Over 1 million readers this year!

Yellowstone presents alternative bison strategies in draft plan

Park officials are soliciting public comment on the plan, which comes on the heels of a tumultuous year for bison and people who hunt them.

Bison graze in Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley in June 2018. (Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service)

by Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press

Yellowstone National Park is soliciting feedback on a proposal outlining three potential strategies for managing bison in and around the park, a long-awaited document that will guide how the park manages the animals in coordination with state and tribal wildlife officials.

Once adopted, the plan will set the park’s policy as it works with other agencies through a workgroup created by the Interagency Bison Management Plan. That plan was adopted in 2000 in response to concerns that bison could infect Yellowstone-area cattle herds with brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause cattle to abort their young.

Broadly speaking, the 149-page draft environmental impact statement outlines three options, one of which the park will adopt:

  1. A status-quo option in which park managers would aim for a population of 3,500 to 5,000 animals and continue allowing existing hunting, hazing, quarantine and slaughter operations when bison stray outside the park.
  2. An option that would prioritize treaty hunting by tribal members to manage herd size and continue with the quarantine-and-transfer-to-tribes program that’s expanded in recent years. Under this option, the park would manage for a larger population, between 3,500 and 6,000 animals after calving.
  3. A comparatively hands-off approach in which bison would be managed more like other wildlife, i.e., elk. Under that framework, higher numbers of bison would be tolerated and slaughter operations would cease, though the park would continue bolstering tribal herds in other places with animals from the park.

Even under the most laissez-faire approach, the park would maintain the ability to work with other stakeholders to “take more aggressive management actions” such as capture and hazing operations if the risk of bison mingling with livestock increases. 

“Montana uses these techniques to manage brucellosis transmission risk from elk mingling with livestock in the Paradise Valley, and, for over two decades, the IBMP partners have demonstrated these same techniques work for bison,” according to the plan.

The draft proposal highlights recent research that found that wildlife-to-livestock transmissions of brucellosis are more likely attributed to elk than bison. Elk have transmitted brucellosis to cattle more than two dozen times since 2000, and there are no records of transmission to cattle directly attributed to bison, the plan says, although “they frequently mingle with elk and likely transmit brucellosis to them at times, and vice versa.” 

Federal law requires park officials to use the “best available science” when crafting environmental impact statements and to manage wildlife to “sustain them in their natural condition.”

A bison in front of the historic Old Faithful Inn in May 2020. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The new plan comes on the heels of a tumultuous year for bison and those who hunt them. More than 1,100 bison were shot by hunters this spring, a record number that park officials attribute to increasing participation in treaty-authorized hunting and a snowy winter that drove animals out of the park en masse. In January, an errant shot from a non-tribal hunter wounded a Nez Perce hunter. The prior month, 13 bison were killed in an accident involving a semi truck near the park’s west entrance, an incident that drew national attention.

The plan’s release is also punctuated by tension between the federal government and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration over bison management. The U.S. Interior Department in March pledged to invest $25 million in bison restoration efforts, citing their ecological, historical and tribal importance. Last August, Gianforte joined the Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen in opposing an effort to expand bison grazing on Bureau of Land Management-administered land in central Montana. In 2021, the state of Montana agreed not to explore bison introduction on state-managed land for at least a decade as part of a lawsuit settlement.

Additionally, there’s a petition before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Yellowstone bison under the Endangered Species Act that’s based largely on concerns about the diversity of the herd’s gene pool. The 12-month timer for the agency to decide if protections are warranted ran out in June, though it has not yet issued a decision.

The federal listing effort was spearheaded by Buffalo Field Campaign, Western Watersheds Project and Friends of Animals. In an email, Buffalo Field Campaign said the park’s plan “fails wild bison” and involves “intense human selection to artificially suppress wild populations.”

“The Park’s plan represents a piecemeal approach to wild bison management that entrenches the status quo, at a time when we must be acting in a holistic manner,” Buffalo Field Campaign Executive Director James Holt said in the email. “Moving from a policy of slaughter to a policy of domestication doesn’t protect their long-term viability. Intensified human handling and removal called for in the alternatives will have a continued negative impact on their wild characteristics.” 

The Montana Stockgrowers Association did not respond to Montana Free Press’ request for comment on the plan.

As of last summer, there were about 5,900 bison in the park distributed between two primary herds.

The park is taking comment on the draft plan through Sept. 25. 

This story was originally published by Montana Free Press at montanafreepress.org and was shared by WyoFile.