BILLINGS – Emphasizing the importance of bison hunts outside the park and the transfer of live bison to tribes, Yellowstone National Park is developing a new bison management plan to update a 20-year-old document.
The announcement of the park undertaking the process will be formally published in the Federal Register on Jan. 28. Montana state veterinarian Marty Zaluski informed the Environmental Quality Council during its Helena meeting that the scoping effort is underway to gather information from cooperating partners. The EQC is an interim legislative working group.
The new document will incorporate recent studies related to bison in the park, according to Superintendent Cam Sholly, including one that examined the park’s vegetation and carrying capacity.
Under the three alternatives that will be considered is one that maintains bison populations at 3,500 to 5,000 animals after calving season in the spring using hunting, slaughter and quarantine.
Alternative No. 2 would raise the population objective to 4,500 to 6,000 animals while emphasizing tribal engagement and decreasing slaughter.
Alternative No. 3 would allow the bison population to climb to between 5,500 and 8,000 and be based on the carrying capacity of the vegetation inside the park. The third alternative would also attempt to move away from any shipping of bison to slaughter unless the population exceeds 8,000 animals.
“We are working to ultimately reduce reliance on shipment to slaughter,” Sholly said.
The shipment-to-slaughter program has been a controversial piece of Yellowstone’s Interagency Bison Management Plan. This year, the goal is to remove 600 to 900 bison through a combination of the slaughter program and tribal and sport hunting. Killing another 200 animals may also be authorized if conditions warrant. The meat and hides from slaughtered bison are distributed to participating tribes.
About 80 to 120 bison that test negative for exposure to brucellosis will be placed in quarantine for possible live transfer to the Fort Peck Reservation for eventual distribution to other tribes, once the animals pass rigorous testing. With help from conservation groups, the park is constructing new quarantine facilities to increase its capabilities from holding 80 to about 200 bison. The transfer program has moved 163 bison to tribal partners.
“We’ve shown we can manage higher numbers without transmitting brucellosis or having higher numbers of conflicts,” Sholly said.
The Nez Perce Tribe, one of the IBMP cooperators, has protested the location of the new quarantine facility, saying it could lessen migration out of the park. Sholly said the location was chosen based on bison GPS monitoring to avoid any problems.
Most of the hunting occurs in the Gardiner Basin north of Yellowstone. This winter, few bison have migrated into the basin, so only two have been shot by state hunters, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The state issues 85 permits for hunters. Eight tribes cooperate to hunt bison outside the park under their own regulations.
The park’s most recent bison population estimate was about 5,450 animals. With few predators, the population is capable of growing by 10% to 17% a year.
The previous bison management plan and development of the IBMP came after the state of Montana successfully sued the park to keep bison numbers low to ensure those infected with brucellosis don’t transfer the disease to cattle in the state. Consequently, bison are the only park animal whose wanderings are restricted and populations are controlled. Elk, which are also infected with brucellosis, move freely within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Sholly said the cooperative work of the agencies and tribes under the IBMP has successfully maintained bison populations, lessened conflicts with landowners and avoided brucellosis infections.
That cooperation will continue even under a new plan, he added.
“We’re still adhering to the intent of the IBMP,” Sholly said.
The goal is to have a draft environmental impact statement regarding bison management out for public comment by this fall with a final document approved in 2023, Sholly said.