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Finding Yellowstone bison new home has challenges, experts say

By Rob Chaney , The Missoulian

1570 days ago   Article ID# 817030
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Wildlife Conservation Society

MISSOULA, MONTANA (The Missoulian) - Picking a new home for a herd of bison means more than just finding a spot on the map.

"You can take any bison and put them behind a fence and have them be there - that is done all the time," said Keith Aune, senior conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bozeman. "If you're trying to reconstruct these ecological relationships, where bison have an influence on grazing lands which has influence on small mammals and birds, that could set up a whole different set of criteria."

Aune used to work for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and started the quarantine study program that now has 100 bison in need of a new home.

Next week, FWP commissioners will consider how to relocate the herd. Possible sites include the 38,000-acre Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area east of Garrison and the 1 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, the 32,000-acre Beartooth WMA near Great Falls, the 5,800-acre Marias River WMA near Shelby, and the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.

There are several places besides Yellowstone National Park and Moiese's National Bison Range where bison can be found in large numbers. The Henry Mountains of Utah have about 200 free-ranging bison on roughly 2 million acres of Bureau of Land Management property. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota has about 500 bison on its 70,000-acre grounds.

"Bison are pretty hardy when it comes to the kinds of forage they can eat and the distances they travel to get water," said Jim Knight, extension wildlife specialist at Montana State University. "But it's also important to look at the neighbors. Bison are awful hard to contain. When they decide to go somewhere, they go somewhere."

Yellowstone-area ranchers have spent decades tangling with bison management issues around the national park. Concerns that the wild bison could transmit brucellosis to domestic cattle have kept the issue controversial.

This quarantined herd has been disease-free since 2005. And while bison have successfully coexisted with cattle in other parts of the country, the brucellosis question still raises suspicion for many potential neighbors.

In his 2010 working paper "A Review of Best Practices and Principles for Bison Disease Issues: Greater Yellowstone and Wood Buffalo Areas," Canadian bison researcher John Nishi said the problem is as much a social issue as a disease ecology matter.

He suggested that planning for bison management should consider "sociologists, economists and political scientists" as well as biology in decision-making. He referred to it as a "wicked problem" - one that is "difficult to define precisely and is resistant to a clear and agreed solution (where) science cannot resolve these dilemmas by filling the gaps in empirical knowledge."

Another challenge is choosing a place that bison won't abandon for something better.

"If I was a bison living in the Bob Marshall, I would go someplace else," Knight said. "Even though it sounds like a big area, the areas it would be suitable are as limited as Yellowstone. I think they'd have a tendency to wander out of there."

Copyright 2015 The Missoulian   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 1570 days ago   Article ID# 817030

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