BILLINGS — Members of an influential Montana livestock group said Friday they are not ready to allow wild bison to roam freely outside Yellowstone National Park and instead want more done to control a disease carried by the animals.
Rejecting calls from some ranchers to show more tolerance for bison, a Montana Stockgrowers Association committee instead passed resolutions advocating slaughter, contraceptive injections and other means to control the animals' population.
The group also urged government agencies to reverse last winter's decision to allow hundreds of Yellowstone bison to migrate into Montana's Gardiner basin.
AP Photo/Janie Osborne, File
Bison roam outside Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont. A proposal to ease restrictions on where bison can freely roam outside Yellowstone National Park faces its first test Friday,, as a committee from the Montana Stockgrowers Association considers the idea. The group has previously drawn a hard line on allowing bison outside the park, but some of its members helped craft the new proposal.
The resolutions cited competition between cattle and bison for forage and the risks of bison spreading the disease brucellosis.
Also Friday, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer proposed that the federal government conduct brucellosis tests on bison captured leaving the park. Animals that test negative could be relocated to public lands and animals that test positive could be shipped to slaughter, he said.
Park biologists say more than 1,000 bison could migrate out of the park this winter.
State wildlife officials on Thursday proposed allowing at least some of those animals to enter into the 75,000-acre Gardiner Basin, where they had been barred for decades prior to last winter.
Officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said allowing bison into the area would give agencies more options for managing the animals. They also said it could allow for more bison hunting opportunities in the future.
But rancher Rick Gibson of Livingston said the farther those bison roam, the greater the chance that they could transmit spread brucellosis to other wildlife that could pass it on to cattle.
Gibson said he already is stretched thin financially because he must test his cattle for the disease every time he moves them to new grazing areas. Before bison are allowed to enter new areas of Montana, Gibson said the park should work to reduce disease prevalence inside the park.
"If you move infected bison close to my operation, you create more of a situation," Gibson said. "It's very close to putting me out of business."
Jim Hagenbarth, a Dillon rancher and former chairman of the state Board of Livestock, said livestock owners need to do more to manage their cattle to prevent infections. He said brucellosis has become a "political disease" and that ranchers need to learn how to deal with it or they risk losing grazing rights on public land.
Hagenbarth represented the livestock industry on a citizens advisory panel that last month recommended opening new areas to bison, including the Gardiner Basin to the north of the park, the Hebgen Basin to the west and the Upper Gallatin to the northwest.
Another rancher on the advisory panel, Lorents Grosfield of Big Timber, said it would take time to work through the industry's concerns about increasing bison habitat. And in the meantime, Grosfield said, sending bison to slaughter will likely continue.
"We're going to continue to sending them to packing plants. That's going to be the way it happens at least for the next few years," he said. "You're not going to hunt 1,000 bison. It's just not going to work."
Schweitzer said his proposal for the federal government to relocate disease-free animals was contingent on the Interior Department providing $350,000 for fencing and other needs to two Montana American Indian reservations, where the state plans to move 68 bison captured from the park several years ago.
The animals were tested numerous times to ensure they were disease-free. Schweitzer suggested the government could follow the same protocol for bison that migrate from the park this year.
"If they want to control the population by shipping them to other states, they can help themselves," he said. "The ones they deem necessary to ship to slaughter, they can do that."
The proposal comes after federal officials rebuffed Schweitzer's bid to send a second group of Yellowstone bison to the National Bison Range near Moiese. That prompted the Democratic governor to issue an order Tuesday barring the Interior Department from transporting any wildlife in Montana without state approval.
Interior officials said in response to the order that they want to work in collaboration with the state.