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What’s next for bison management in Yellowstone National Park?

Three bison cross a road with cars stopped either direction.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Bison walk across the road in Yellowstone National Park, just south of the Mud Volcano on the south end of Hayden Valley.

At the south end of Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park (YNP), about twenty broad-shouldered bison soak in the warmth of thermal vents next to the Yellowstone River. People are gathered on the other side of the river taking a look.

“My husband and I have been doing a little bit of a road trip from Seattle to visit family, and coming back, we wanted to come through Yellowstone,” said Shirley Schaller, who’s from Boulder, Colorado.

Schaller has a big telephoto lens camera in her hands and is an avid photographer. She said seeing the bison is a treat.

“You look at the way the United States used to be hundreds of years ago, this is just a pittance of what was here. It’s nice to see the herd growing,” she said.

By the late 1880s, less than twenty-five bison remained in YNP, as the species was killed by the hundreds of thousands throughout the country by U.S. troops and hunters.

Visitors watch bison gathered by steaming thermal vents on the far side of the Yellowstone River.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Visitors watch bison gathered by steaming thermal vents on the far side of the Yellowstone River.

Currently, the bison population in the park is between about 4,800 to 5,000. The size of the bison herd in Yellowstone and how to maintain that number has been a source of conversation, conflict, and collaboration over the decades.

This August, the National Park Service (NPS) released a 137 page draft of their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for how to manage the shaggy creature within the park boundaries. The park hosted two online webinars to help the public learn more about the new plans, which build on the Interagency Bison Management Plan approved in 2000.

The draft outlines three paths forward.

“This conversation is really about population size,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly. “We're trying to strike the balance between maintaining the progress that we've made over the last few decades and also setting ourselves up for continued progress in the future.”

All the plans have a common denominator – 3,500, which Sholly said is the minimum herd size necessary to protect the genetic diversity of the bison population. Alternative one maintains the current status quo with an upper limit of 5,000, alternative two bumps that top number to 6,000, and alternative three sets the ceiling at 7,000.

“It's going to be one of those plans that likely not everybody is going to be pleased. Not everybody is going to be satisfied,” said Sholly.

But the three plans do have a lot in common. They all involve continuing to work with Montana, coordinating with tribes to support treaty hunting rights, expanding the Bison Conservation Transfer Program, and maintaining genetic diversity.

And, they all try to account for the fact that bison don’t think about borders and migrate throughout the season. They often leave parkland and winter in Montana.

Sholly said NPS has put more money into bison management on the Montana border than any other agency involved.

“Everything we do in this park affects outside the park and many things that happen outside the park affect inside the park. We can't ignore that fact,” he said.

Even so, the park service has no direct control over managing bison that move outside of the park’s borders. The state of Montana is highly concerned about the transmission of brucellosis from wild bison to cattle and has recently criticized Yellowstone’s management alternatives.

But, Sholly said the park has been doing its job managing brucellosis at the boundary – and the numbers don’t lie.

“We still don't have a documented case of brucellosis,” he said. “And we will continue to strike a balance in managing this population and working with our partners and the ranchers and stock growers in the state and other partners to achieve multiple objectives.”

Montana State Veterinarian Tahnee Szymanski said that specific statistic is a reflection of the work of the different agencies involved, especially the Montana Department of Livestock.

“The reason that there have been no transmissions is because of the tremendous amount of work that's done at the local landscape," she said.

Montana Department of Livestock personnel work to move bison back into Yellowstone when they leave the park’s boundaries or the surrounding tolerance zones, in an effort to maintain separation between bison and domestic livestock.

Despite that, narratives about bison spreading brucellosis to cattle have seeped into pop culture – in season five of the TV show “Yellowstone,” the Dutton family is forced to move half their cattle to Texas after an outbreak of the disease from a bison transmission – but the plot twist is based on fiction, not fact.

Sholly said it’s important to remember that cattle first passed the disease to bison more than a hundred years ago – and that maybe some attention could go to another brucellosis-carrying species.

“If you want to talk about brucellosis risk, I would argue that the risk where there's already been significant numbers of elk that have transmitted to cattle – that's probably something for others to focus on,” he said.

Montana State Vet Szymanski said agencies like the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and the United States Geological Survey are looking into ways to stop transmission between elk and livestock. But, she said there are limitations to the efforts.

“It obviously is not to the extent that it is done in bison – we're not able to categorically maintain spatial and temporal separation between elk and livestock,” she said.

Szymanski said the challenges have to do with the multitude of agencies involved in elk management and their varying regulations, as well as the fact that elk move through the landscape differently than bison.

She said that similar to the conversations about bison management, there are a lot of different players with different agendas.

“There are very diverse groups that come to the table, folks with very diverse interests – it just really complicates some of the potential decisions that could be made around management of elk,” she said.

Still, some want to see more bison roaming the landscape like elk do. Dallas Gudgell is on the Board of Directors for the advocacy group the Buffalo Field Campaign and is Dakota from the Fort Peck Reservation. He said that more bison on the landscape would help restore the ecosystem and support tribal food sovereignty.

“It's going to improve the ecosystem,” he said. “It'll improve the grasslands, a great place to sequester carbon. It can contribute to reducing climate warming and can contribute to increasing biodiversity.”

Gudgell said even a population of 7,000 bison isn’t high enough – and that more like ten or twenty thousand would be ideal. While Yellowstone is only 2.2 million acres, Gudgell said he wants to see bison on the 8 million acres of federal land around the park too.

“Like elk, like deer, they should be able to roam free on all of that 10 million acres of public land,” he said. “And the best way to do that, in my opinion, is to involve tribes and involve tribes in a leadership style.”

In that vein, the Buffalo Field Campaign has invited 29 tribes to meet in Idaho for a Tribal Buffalo Summit to discuss tribal co-management of bison in and around the park in November. The final Environmental Impact Statement for Yellowstone’s management plan is expected to be released next summer.

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.
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