In an effort to flush out “any other broad issues” related to the experimental bison hunt in Montana, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) is offering a public scoping period on the hunt before a draft revised Environmental Assessment (EA) is released some time in April. The two-week scoping period ends on March 7, 2008.
The already complicated issue of bison hunting is set to become even more so as Idaho’s Nez Perce seek a larger harvest of bison under treaty rights allowing the Nez Perce to hunt in “open and unclaimed land” around Yellowstone National Park. The Nez Perce claim they are able to harvest 70 to 110 bison, but MFWP contends they are limited to 41.
The Nez Perce assertion comes as the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) and the Yellowstone National Park Service continue to capture and slaughter bison to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis from bison to cattle, though there is no evidence of this ever occurring. The agencies have captured 661 bison so far this winter. The DOL contends the loss of Montana’s brucellosis-free status would cause significant economic harm to ranchers, who would then have to test cattle before sending them out of state to slaughter.
Bison status is a peculiar one in Montana; though wild bison are listed as a MFWP species of concern, they are also treated as a diseased species in need of management. Melissa Frost, MFWP Information and Education Program Manager, says bison are “probably the most complex species in terms of wildlife management” in the state.
The 2003 legislation establishing a bison hunt gives the MFWP – “after consultation with the Department of Livestock” – management authority over the hunt. However, all bison management outside of the hunt is administered by the five signatory agencies under the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). The Park Service is the lead agency for bison management within the park, and the DOL takes the lead outside the park.
The IBMP calls for bison to be limited to a population of between 2,500 and 3,500. A goal of the IBMP is also to “preserve a viable, wild population of Yellowstone bison,” but critics contend the IBMP compromises the genetic diversity and health of Yellowstone’s herds by allowing the hazing of bison within and around the borders of the park and by sending hundreds of genetically pure Yellowstone bison to slaughter.
Elk also carry brucellosis, but are treated as free-roaming wildlife outside the park and are managed by the MFWP. Critics say the double-standard means elk should either be managed like bison or the IBMP should be adapted to shift the emphasis to protecting individual cattle operations in order to allow bison to roam freely in and out of the park.