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What’s next for bison in Yellowstone? The National Park Service releases new draft Environmental Impact Statement and wants public feedback

Jim Schulz, AP Photo/Chicago Zoological Society
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Associated Press

Yellowstone National Park is one step closer to a potential new era in bison management. On August 10th, the National Park Service (NPS) released the draft of their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for how to treat the animal within park boundaries – and they want to hear what the public thinks about the draft.

The EIS outlines three alternative plans to move forward with bison management, each with different strategies and ideal population ranges for the animal.

The first plan involves continuing to manage bison in line with the already-existing Interagency Bison Management Plan. That plan has been in existence for the past 23 years. The population range would stay in a similar range as it has the last two decades, coming in at roughly 3,500 to 5,000 bison after calving. The main goal of this strategy is mitigating the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle.

Management tools would include continuing to provide public and Tribal hunting opportunities outside of the park, capturing bison for slaughter, increasing the number of brucellosis-free bison relocated to Tribal lands as part of the Bison Conservation Transfer Program, and working with Montana to manage the risk of brucellosis spreading from bison to cattle.

The second plan would increase the use of the Bison Conservation Transfer Program (BCTP) to restore bison to Tribal lands and would also emphasize Tribal treaty hunting outside the park. This alternative aims for a population range of around 3,500 to 6,000 bison after calving and would prioritize the NPS’s legal trust responsibilities to tribes by honoring treaty rights. Under this plan, the NPS would reduce captures for shipments to slaughter as hunter harvests would increase and the BCTP would expand.

In the third plan, the NPS would focus on treating bison in Yellowstone “more like elk that have been exposed to brucellosis but are not subject to intense disease management like bison,” as the draft EIS states. Capturing bison and shipping them to slaughter would immediately cease, and this alternative would rely on natural selection and the use of public and Tribal hunter harvests as the primary tools for regulating the bison’s population. This third approach has the population range with the highest ceiling, aiming for 3,500 to 7,000 or more bison after calving.

NPS spokesperson Linda Veress said there’s a lot to consider.

“The purpose of the EIS is to preserve an ecologically sustainable population of wild, wide-ranging bison while continuing to work with other agencies to address issues related to brucellosis transmission, human safety and property damage and to support Tribal hunting outside the park,” she said.

The public comment period is open for the agency’s draft EIS. Comments can be submitted online, hand-delivered, or mailed to Superintendent, Attn: Bison Management Plan, PO Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

The deadline to submit feedback on the draft EIS is September 25th and the final EIS is expected to be released in 2024. Veress said all thoughts on the draft EIS are welcome.

“Bison management is a big topic that the public is interested in and we welcome any feedback or suggestions that they would like to share with us,” she said.

YNP will also host two online public meetings about the draft at the end of the month. They will take place virtually on August 28th from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and on August 29th from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Meeting attendees will learn more about the plan and the planning process, and will have the opportunity to ask questions to NPS staff. The content for the meetings will be the same, so interested parties only need to register for one meeting.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.