Montana officials have reached a tentative deal allowing some bison to roam outside of Yellowstone National Park without fear of slaughter, a potential breakthrough in a decade-long attempt to end the killing of thousands of bison for disease prevention.
The deal reached this week between the Church Universal and Triumphant, which owns the Royal Teton Ranch north of Yellowstone, and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks would allow bison to move through the ranch during winter to reach about 2,000 acres in the Gallatin National Forest.
Yet to be decided, however, is how much the church will be paid for grazing rights. U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat who sits on the National Parks subcommittee, said this week he will press the U.S. Department of Agriculture to contribute $1.5 million toward the deal.
“Pretty much the deal is done, and we wait for funding,” church president Kate Gordon said Friday.
Since 1998, the federal government has paid $13 million for conservation easements on the ranch but has never resolved grazing rights. The issue is considered key to preventing contact between livestock and bison, which can carry the disease brucellosis. If the disease spreads to livestock, it can cause pregnant cows to abort their calves and have financial consequences for the cattle industry.
In recent years, bison coming out of the park have been routinely rounded up and sent to slaughter to prevent the disease’s spread. That has prompted outrage from members of Congress and environmental groups who want more protection for the nation’s largest herd of wild bison, also known as buffalo.
Under terms of the deal, a small number of the animals would be allowed to range well outside the park’s northern boundary in areas free of cattle. Initially, 25 bison that test negative for brucellosis would be allowed passage. In coming years, that could grow to 100 bison if the program proves successful.
Local lawmakers cautious
Bison that wander outside Yellowstone’s northern boundary in excess of those numbers would still be subject to slaughter.
Pat Flowers, who has been handling negotiations for the state, said Montana would put up an undetermined amount of money toward purchase of the Royal Teton grazing rights. Conservation groups would be asked to contribute the rest, Flowers said.
The financial side of the deal should be worked out within six to nine months, with the first bison possibly moving through the ranch by winter 2008, Flowers said.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican with strong ties to the livestock industry, urged caution until more details were known on how the agreement would fit with the broader effort to prevent the spread of brucellosis from Yellowstone.
“Let’s not start throwing funds in on a federal level because of some guy from New York who’s not familiar with the situation,” said Rehberg’s spokesman Bridger Pierce.
In May, brucellosis was found in seven cows that originated from a ranch just north of the Royal Teton. That resulted this month in the destruction of about 600 animals from the same herd.