More Good News for Yellowstone's Wild Buffalo

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A pair of wild buffalo along Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park

Last April, I wrote about an historic agreement made by the federal, state, and tribal agencies that collectively manage Yellowstone’s wild buffalo population, which gave the iconic critters access to tens of thousands of acres of habitat north of Yellowstone National Park in Montana.

An attorney for the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho commented at the time, “This is the most significant advance in recent times in tolerating bison outside Yellowstone.” There have been high points and low points since this agreement was announced, so with spring fast approaching and some recent good news to report, I thought it was time for an update.

Two developments occurred following the announcement of the agreement: (1) a couple of opponents of giving wild buffalo more habitat sued the State of Montana to reverse the agreement, and (2) the State of Montana undertook a formal Environmental Assessment process regarding the expanded tolerance and solicited comments from the public on the issue.

NRDC and other conservation organizations, represented by Earthjustice, intervened on Montana’s behalf in the lawsuits to help ensure that the agreement for greater tolerance for wild buffalo in Montana remains in place. The litigation is ongoing, and a trial date has been set for August.

As for the Environmental Assessment, the State of Montana finished the process at the end of February and announced it was officially signing off on the agreement to give wild buffalo access to approximately 75,000 acres of additional habitat north of Yellowstone during the winter and most of the spring.

This is great news.

In modern times, this area has been off-limits to Yellowstone buffalo because of concerns related to the disease brucellosis, which some of Yellowstone’s buffalo carry. Brucellosis can cause pregnant females to miscarry, and livestock producers fear wild buffalo may transmit the disease to domestic cattle.

Thousands and thousands of wild buffalo from Yellowstone have been hazed or slaughtered in the past few decades in the name of brucellosis – and millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent along the way.

But significant changes in recent years have forced all stakeholders to take a fresh look at the Yellowstone buffalo issue, which has been burdened by conflict and controversy for too long.

These changes include new science documenting the very low risk of a brucellosis transmission from wild buffalo to cattle, land-use changes near the Park (e.g., fewer domestic cows on the landscape), more tolerant landowners, the reality that elk also carry the disease but are allowed to roam freely, and, maybe most significantly, a radical overhaul in December 2010 of the brucellosis regulations by the Department of Agriculture (which lessened the burden of brucellosis on livestock producers).

Collectively, these changes set the stage for more buffalo tolerance outside Yellowstone National Park.  And over the past few years NRDC’s incredible Members and Activists tirelessly advocated for more tolerance for wild buffalo outside the Park (as did business owners, hunters, property owners, Native Americans, and other conservation organizations).

The agencies responded with this historic agreement last April, and the State of Montana officially endorsed it with February’s Environmental Assessment decision.

While this agreement is by no means perfect and more work still remains (including the ongoing litigation), this habitat expansion is a big step forward for Yellowstone’s wild buffalo population.

To help make this habitat expansion a success, NRDC and other conservation organizations have contributed funding to help with on-the-ground coexistence projects (e.g., strategic fencing).

Our hope is that this expansion leads to further tolerance of wild buffalo in Montana, which many stakeholders desire.

But, for now, let’s celebrate this great decision by the State of Montana (and its federal and tribal partners) and look forward to seeing wild buffalo in their native habitat outside Yellowstone National Park.

About the Authors

Matt Skoglund

Director, Northern Rockies office

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