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West Yellowstone, Montana
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DOT Highway 191 Letter from BFC
April 14, 2009 
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RE: Urgent request to immediately improve existing signage,
install additional warning systems, and increase enforcement to protect public safety
and bison on Highway 191 near West Yellowstone, Montana.

April 14, 2009

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer
State Capitol
Helena, MT 59620-0801 2701

Mr. Jim Lynch, Director
Montana Department of Transportation
Prospect Avenue
P.O. Box 201001
Helena, MT 59620-1001

Dear Governor Schweitzer and Director Lynch:

On behalf of Buffalo Field Campaign’s Board of Directors, campaign staff, volunteers, and supporters, we request your immediate attention to a public and wildlife safety issue on U.S. Highway 191 near West Yellowstone, Montana.

Bison spring migration is currently underway with bison moving from Yellowstone National Park’s western boundary to their spring calving grounds on surrounding Gallatin National Forest lands. In order to access this critical habitat, bison must cross the obstacle of U.S. Highway 191, frequently traveled by locals, commercial vehicles, tourists, and through-travelers. The ten-mile stretch of Hwy. 191 from the Fir Ridge Cemetery south to the town of West Yellowstone has proved to be a dangerous stretch of road, claiming the lives of more than 58 wild bison since spring of 2005. These bison highway mortalities not only threaten the viability of America’s last wild bison population, which numbers fewer than 3,000 animals, but the lives of motorists and property damage are also at stake.

Since Saturday, April 11, at least 15 bison have been killed due to collisions with motor vehicles on Highway 191. These collisions have occurred during the dark hours, when bison are nearly impossible to see due to their dark coats and non-reflective eyes. Bison not only need to cross the highway to access spring habitat, but they also graze the grasses along the highway which are the first to appear during spring melting.

For years Buffalo Field Campaign has made every effort to warn motorists of bison on the highway. Our presence on the roads has been extremely instrumental in preventing bison/human collisions, especially during daylight and twilight hours. The dark hours, however, present increased hazards that BFC is ill-equipped to handle. While we are anxious to help save bison lives, it is the responsibility of the State to reduce bison/motor vehicle collisions by providing adequate warning, improved and increased signage, and ensuring enforcement of set speed limits.

There are minimal warning signs in place between the Fir Ridge Cemetery and the town of West Yellowstone, and these have proven to be inadequate. A few years ago, the state lowered the speed limit from 70mph to 55mph in an effort to reduce bison/human collisions, but the speed limit is poorly enforced.

Buffalo Field Campaign requests that the state of Montana take immediate action to improve existing warnings, install additional signs, and increase the level of enforcement along the ten mile stretch of U.S. Highway 191 from the Fir Ridge Cemetery to the town of West Yellowstone. We request that the following be considered for immediate, emergency implementation to reduce the risk of bison/vehicle collisions:

Currently there are two MTDOT marquee signs in place, one at the Fir Ridge Cemetery visible to motorists heading south; one at the border of West Yellowstone’s city limits visible to motorists heading north. They currently read “Animals on Road” which does not effectively address the danger of bison on the road. We request that these marquee signs be changed to read as followed: "BISON ON HIGHWAY" flash to "15 BISON KILLED IN THE NIGHT" (death toll would be updated accordingly). We request that this "flashing" sign be active during the dark hours, with a steady "BISON ON HIGHWAY" shown during daylight hours.

Placement of flashing warning signs, like those in Yellowstone for elk, depicting bison. These should be placed from the stretch of highway from Fir Ridge to at least the WY Airport, with critical placement along Duck Creek, Cougar Creek and the Madison River areas. Studies have shown that dynamic signs (depicting a buffalo shape outlined in flashing lights) are more successful at alerting people to specific areas of danger. The signs in place depicting deer are insignificant, as there are really no deer inhabiting these high elevations. Bison, elk and moose are the large ungulates that frequent the region.

Enforce the 55mph speed limit. The speed limit should have a nighttime reduction during April and May of 45mph. Highway patrols should be put in place during this time to strictly enforce the speed limit.
Montana State Highway Patrols night presence is critical as the officers also have the equipment and legal authority to shepherd bison off of the highway when appropriate, and can use their lights to warn motorists of a situation on the road.

Like the stretches of highway that alert motorists to radio stations for weather conditions, marquee signs should be put into place that alert motorists to bison migration reports. BFC would be able and happy to help provide these reports to the appropriate agency or department.

Require local papers, such as the West Yellowstone News and Bozeman Daily Chronicle to host a bison migration report in the papers during April and May, regularly alerting travelers on highway 191 to their presence on the highway.

Placement of bison-shaped death markers where impacts have occurred, like the crosses put in place by DOT for human highway fatalities. Buffalo Field Campaign would be able to help with permission from MTDOT.
Montana should secure state and/or federal transportation funding and earmark it to implement safe passage projects between Fir Ridge and West Yellowstone. Underpasses and/or overpasses that allow bison and other migrating wildlife to cross the highway without endangering or being endangered by motorists would solve many issues.

Montana should develop educational outreach materials from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Montana Department of Transportation, and the National Park Service and make them available to visitors, truckers and residents. Canada sets a good example: the parks and the government send out press releases to warn motorists of bison on the road, along with tips to avoid hitting them.

Every effort must be put in place to reduce bison mortality and protect human safety. It is the responsibility of Montana, with potential aid from the federal government, to implement the above recommendations in order to help alleviate the dangers of human/bison collisions. These collisions, for the most part, are avoidable if the proper warning system and speed reductions and enforcement is put into place. The lives of America’s last population of wild bison and the safety of residents, tourists, and travelers depend upon it.

Mike Mease
Board of Directors
Buffalo Field Campaign

Daniel M. Brister
Executive Director
Buffalo Field Campaign

Hal Harper, Governor Schweitzer’s Chief Policy Advisor
Jeff Ebert, District II Administrator, Montana Department of Transportation
Jon Swartz, Chief of Maintenance, Montana Department of Transportation
Pat Flowers, Region III Director, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Sam Sheppard, Region III Warden Captain, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Marcel Huijser, Ph.D., Road Ecologist, Western Transportation Institute, MSU

Addresses for DOT letter:
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer
State Capitol
Helena, MT 59620-0801
Mr. Jim Lynch, Director
Montana Department of Transportation
2701 Prospect Avenue
P.O. Box 201001
Helena, MT 59620-1001
Hal Harper
Chief Policy Advisor
Office of the Governor of Montana
State Capitol
Helena, MT 59620-0801
Jeff Ebert
District 2 Administrator
Montana Department of Transportation
3751 Wynne
PO Box 3068
Butte, MT 59702-3068

Jon Swartz
Chief of Maintenance
Montana Department of Transportation
2701 Prospect Avenue
P.O. Box 201001
Helena, MT 59620-1001

Pat Flowers
Region III Director
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
1400 S. 19th Avenue
Bozeman, MT 59718

Sam Shepherd
Region III Warden Captain
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
1400 S. 19th Avenue
Bozeman, MT 59718

Marcel Huijser, Ph.D.
Western Transportation Institute
Montana State University
P.O. Box 174250
Bozeman, MT 59717-4250

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Buffalo Field Campaign
P.O. Box 957
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
BFC is the only group working in the field every day in defense of the last wild buffalo population in the U.S.

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