The public will have an additional month to comment on a proposal that could allow bison to occupy public lands adjacent to Yellowstone National Park on a year-round basis.
Pat Flowers, the Bozeman-based Region 3 supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said seven conservation groups requested the comment period extension. Since the Environmental Assessment was released on July 15, he said they’ve received about 1,000 comments. The new comment deadline is Sept. 13; the original deadline was Aug. 13.
“I hadn’t anticipated the request for the extension, but I’m also not surprised,” Flowers said. “A lot of people are busy and traveling in the summer, and we’ve had this type of request before when we did an EA in the summer.”
The groups that made the request include the Sierra Club, the Gallatin Wildlife Association, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In the letter, the groups noted that allowing bison to roam outside of Yellowstone year-round is a “highly complex issue and one in which the public is very interested.” Because so many Montanans are vacationing during the summer months, they requested the extension.
“Such an extension will give members of the public a better opportunity to fully evaluate the proposed alternatives and provide more informed, meaningful comments during this important public process,” the groups wrote.
The Environmental Assessment is slated to be discussed on Monday at the state Board of Livestock meeting. The meeting begins at 1 p.m. in Room 318 at the Livestock Building at 301 N. Roberts in Helena.
The DOL and FWP, along with three federal agencies, jointly manage bison that migrate into Montana under what’s known as the Interagency Bison Management Plan.
The idea of exploring where and when to possibly allow free-ranging bison in certain areas was raised about a year ago by a citizens’ advisory group. The state went through the public scoping process, where it received more than 3,500 comments that helped craft the current 120-page draft document.
The draft EA provides information and analysis to determine whether taking one of the proposed actions would result in a significant effect on both people and the landscape.
Currently, bison that migrate west and north out of the park into Montana are hazed back into the park by mid May. On the northern boundary, when hazing is no longer effective, the bison are kept at a holding facility. Captured bison that test positive for exposure to brucellosis are taken to slaughter.
Bison are allowed to roam year-round in the Eagle Creek and Bear Creek area north of Gardiner.
Maintaining the current practice is one of the alternatives in the EA. The idea is that by separating bison in “time and space” from cattle that may graze in the area will keep brucellosis from spreading from wild bison to cattle.
However, advocates for free-roaming bison note that there’s never been a known transmission of the disease from wild bison to cattle. Instead, recent cases have involved infected elk giving brucellosis to cattle. The disease causes animals to abort their fetuses.
Under Alternative B, Yellowstone bulls could roam year-round in the Gardiner Basin, and both sexes could use portions of the Gallatin National Forest near West Yellowstone. The area where they could roam totals 421,821 acres, including 141,870 currently used seasonally by bison.
Alternative C proposes also allowing Yellowstone bison to use Gallatin National Forest lands known as Horse Butte and north along the U.S. Highway 191 corridor north to Buck Creek, which is a smaller geographic area to the north than Alternative B. It covers about 255,714 acres.
Alternative D proposes an even smaller year-round habitat of 37,870 acres on Gallatin National Forest lands near West Yellowstone on Horse Butte and Madison Flats, and a small area along U.S. Highway 8.
Alternative E is similar to Alternative D, but even smaller, with year-round roaming only on 11,500 acres on Horse Butte.
The final Alternative F would allow only bulls to use existing bison-tolerant areas year-round within the Gardiner Basin, which includes about 104,000 acres between the northern boundary of the park and the southern entrance to Yankee Jim Canyon.
Flowers noted that the comments so far are “all over the map” and that’s not surprising either, since the bison issue has been controversial for decades.
“It’s a polarizing issue, and has been for a long time,” he said.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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