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This is a crucial year for Yellowstone National Park's wild bison. The governor of Montana has granted the animals more room to roam outside the park. Some people are celebrating the chance to live alongside them, but many ranchers are worried the bison will hurt their livelihood. Amy Martin has the story.
AMY MARTIN, BYLINE: Horse Butte, Mont., is a fat finger of land that points into Hebgen Lake near the western border of Yellowstone National Park. Fir trees encircle large meadows. It's quiet and out-of-the-way, which is why Karrie Taggert moved here 12 years ago.
KARRIE TAGGERT: We've got hundreds of acres of area for wildlife.
MARTIN: She's showing off the peninsula from inside her truck.
TAGGERT: And I think that's the big reason why a lot of people move here.
MARTIN: Taggert found a job as a teacher's aide at the local school, learned how to use a chainsaw and began to get to know her neighbors. When spring rolled around, she discovered that some were large, shaggy and liked to take naps on her lawn.
TAGGERT: So the bison all hang out right in here, all this open area. They love it.
MARTIN: Wild bison were migrating out of Yellowstone, looking for a place to give birth to their calves. A century ago, there were only 23 wild bison left in the country. Protected in the park, the herd grew to almost 5,000. Like Taggert, some of them were drawn to the peacefulness of Horse Butte. She was thrilled to have the bison around but not so thrilled with how state officials managed them.
TAGGERT: Agents on snowmobiles, ATVs, horseback, helicopters - they were running these animals sometimes with the babies who were hours old.
MARTIN: The Montana Department of Livestock was hazing the animals back toward the park and shipping some to slaughter.
TAGGERT: It was nonstop.
MARTIN: That controversial slaughter continues, but Taggert and her neighbors have spent 10 years organizing for the right to coexist with the bison that visit Horse Butte. So when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock decided the animals would be allowed to migrate through the area without intervention, she was overjoyed.
Do you think there could be a future where people can live successfully with wild bison?
TAGGERT: Yes, oh yes. It's up to us to say, OK, well, how are we going to do this?
ALAN REDFIELD: Most people don't have a vested interest. They say, well, we want the bison to roam free - not going to affect them. This is our livelihood.
MARTIN: Rancher Alan Redfield unrolls huge bales of hay behind his tractor, and his cattle gather to feed. His land is not included in the area where the governor will now allow bison to roam, but Redfield still opposes the decision. He fears brucellosis, a bacterial disease present in some bison, and he also believes there are just too many bison and elk in Yellowstone National Park.
REDFIELD: Got a problem with both species - overpopulated, overgrazing.
MARTIN: Redfield believes the bison population should be reduced by more than half.
REDFIELD: And the federal government won't do their part by standing up and doing what they need to do.
MARTIN: But the perceived threat to ranching is overblown, says wildlife biologist Rick Wallen. He says no one is proposing letting bison roam onto private property where they aren't wanted.
RICK WALLEN: There's a lot of public land in the greater Yellowstone area that don't have cities and farms and ranches.
MARTIN: As the bison project leader at Yellowstone National Park, Wallen spends a lot of time studying the animals, like this calf grazing on the park boundary. He says finding more public land for bison could actually reduce conflicts and that any remaining conflicts can be managed like they are for all other native wildlife.
WALLEN: And so that's why I think there is an opportunity for a more meaningful conservation area if modern society can learn to live with wild bison.
MARTIN: A new plan for Yellowstone bison is in the works which could determine the fate of the species. This fall, the National Park Service will invite citizens around the country to weigh in. For NPR News, I'm Amy Martin in Yellowstone National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.