The American bison may be the iconic big game species of the American West, but they don’t belong on Utah’s West Tavaputs Plateau.
Brought back from near extinction last century and officially designated the national mammal, they now occupy special management areas in Utah, such as the Henry Mountains, Antelope Island and the Book Cliffs. But one thing about buffalo, they roam.
In recent years, bison have increasingly wandered off the Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation lands on the East Tavaputs Plateau, crossing the Green River onto private and public lands used for livestock grazing.
This poses a big problem for ranchers and landowners, according to Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price.
“These bison are not supposed to be there. They belong on the other side of mountains to the east. When they see the buffalo eating their grazing lands, they don’t like that,” Watkins told House colleagues last week. She predicted the big animals will eventually reach U.S. Highway 6 in Emery County, where they could create significant traffic hazards.
Her remedy is HB222, which would allow year-round hunting of bison outside designated management areas.
“Buffalo are smart,” she said. “If they are there and one of their kind is killed, they know that is not a place they want to be and they won’t go back.”
Utah ranchers and growers have even bigger issues with elk and mule deer that sometimes invade pastures and orchards in winter, damaging fruit trees and helping themselves to hay.
Watkins’s bill, however, got a frosty reception Monday in the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, where all of her colleagues voted to hold it after hearing from Utah’s top wildlife official.
The Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) already has expanded bison hunts on the Tavaputs and is working with landowners to remove or exclude problem animals, according to Director Justin Shirley.
“The tools that we’re currently using fix and address the problem,” Shirley told the committee. “Bison come across the Green River and have for various reasons for a long time. The tribe also has tried to fence some corridors down on their boundary to keep the bison from crossing the river.”
DWR biologists have affixed GPS collars to many bison to track their movements in this area. They believe between 50 and 80 currently occupy the West Tavaputs.
“Right now, there’s been so much snow, we believe they’re down in low-country areas,” Shirley said. “Hunters aren’t really able to access them. They’re not up on top.”
Other than for coyotes, which are classified as a nuisance animal, year-round hunting is not allowed for any wildlife species in Utah. Most big game hunts fall somewhere between August and January depending on the species and the hunting unit.
Don Peay, Utah’s leading advocate for big game hunting, also has a beef with year-round hunting.
“This is like taking a bulldozer and a jackhammer to something that needs a scalpel,” he told lawmakers. Peay believes the problem is confined to just 6,000 acres out of half a million on the West Tavaputs.
“There’s been a ton of mitigation already on the 6,000 acres, namely the largest private landowner in the state has built a buffalo-proof fence at a million-dollar cost,” Peay said. “You can drive your truck at 80 mph and they won’t go through it. This landowner loves the bison.”
The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food did not take a position on HB222, but it insists more needs to be done to protect ranchers.
A decade ago, a DWR committee worked with landowners to draft a bison plan that called for no bison inhabiting the lands west of the Green River, according to Troy Forrest, who runs the department’s Grazing Improvement Program.
“Since that time, even with all the mitigation we’ve done, which included the tribe flying and pushing bison back over [the river], those bison have found the top of the mountain,” he told the committee, “and they’ve intermingled with cattle over the last 5 years in increasing numbers each year.”
While one West Tavaputs property owner has switched positions and now welcomes bison on their land, the presence of bison poses numerous challenges for ranchers, according to Forrest.
“Amongst those are disease transmission, brucellosis, in particular, the loss of forage and the loss of the ability to use their range as they would like and, of course, the lack of respect that bison have for regular fences,” he said. These ranchers rely on a rotational grazing system that requires intact fences.
“They’ve won awards on that ranch for their stewardship. And with bison there, that makes it inordinately more difficult because they don’t have much respect for a regular cow fence. It’s not much of an impediment to them,” Forrest said. “They hit it, they just go straight through it.”
In response to these conflicts, DWR began issuing tags in 2020 to Utah residents for $413, or $2,200 for nonresidents to hunt bison in this area. Unrestricted numbers of these tags are sold over the counter and entitle purchasers to harvest a bison outside Utah’s bison units between Aug. 1 and Jan. 31. For the 2020-21 season, 250 permit holders harvested 135 bison, according to Shirley. Last year, only 10 bison were taken under this program; seven were taken this year.
“We think we have [a] solution to this problem. Yes, there’s still some bison that find their way up to the top of the Tavaputs, but we have also done removals and we have some sentiment change as to whether bison should be there,” Shirley said. “This is country that we will likely always have bison in as long as the tribe has bison, and they will cross onto this [the west] side of the river.”