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Yellowstone releases final draft of bison plan amid protest, praise

A Yellowstone bison bull stands near the Blacktail Ponds in May.  (Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

Yellowstone National Park’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) for managing bison was released on Thursday amid criticism and acclaim.

“The purpose of the EIS is to preserve an ecologically sustainable population of wild and migratory bison while continuing to work with partners to address issues related to brucellosis transmission, human safety, property damage, and to fulfill Tribal trust responsibilities,” the Park Service wrote in a news release.

The document’s publication triggers a 30-day wait period, at the end of which the agency’s regional director will sign a Record of Decision selecting the option to be implemented.

Still unknown is whether the state of Montana will follow through on its threats to sue over the plan or remove tolerance zones for bison to wander outside the park to the north and west. The zones are important migratory areas for the animals in winter and also offer the only areas where the wild bison can be hunted.

“The announced plan from the Biden administration is yet another insult to the state of Montana,” said Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office. “It is not based in science, fails to incorporate any comments from our agency professionals, and reflects a total disregard for the rule-making process. In the coming weeks, the governor will be submitting a formal response.”

Some of the state’s top officials and the governor want to see bison limited to no more than 3,000 animals. The Park Service said a minimum of 3,500 animals is needed to maintain genetic diversity.

As of last fall, the park’s bison population was estimated at about 4,800 animals.

Of the three bison management proposals outlined, Yellowstone officials selected alternative 2 as their preferred option. Under this selection, “Bison would be managed within a population range of about 3,500 to 6,000 animals after calving with an emphasis on using the Bison Conservation Transfer Program to restore bison to Tribal lands and Tribal treaty harvest, and public hunting outside the park to regulate numbers.”

Defenders of Wildlife has been helping the park with its transfer of live, disease-free bison to the Fort Peck Reservation to finish out the quarantine process. From there, 300 bison have been shipped to tribes across the U.S.

“As a proud transfer program partner, Defenders of Wildlife applauds the plan, which supports bison management both ecologically, for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; and culturally, in cooperation with and for Native Nations,” said Chamois Anderson, the group’s senior representative for the Rockies and Plains. “We are hopeful, however, that the future of bison management will include an end to ship-to-slaughter operations, which the plan currently includes.”

The National Parks Conservation Association also voiced support for Yellowstone’s proposal suggesting Montana officials allow bison to roam more freely in the state.

“The Park Service and partners must manage America’s national mammal like other valued wildlife, which includes protecting its seasonal migration in and out of the park,” said Michelle Uberuaga, senior Yellowstone program manager. “Decades of experience have shown that managers can treat bison like other wildlife while also safeguarding regional livestock. The final plan reflects these advancements and supports continuing such programs.”

Not all nonprofit conservation groups endorsed the Park Service proposal. Buffalo Field Campaign, which has petitioned to have the bison listed as an endangered species, criticized Yellowstone officials for defining the disease brucellosis as a concern.

“Had the park examined managing wild buffalo like wild elk in Montana, it could have broken out of the trap it has been in for far too long,” said Darrell Geist, habitat manager for BFC.

Western Watersheds Project, another petitioner for federal listing of bison, said the plan seems to change little from the existing situation.

“What the bison really need is the freedom to roam, and a management plan that brings in the Forest Service and APHIS so federal agencies are allowing bison the freedom to migrate and seek out winter ranges on federal public lands that best suit their needs,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds. “The heavy reliance on hazing, harassment and confinement to the park needs to end, and we need to start giving our national mammal the same freedom to access its natural habitats that we give to every other species of native wildlife.”

The park’s bison management plan hasn’t been updated since 2000. Since then, there have been numerous on-the-ground changes as well as scientific advancements, the Park Service noted.

For example, the agency noted: “Federal and state disease regulators initially thought elk played a minor role in brucellosis transmission to cattle, and bison migrating outside YNP would transmit brucellosis to cattle and jeopardize interstate and international trade. However, elk have transmitted brucellosis to cattle at least 27 times since 1998 with no transmissions attributed to bison.”

The new plan also emphasizes ways to increase transfer of live bison to tribes, as well as cooperating with them on hunting of bison in Montana.