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A frosty bison rests along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. NPS PHOTO

Management for the Yellowstone buffalo

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

LIVINGSTON – The story of the buffalo is well-known in legend and myth. A species highly regarded by native peoples, bison became an American symbol in 2016 with the passage of the National Bison Legacy Act. They are perhaps the most abundant animal in Yellowstone and are one of the few genetically-pure herds in the U.S., as many others hybridized with cattle.

Yet, the tale of today’s Yellowstone bison is steeped in a mire of public opinion and policy centered on a disease that triggers abortion, and how we’ll engage with and see these animals on the landscape in the future remains unclear.

An onerous dilemma

Bison are the largest land-dwelling mammal in North America, with males weighing up to 2,000 pounds and females reaching 1,000. Highly social animals, they form herds of about 1,000 individuals in July and August for the breeding season, though herds disperse into small groups for the winter. Three hundred years ago, prior to 19th century Euro-American settlement, tens of millions are thought to have roamed across our continent.

Today, approximately 4,500 bison live within the bounds of Yellowstone National Park, though the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which guides the handling of Yellowstone bison, sets a population goal of 3,000.

When asked about bison management, officials respond unanimously that it’s a very complex topic. Speaking specifically about quarantine, Yellowstone bison program coordinator Tim Reid described the conversation as “painful.”

Unlike other wildlife, like deer or elk, bison aren’t allowed to migrate freely across park lines due to livestock-producer and landowner concerns over brucellosis transmission, grazing and property damage. Montana Department of Livestock State Veterinarian Marty Zaluski said the spread of brucellosis, which causes miscarriage in bison, elk and cattle, could result in costly testing requirements and transportation limitations for the cattle industry. There’s also a possibility of transmission to humans, he added.

Though there hasn’t been a documented transmission of brucellosis from Yellowstone bison to cattle,

Bison held for quarantine prior to shipment are fed by park staff with horse-drawn wagons. NPS PHOTO

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly says up to 60 percent of Yellowstone’s bison test positive for exposure to brucellosis. “Identifying animals that do not harbor the bacteria is difficult and requires many months or years of quarantine. A single test is not enough,” he wrote in an email to EBS.  

To protect livestock producers, who contribute more than $2.1 billion to the Montana economy, and to limit the spread of a disease that was first introduced to Yellowstone bison and elk by domestic cattle in the early 1900s, Montana law significantly limits the transportation of live bison and their natural tendency to migrate out of the park.

However, Yellowstone’s bison population continues to grow at a rate of 10 to 17 percent each year and officials say unbound growth could lead to overgrazing and starvation within the national park.

Striving for a solution

“Until there is more tolerance for bison outside Yellowstone, the population can only be controlled by hunting outside the park and capture near the park boundary,” Superintendent Sholly said.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks issues a limited number of public hunting tags, while some tribes exercise their rights to hunt bison that migrate outside of Yellowstone. In addition, Yellowstone officials capture groups of migrating bison as they move from high elevation to low elevation in the winter at a facility known as Stephens Creek near Gardiner and the North Entrance.

Bison move through the sorting pens at Stephens Creek prior to shipment for slaughter. NPS PHOTO

This year, capture efforts began on March 7. As of March 22, as reported by the park’s Public Affairs Office, a total of 208 bison had been captured and consigned for slaughter. Following capture, bison are tested for brucellosis and then shipped to slaughter; the meat and hides are distributed among members of partnering tribes.

This spring, managers have a goal of removing 600 to 900 bison, though with the late capture start, they say it’s unlikely that number will be reached. “It’s all based on the winter,” Reid said. “This winter got intense late, so the migration started late.”

While capture efforts are guided by a multi-agency directive that includes input from Montana FWP, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Montana Department of Livestock and several tribal partners, some are critical of the territory control and culling initiatives.

“We adamantly, vehemently oppose the Interagency Bison Management Plan,” said Stephany Seay, the media coordinator for Buffalo Field Campaign based in West Yellowstone. One of the most outspoken critics of Yellowstone’s capture program, Buffalo Field Campaign would prefer to see bison that migrate freely in and out of Yellowstone and within Montana. Seay said she believes managers currently give livestock priority over bison due to competition for grass.

“We want to gain more habitat [for bison],” Seay said, “so buffalo can stay in Montana as long as they want and use the landscape like deer and elk.” She added that the group is also opposed to quarantine programs, calling them a form of domestication.

In part, Superintendent Sholly agrees with some of Seay’s sentiments. “For long-term conservation, Yellowstone bison need access to more suitable habitat outside the park,” he said. “Yellowstone has long wanted to send bison to other conservation areas.”

To further this effort, Yellowstone managers are working with the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes at Fort Peck in the northeast corner of the state to develop a quarantine program for bison. Animals that have proved to be brucellosis free after multiple years of testing will be eligible for release at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

To aid with the multi-year quarantine process, the Fort Peck tribes constructed a quarantine facility in 2014 to the tune of about $1 million, said Daniel Wenner of Elk River Law, who serves as the Fort Peck tribes’ attorney. “The National Park Service wanted to start the quarantine program and Fort Peck stepped up to make it happen,” he wrote in an email to EBS.

Restoring a relationship

On Feb. 22, five bulls that were born in captivity as a part of a research program by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service were transferred to Fort Peck for a final year of quarantine after the initial phases were completed at Corwin Springs near Gardiner.

Blood is drawn from a bison at Stephens Creek for brucellosis testing. NPS PHOTO

APHIS has approximately 50 more bison that could be eligible for relocation to Fort Peck and Yellowstone has about 80 that were captured from the wild and held for quarantine, with the intent of relocating them to Fort Peck in the future. Currently, Fort Peck has two herds and about 200 bison.

“Restoring that cultural, spiritual and traditional relationship with buffalo is incredibly important for tribes,” Wenner said. “Historically, the federal government killed buffalo as a way to force tribes onto reservations. Bringing buffalo back helps [them] heal from those old wounds.

“Yellowstone buffalo are important to tribes because they have those pure buffalo genetics and are the descendants of the buffalo tribes lived with for thousands of years,” he added. “This makes bringing buffalo out of Yellowstone National Park incredibly important. The tribes [at Fort Peck] want to see these buffalo expanded to other tribes as well.”

Park officials concede that additional stakeholder involvement will be integral for future bison management. “It’s our goal to find ways of expanding the quarantine program, at Fort Peck and other locations, to ensure a more regular and predictable number of bison can move through the pipeline,” Sholly said.

For more information on Yellowstone bison, visit nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/bison.htm, nps.gov/yell/learn/management/bison-management.htm or nps.gov/yell/learn/management/bison-management-faqs.htm.

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