-year plan, he said. Meanwhile, scientists, park managers and government agencies could work on other options for the future.

"We're open for discussion," Schweitzer told the landowners. "We just want to lay some stuff on the table."

As Schweitzer left the conference room to take a short helicopter trip to Gardiner, where he also planned to meet with area ranchers, he told the landowners he would be back again.