June 20, 2006

Billings Gazette

Livestock groups turn up opposition to Schweitzer's bison plans

Associated Press

BOZEMAN -- Two of the state's largest livestock groups are turning up their opposition to Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposals regarding the management of bison that leave Yellowstone National Park each year.

The Montana Farm Bureau issued a new study that maintains the threat of the spread of the disease brucellosis to cattle is too great to allow bison any extra room to roam outside the park. And the Montana Stockgrowers Association separately issued a policy statement saying it opposes removing any cattle from areas outside the park to accommodate wandering bison.

The documents outline positions both groups have expressed previously. Members of those groups and others have concerns about allowing park bison to roam outside the park, for fear the animals could spread brucellosis to cattle and threaten the state's brucellosis-free status.

"This is the same line they've drawn in the sand forever," said Dick Dolan, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group that advocates for more space for bison. "It's unfortunate they're not willing to move forward."

Schweitzer has been touting an idea that would pay ranchers in bison "mixing zones" near the park for their grazing rights and then remove the cattle. Then there would be a hunting season for several months, with more focus on killing female bison to help lower the overall population.

Park officials, in early March, estimated the bison population at 3,500.

Schweitzer's concept has been popular with hunting and environmental groups, but not with livestock interests, which say the plan does not address eradicating brucellosis.

Losing the state's brucellosis-free status would cost the ranching industry somewhere between $4 million and $16 million in extra expenses, mostly for labor and disease testing, the Montana Farm Bureau report concludes.

In addition, because brucellosis carries such a stigma among ranchers, the presence of the disease could reduce cattle prices by somewhere between $5 million and $26 million, the report says.

"The National Park Service must take responsibility for animals under their jurisdiction or pay for the losses incurred by their failure to do so," the report concludes.

Jake Cummins, executive director of the Farm Bureau, said his group's report has been in the works for months.

"None of this is intended as any criticism of the governor," he said. "We just have a different perspective."

Cummins called on the Park Service to manage Yellowstone "like a ranch."

"Why not keep your animals inside your boundary?" he said. "We want them to keep their animals in the ranch just like we do ours."

Schweitzer told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle he will move forward with his idea.

"If there are people who don't want to cooperate, it's their prerogative," he said in a telephone interview.

The Stockgrowers Association called for sticking with the current bison management plan, which relies on repeated hazings plus the capture and slaughter of bison. It costs about $1 million a year.

Removing cattle "sets a bad precedent," according to Stockgrowers Executive Vice President Errol Rice. "Every time there's a conflict they (the cattle) are the sacrificial lamb."

Schweitzer has said that doesn't work. Over recent years, it resulted in the doubling of the park's bison herd, which means a doubling of infected animals.

The Farm Bureau study called for "zero tolerance for bison outside the park" until brucellosis and private property issues are completely addressed.