by Carly Flandro, Chronicle Staff Writer, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle
About 500 bison remain west of Yellowstone National Park, but Wednesday their time there will come to an end.
Low-flying helicopters and horseback riders will begin hazing the animals back into the park today, according to Steve Merritt, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Livestock.
The bison historically migrate outside park boundaries during the winter in search of food. But every spring, usually in mid-May, they’re hazed back into the park because of a fear that they will spread the disease brucellosis to cattle.
But while the state agency works to push the animals back into the park, an environmental group is racing to block its use of helicopters to haze bison, claiming the practice harms grizzly bears.
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said it requested a restraining order Tuesday that would temporarily keep helicopters from being used in the hazing operations. U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell can choose not to rule, or to grant or deny the request at any time, according to Garrity.
The Alliance for Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit May 18 that alleges helicopters used to haze bison “harm and harass” grizzly bears, which are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. For example, Garrity said helicopters can cause grizzlies to abandon parts of their habitat, which are already scarce and difficult to find.
But Merritt said that helicopters are the most effective tool to move bison.
“Without them, we may have to use alternative methods like lethal removal,” he said.
Garrity countered that the agency wouldn’t be able to kill the animals or send them to slaughter, however, because many of them are on private lands.
“I think it’s kind of a scare tactic,” he said. “I don’t believe them.”
Merritt said the bison west of the park are scattered, but the majority are on Horse Butte peninsula, which juts into Hebgen Lake. Residents there have repeatedly witnessed the hazing, and several said they don’t support it.
Ann Stovall said the helicopters “buzz so low you can read the numbers and see the faces of the pilot and co-pilot.”
“They have no business hovering that close to homes and residential areas,” she said, adding that she has to keep her horses in a barn during the hazing. “It’s disruptive to every living, breathing thing on this peninsula.”
She added that last spring she saw bison hazed “over the top of a grizzly.”
But Errol Rice, executive vice president for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said getting the bison back into the park as soon as possible is important because ranchers come into the area in early June. He said at least one rancher summers his cattle near Horse Butte peninsula.
If the bison weren’t moved soon enough, Rice said there could be a risk of them spreading the disease brucellosis to the cattle. Brucellosis can cause pregnant animals to miscarry, and if it were spread to cattle it could threaten the livestock industry.
He noted that helicopters are a “highly effective tool” in hazing bison.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association took legal action in 2008 in an attempt to force the state of Montana to have bison cleared from the Horse Butte area by mid-May. That effort, however, was unsuccessful.
This year’s haze will begin later than normal because lingering snow inside the park would’ve made it difficult for bison to find food there.