What Does Wild Bison Habitat in Montana Look Like?

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Wild bison in Yellowstone National Park

Yesterday, I provided an update on Montana’s historic proposal to give wild bison from Yellowstone National Park access to year-round habitat in Montana. Today, I’d like to show you what some of that habitat looks like.

At the end of August, the federal, state, and tribal entities that collectively manage Yellowstone’s wild bison population under the Interagency Bison Management Plan put together a public field trip into the Taylor Fork of the upper Gallatin River. The Taylor Fork is a big, gorgeous drainage to the west of the Gallatin River just outside the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park.

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Looking east in the Taylor Fork towards the Gallatin River

No wild bison currently inhabit the area, but wild bison from the Park have wandered into the upper Gallatin in recent history. It’s wild country, almost all of it is public land, and there are no cattle. As such, there is a strong push to see wild bison – a native species – be allowed to roam the Taylor Fork and surrounding public lands and manage them through public hunting (like elk and deer).

As you can see from the above and below photos, there is ample summer habitat in the Taylor Fork, so one of the big questions on the field trip was how much good winter habitat is up there. The answer, according to biologists from Yellowstone National Park (who have studied and monitored bison and other large ungulates in the Park for years) and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (who have studied and monitored bison and other large ungulates in Montana for years), is that a good deal of suitable winter range exists in the Taylor Fork.

In particular, the biologists noted that the large exposed south-facing slopes and wet meadows would provide great winter habitat. They also noted that hundreds of elk used to winter in the Taylor Fork, prior to the influence of large predators like wolves and grizzly bears, which have affected both the numbers and distribution of elk in that area.

The Taylor Fork and surrounding lands are almost all public, but there are also a few private property owners in the area (a couple of private ranches and a few guest ranches), and they have some legitimate questions and concerns about what the return of wild bison will mean for them (e.g., fences, hay for their horses, public safety, etc.). With no details available yet on what the final plan will look like, the discussion focused on brainstorming and exchanging ideas. It was a good discussion, and everyone agreed that the forthcoming environmental assessments need to address their concerns.

At the end of the day, the area under consideration in this proposal is a wild place inhabited by grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, mountain lions, wolverines, lynx, elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep and many other critters. It’s the edge of Yellowstone Park, not Central Park (though the latter can certainly claim its own share of wildness). The assemblage of wildlife is what makes this area so special, but a big missing piece has been wild bison.

Due to myriad changes, the time is right to add wild bison to the roster of native wildlife species outside the Park in Montana.

Do we know exactly what wild bison will do in a place like the Taylor Fork at all times? Of course, not. If we did, the word “wild” would not apply.

A more apt question is whether we can afford to continue to not give wild bison access to public lands like the Taylor Fork.

I’d argue that the costs – economic and other – of the status quo far exceed the benefits.

It’s time to move beyond speculation (and all of the “ifs” and “buts”) and see what year-round habitat for wild bison in Montana really looks like.

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About the Authors

Matt Skoglund

Director, Northern Rockies office

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