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Officials review bison numbers, disagree over some document changes

The Interagency Bison Management Plan’s fall meeting was held on October 31 at Chico in Paradise Valley.
The Interagency Bison Management Plan’s fall meeting was held on October 31 at Chico in Paradise Valley.

Federal, state, and tribal officials met on Tuesday for the Interagency Bison Management Plan’s fall meeting to review Yellowstone bison population numbers and discuss future bison management plans.

In the summer of 2022, the Yellowstone bison herd reached a record high of nearly 6,000 animals.

Yellowstone’s Lead Bison Biologist Chris Geremia told officials at the meeting that a harsh winter brought more than 1,000 animals outside of the park into the Gardiner Basin.

The herd was reduced by around 25 percent: more than 1000 of them were removed by the tribal and state hunt, 282 were entered into a program that transfers bison to tribal nations, and 88 bison were slaughtered, their meat and hides given to tribes.

Geremia says the population bounced back to close to 5,000 animals at the end of this past summer because the last several years there’s been more female bison than males.

“Contrary to some of the other really hard winters we had we had high calving this year, so despite hard winter, despite everything that happened the population was really able to still grow at a high rate,” he said.

Geremia cautioned that no more 25 percent of the herd should be removed by the various agencies in the coming months to maintain genetic diversity, but the park service did not set a removal target as they have in years past.

“We don’t have a removal target for one very clear reason: this is where we’ve been over the last five years and we are sitting here right now, and if no animals were removed from the population at this time next summer, we’d be somewhere within the range where we’ve successfully managed in the past,” he said.

According to the park's draft bison plan, over the past 10 years, the summer bison count has averaged around 5,000 animals while the herd size has ranged between 4,200 and 6,000 animals.

The Governor of Montana, the head of the Montana Department of Livestock, and the Director of Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently wrote a letter to the park service demanding officials keep the herd at 3,000 animals over potential brucellosis transmission to cattle worries and other concerns.

In the letter, state officials also threatened a lawsuit if the park proceeds with plans to increase the population through a new bison management plan the park is developing, and said officials would consider removing state managed tolerance zones outside of the park where bison spend time, typically in the winter months.

Department of Livestock CEO Mike Honeycutt did go into specifics about the 17 page letter, but expressed frustration over the park’s bison plan process during part of the meeting where officials discussed proposed changes to the IBMP adaptive management plan.

An official with the park service said they wanted to update language in the document to reflect current conditions by removing items that are not currently occurring that reference vaccine monitoring and assessing brucellosis rates in bison while Honeycutt wanted some of the language kept in the document or a revision that would include concepts of disease suppression and mitigation.

“...without language in there speaking to again disease mitigation, prevalence certainly these are some things we would have liked to see in the most recent EIS that we didn’t see in the alternatives or have an opportunity to speak to and don’t want to be pre-decisional to that process,” he said.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly responded by saying the state of Montana made their position on vaccination clear in the recent letter they sent, and that the updated bison plan will shape future park actions.

“We will select an alternative based on a considerable amount of scientific analysis, feedback from cooperating partners and the public that will guide the record of decision. In that record of decision it will speak specifically about vaccinations or not and what the plan for the Park Service is moving forward. That will guide what happens here. It’s not the other way around,” he said.

The Head of the Montana Department of Livestock and Yellowstone’s Superintendent declined YPR’s request to comment further for the story.

During the public comment period, several people including a representative with the nonprofit Greater Yellowstone Coalition, expressed concern over the contents of the state’s letter to the park.

Senior Wildlife Conservation Associate with the GYC, Shana Drimal, said the organization was disappointed to learn of the state’s opposition to the park’s process of updating the bison management plan and that the state’s position could undo progress made by IBMP partners.

“There is no reasonable or scientific basis for such a drastic reduction in the herd size today and doing so along with pulling tolerance areas would eliminate tribal and public hunting opportunities, would seriously impede efforts to transfer live bison to tribes, and does not support the IBMP goal of maintaining a wild, free ranging bison population,” she said.

Ellie Brighton with the Montana Stockgrowers Association, an organization that represents cattle producers in Montana encouraged IBMP partners to continue using all tools available to manage the bison population, saying the organization supports keeping the herd at 3,000 animals.

“But the challenge is we continue to see a growing herd size. We believe the management of the herd will create additional management challenges,” she said.

IBMP voting member and Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson, says from her vantage point having served on the IBMP for the past 16 years, bison management has always been complex and controversial, but over the years the group has made a lot of progress.

“We’ve managed disease transmission, increased tolerance through the governor’s decision for those expanded tolerance areas. We have the tribes at the table participating; we have the treaty hunting that takes place,” she said.

Some partners have also pointed to the success of the bison conservation transfer program.

InterTribal Buffalo Council President Ervin Carlson shared an update at the meeting on the number of bison that the group has helped return to tribal lands.

“This year we’ve put out 21 bulls out to the tribes, 8 different tribes and 22 states, so we’re up to 83 tribes. The organization is just continuing to get buffalo out to the tribes to put on their lands,” he said.

Erickson says, there are plenty of challenges the group will face ahead when it comes to working together to manage bison.

Majel Russell, an attorney with the InterTribal Buffalo Council who is a member of the Crow tribe, challenged the group to think about the future of the IBMP and “what it is we’re all collectively committed to achieving.”

“What I've seen over the past several years is sort of a retreat from this table where we all agreed to collaborate, and we all agreed to work together, and there was give and take. There’s years when you don’t like certain things. There’s years you do really endorse certain things in the winter ops plan, but there was a collaboration, people came together with a lot of outside comment,” she said.

There were no decisions made at the meeting on how many bison would be reduced in the coming months. Those decisions will be up to individual agencies and will depend partly on the bison's winter migration.

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.