BILLINGS — Montana officials are pushing ahead with a plan to let Yellowstone National Park bison roam more freely within a sprawling river basin formerly off limits to the disease-carrying animals because of livestock industry concerns.
The move is aimed at ending a dispute on Yellowstone bison that has resulted in almost 4,000 of the animals being hauled to slaughter since 2000. It will allow at least some of the animals to carry out their natural migration to lower elevations outside the park during harsh winters.
Bison will be allowed within the Gardiner Basin, which straddles the Yellowstone River and stretches roughly 13 miles north of the park, a top aide to Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Thursday.
Bison that go any farther — entering the Paradise Valley south of Livingston — would be shot by state officials, said Mike Volesky, the Democratic governor's natural resources adviser. He also said that if too many of the animals crowd into the basin they could be hazed back into the park.
"This doesn't mean they turn open the gates and let a bunch of bison loose," Volesky said. "It's a limited amount (of habitat) and how many bison can be there will be dictated by how much grass there is and the snowpack."
But a Republican lawmaker said Thursday that the Schweitzer administration was letting "a creeping cancer" into Montana by opening new areas to bison.
"You can't have free roaming buffalo in a society like we have today, it doesn't work," said Sen. John Brenden, a Republican from Scobey, who has a measure pending in the Montana Legislature to largely prohibit free-ranging bison across the state