This morning at the north entrance of Yellowstone, a steady stream of bison wandered down from the foothills below Sepulcher Mountain, strolled by the famous Roosevelt Arch, and marched beyond the park’s boundary into the town of Gardiner. Many camped out in the football field of the local school and grazed beneath the goal posts.
Just over 3,000 bison live in Yellowstone National Park. In one of the most significant wildlife conservation measures of our time, the park built the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in 1907 to save the last 23 wild bison in North America, the remains of a population that had dwindled from 60 million animals. By the 1950s, the herd had grown to over 1,000, and in 1968 wildlife managers declared the population restored to health.
Yet the restoration of Yellowstone’s bison has not been without its controversy. Bison migrate to lower elevations outside the park’s boundaries in winter in search of food. Because of the fear of the animal spreading brucellosis to livestock (whether bison spread brucellosis is another source of fierce debate), once bison cross the park boundary they are often hazed back into the park, or in extreme cases killed. Park management sparked criticism in 2008 when fifty percent of the park’s iconic herd—over 1,600 bison—was slaughtered.
Last week, the first bison in decades were allowed to travel unhindered outside the northern boundary of the park in the Gardiner Basin. The Interagency Bison Management Plan, developed by agency partners, called for an experimental release of the bison this winter to assess the potential for allowing more of Yellowstone’s bison to access this winter range. In 2008, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) secured 30-year grazing rights for the bison in this area with a $3.3 million deal with the Church Universal and Triumphant. Payments for the fee come from FWP, the National Park Service and non-profit conservation groups.
As this year serves as only a test for the new migration corridor, the dozens of bison wandering outside the park this morning will likely be hazed back if they travel too far in search of forage. And the test group of bison still risk being killed if they travel beyond the newly protected area (as half of them did the day after being released and had to be herded into safe territory). Despite the recent progress, for Yellowstone’s wild bison the ability to roam freely still remains an uncertainty.