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Yellowstone National Park, state of Montana disagree over bison management goals

A bison herd grazes in Yellowstone National Park.
Jacob W. Frank
A bison herd grazes in Yellowstone National Park.

Earlier this year, the National Park Service took the first step in a lengthy process of updating a bison plan that will guide future management decisions within Yellowstone National Park.

There are currently around 5,500 bison in Yellowstone. Lead bison biologist Chris Geremia says the park has enough forage to handle double that.

“We’re confident that it can easily support 8,000–10,000 animals or more,” he said.

But, the state of Montana wants the park to return to the drawing board. Montana is asking that the park withdraw – or at least reconsider – the three options it put forward and come up with new ones.

The first preliminary option would keep the bison population between 3 and 5,000 animals, similar to where it’s been for the past two decades. Two other options would increase the herd size, in one scenario, up to 8,000 animals.

Governor Greg Gianforte was not available for an interview by deadline, but in comments obtained through a public records requesthe wrote that the park’s proposed population increases are “absurd and unsupported by both science and lay observation.”

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly says he wasn't expecting the state to ask that all of the options be thrown out.

“I think ultimately we’re absolutely willing to work with the state like we have," Sholly said. "This did take us by surprise a little bit considering the number of conversations we’ve had with [Fish, Wildlife and Parks] and with [the Department of Livestock]."

FWP, DOL and the Montana State Veterinarian hold 3 of the 9 seats on the Interagency Bison Management Plan, or IBMP, which started in 2000 after the state sued the park over bison exiting Yellowstone.

Each year IBMP members agree upon a population reduction target to help reduce potential transmission of the reproductive disease brucellosis from bison to cattle.

Sholly says two of the potential options — to keep the herd size as it is or increase it slightly — are similar to where things are now.

“It’s a little bit disingenuous I think for the state to say we haven’t consulted with them when they’ve been at the table for every single decision that has gotten us to where we are today,” he said.

But even the current herd size is "a little north of the population target" the state wants to see, says Montana Department of Livestock CEO Mike Honeycutt, one of three state representatives on the IBMP.

“And certainly alternative 3 ... with about 8,000-plus bison is one that we don’t think is strategically or tactically attainable,” he said.

The park's herd is managed in three ways: Some are shipped to slaughter and their meat and hides given to Native American tribes. Others are killed through a tribal and state hunt just outside the park. And in 2018, a program that sends live bison to tribes around the country was added.

The slaughter of Yellowstone bison has been controversial. Under the proposed 8,000-bison option the park would end the slaughter and shift to relying more on the tribal hunt.

Park officials stress that the new plan would apply only to bison within Yellowstone’s boundaries. However, if the park allows bison populations to grow, it could mean more bison in what are called tolerance zones: more than 75,000 acres west and north of the park where the state of Montana allows bison.

Druska Kinkie and her husband are fourth-generation cattle ranchers 30 miles north of Gardiner. She says because bison can transmit brucellosis to the elk that frequent Paradise Valley, increasing the Yellowstone bison herd could have ripple effects.

“There’s a greater chance that the elk that move down and through this area coming from the park and the bison reservoir of brucellosis will infect my herd,” she said.

Park officials say that bison spending time in tolerance zones has not increased the risk of brucellosis transmission to cattle. In fact, there has never been a documented brucellosis infection from Yellowstone bison to domestic cattle.

Mike Honeycutt with the Department of Livestock says that’s because bison and cattle have been kept separate.

“We have not allowed bison and cattle to commingle and when that has an opportunity to occur we typically intervene and haze those bison away from the cattle and try to haze them back towards the tolerance areas and back towards the park,” he said.

The park points out that since the last bison plan two decades ago, federal and state efforts that established brucellosis monitoring zones have reduced the economic impacts of a potential infection on the cattle industry.

But Honeycutt says the state may not be willing to put additional resources toward brucellosis monitoring.

“We’re already dealing with elk, and we’re spending lots of money annually,” he said.

Honeycutt wants the park to keep all of the population management tools on the table, including shipments to slaughter. He says there’s a sweet spot to be found for managing the bison population.

There’s still a lot of time before the plan is finalized. The park is now reviewing public feedback and will release a draft plan this fall.

Bison Biologist Chris Geremia says that over his 21 years of working with the IBMP on bison management, he’s learned that Yellowstone’s success in restoring its bison hasn’t been without controversy. He says regardless of what’s decided for the new plan, the park will continue to work with the Interagency Bison Management team.

“We should never overlook the success or the value of the success that we’ve had, which is restoring bison from the last wild lineage that was left," he said. "We need to continue to find ways to not focus on the controversy, but focus on the common ground."

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.