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Yellowstone Bison Management In Limelight After Multiple Criminal Incidents

Bison in Yellowstone
Daniel Mayer via CC BY-SA 3.0

Since the beginning of this year, there have been four criminal acts at the Stephen’s Creek Facility in Yellowstone National Park. This facility is the central hub for the management of the Yellowstone Park bison herd. Bison or buffalo once roamed the American plains in the millions but today about 4,200 exist. 

Two of the recent incidents involved members of the Wild Buffalo Defense group blocking access to the Stephen’s Creek facility. That is the site where bison are captured and shipped live to tribes or to facilities to be slaughtered. Jack Tripper is a member of the group. He said they’re hoping this will raise awareness to end the current management of the Yellowstone Park bison herd and allow the animals to roam free.

“Ultimately, I’d say what we're saying is that the actual management of the buffalo would shift to more to some sort of tribal council rather than a conglomeration of national park and state entities,” said Tripper.  

The controversy here is how bison have been managed. One program holds the animals for at least two years in order to ensure that they are free of brucellosis before the animals are shipped to tribal or public land. Brucellosis is a disease that can cause livestock to miscarry. Groups argue that holding them domesticates the wild animal. And recently over 100 bison were illegally freed from a quarantine pen to stop this practice.

Dan Wenk, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, said the quarantine program allows fewer animals to be slaughtered in the long run. He said releasing the bison was a bad idea.

“I think it was short-sighted…I mean if everyone's goal is to get bison on a wider landscape in the West,” he said.

Currently, the Yellowstone herd is managed by the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) which includes state, federal and tribal agencies. Their two main goals are to maintain a wild, free-ranging bison population of around 3,000 and to reduce the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle. But Wenk said this isn’t as easy as it seems.

“Managing any wildlife in the modern society is different then it was in the 1800s. There's a lot of competition. I think there's competition for grass and between wildlife and stock growers…that I think plays into it,” said Wenk. 

The IBMP was also a compromise to Montana’s lawsuit over bison migrating out of the park with the chance of transmitting brucellosis to their cattle. Mike Honeycutt, the Executive Director of the Montana Livestock department, admitted there hasn’t been a documented case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle. But he said the U.S. and international fear of brucellosis can harm the ability of Montana producers to sell their product.  

“And with that comes potential for restrictions and some might even say sanctions that have great economic benefits to the state of Montana,” said Honeycutt.

Honeycutt and Wenk think the quarantine program and tribal and treaty hunts outside of the park should be able to manage the population and reduce lethal culling of the herd. Tom McDonald is the division manager of wildlife for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes located in Montana. He agreed that hunting should be the primary long-term tool but there’s a limiting factor.

“If you didn't have a park boundary, you just had this polygon and hunting were available on the over the entire landscape that bison tread upon…nah, there wouldn't be administrative slaughter at all or a harvest. It would be completely done by hunting…no doubt,” said McDonald.  

But Wenk said hunting in the park will never be an option.

“You know…we would certainly fight that…hunting within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park that would be probably an issue that would have worldwide attention,” said Wenk.

No matter the details of terms, the IBMP agencies agree they want to reduce the number of bison slaughtered. While some think this is a step forward, Jack Tripper of the Wild Buffalo Defense group wants to stop the capture program and won’t stop until buffalo are allowed to expand naturally in the landscape. 

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.

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