Two weeks ago, the State of Montana made history when Governor Steve Bullock announced the state was moving forward with providing year-round habitat for wild bison in Montana outside Yellowstone National Park.
This is huge, huge, huge news, and it's a giant step forward for bison management and the State of Montana.
(For coverage of the decision, see the AP article, Bozeman Daily Chronicle article, NRDC press release, Todd Wilkinson column in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, and Bozeman Daily Chronicle editorial.)
Conservationists, bison advocates, hunters, landowners, business owners, and other concerned citizens have been advocating for years that it was time for Montana to provide year-round habitat for wild bison outside Yellowstone National Park in Montana. As I have previously explained, a number of changes have occurred in the "bison world" over the past 15 years, and, as such, it was time to respond to these changes, stop adhering to the rigid deadlines and boundaries used to confine Yellowstone's bison to the Park (via hazing and slaughter), and update bison management. (See these previous blog posts of mine for more details: one, two, three, four, five.)
In response to all of these changes, a diverse group of stakeholders (myself included) got together at the end of 2010 to see if they could find some common ground on a better way forward for bison management. The state, federal, and tribal entities that collectively manage Yellowstone's bison population supported us and provided a highly respected facilitator to help the group move forward. The group came to be known as the Yellowstone Bison Citizens Working Group, and it worked hard in 2011 and 2012 to provide citizen input on bison management in Montana.
The Citizens Working Group ultimately developed some strong and sensible consensus recommendations, and in response to our recommendations as well as all of the changes over the past 15 years, the State of Montana announced its year-round habitat proposal in July 2012 and then issued a draft environmental assessment with detailed alternatives in July 2013.
It was past time for year-round bison habitat in Montana and for the state to start treating wild bison from Yellowstone like other native wildlife in the state. But, unfortunately, no decision was made, progress stalled, and months turned into a couple of years and still nothing happened.
Until two weeks ago, when Montana Governor Steve Bullock exhibited great leadership, broke through agency gridlock, and announced that wild bison would have year-round habitat in Montana. (The new plan still needs to be formally adopted by rest of the Interagency Bison Management Plan partners, which will hopefully happen later this winter or early in the spring.)
Is the new plan perfect? No. Can the state go further and provide more year-round habitat for wild bison from Yellowstone? Yes. Would I like to see the state do so? Absolutely.
But it's important to recognize how huge this step forward is for bison management in Montana, and it's important to recognize and give credit to Governor Bullock for moving this forward. For the first time in recent history, the State of Montana is planning for a year-round wild bison population outside Yellowstone National Park.
Instead of speculating about what wild bison may or may not do if they are left alone and not hazed back into the Park by a fixed date in the spring, we'll now have the opportunity to actually see how bison use the landscape year-round.
Additionally, and every bit as important, the new plan represents a common-sense shift to moving away from "applying a uniform, inflexible management response that at times may be unnecessary and costly" and allowing for more "management discretion on the ground" - or, in other words, managing wild bison more like other native wildlife in Montana.
There is still a ways to go with the management of Yellowstone's wild bison population, but this is a very, very good step in the right direction, and kudos and thanks to Governor Bullock for making it happen.