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With new management plan, Yellowstone bison herd could increase to 6,000 animals

Two bison stand in a chute to a corral.
Loring Schaible

After receiving more than 27,000 comments, Yellowstone National Park has released an updated bison management plan.

In a Final Environmental Impact Statement, the park has chosen an alternative that aims to keep the bison population between 3,500 to 6,000 animals after calving, an increase over the park’s current estimate of about 5,000.

To manage the herd’s size, the park says it will prioritize transferring live bison to tribal nations through the Bison Conservation Transfer Program and rely on tribal treaty hunts that take place outside the park, as well as occasionally slaughtering bison to give meat and hides to tribes.

The park had considered two other management alternatives. One would have continued following the existing Interagency Bison Management Plan crafted in 2000 and would have maintained the herd at 3,500 to 5,000, similar to the past 20 years. Another option would have increased the population range to 3,500 to 7,000 or more animals after calving and relied more heavily on natural selection.

“We’re not going to blow the doors off the population even though a lot of people want me to do that,” said Superintendent Cam Sholly prior to the plan being released. “We’re not going to go down to super low numbers of bison, even though there’s people that want me to do that as well.”

Jason Baldes manages buffalo restoration on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

He wanted to see the herd increased to 7,000 animals so more bison could be transferred to tribal lands.

“Buffalo have been subjected to the whims of the stockgrowers and the cattle industry forever since cattle arrived. That status quo is something that needs to be challenged and that good old boy way of thinking needs to be challenged,” he said.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) in a statement wrote that the plan is an improvement from the Interagency Bison Management Plan signed in 2000, calling that plan “outdated and politically driven.”

“While we and many others asked for a higher population range, we also understand the park’s constraints with continued opposition from the State of Montana and limited habitat currently available to bison beyond park boundaries,” said Scott Christensen, executive director of the GYC.

The state of Montana has threatened to sue the park if it increases the herd size above 3,000 animals over concerns of potential disease transmission to cattle, among other issues. There has not been a documented case of this happening through Yellowstone bison.

The plan’s release starts a 30-day wait period, after which the National Park Service will sign and publish a Record of Decision detailing the selected action.

Olivia Weitz is based at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. She covers Yellowstone National Park, wildlife, and arts and culture throughout the region. Olivia’s work has aired on NPR and member stations across the Mountain West. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom story workshop. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, cooking, and going to festivals that celebrate folk art and music.
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