Yellowstone National Park might tolerate thousands more bison by 2017, or perhaps hundreds fewer. State and federal wildlife managers are developing a new Yellowstone bison management plan and several options are on the table.
Bison management is a polarizing topic. It tends to pit livestock and government interests against wildlife advocates. Too often this is the result:
(Audio excerpt of videotaped confrontation) "The buffalo are in my yard and it ain't botherin’ me. They’ve been here longer than all of us. Ok, I don’t need to talk to you no more. (Expletive). Have a nice day."
That video of an angry homeowner confronting livestock officials hazing bison off his property was captured by the Buffalo Field Campaign, a West Yellowstone-based bison advocacy group.
It’s a situation wildlife managers hope to avoid more of as they draft the next version of the Interagency Bison Management Plan.
That plan was implemented 15 years ago to both manage the bison population and minimize disease transmission.
Under its provisions hundreds of Yellowstone-area bison were captured and sent to slaughter this winter. Thousands of the animals have been killed since the plan was signed by five cooperating state and federal agencies in 2000.
The Buffalo Field Campaign’s Darrell Geist say the management plan’s been disastrous for the genetically pure herd.
"Right now it's just a battle zone at the park boundaries and the buffalo lose out," Geist says.
Livestock producers have a different take.
According to Errol Rice of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, "The plan has, for all intents and purposes ensured that there has not been any transmission from bison to cattle.”
He’s talking about brucellosis. That disease can infect humans with undulant fever and cause pregnant cattle to abort their young.
Rice says that costs ranchers money. Potentially lots of money.
"Absolutely. Not only on the producers themselves by having to quarantine your cattle. Any animals that are found to be positive then are euthanized which is a cost to the rancher; and then secondarily, just the management protocols of having to live within the confines of heightened restrictions. Then there’s just the potential marketing stigma it has for the value of those cattle."
Several competing interests are focused on that bison population.
Yellowstone National Park's Jennifer Carpenter says now’s a good time to take a fresh look at the management plan that governs the herd.
"We've learned an awful lot about bison, bison biology, bison immune responses to vaccination, risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle in Montana and the effects of population management on bison demography."
While researchers have learned lots about bison in Yellowstone’s ecosystem, in Carpenter’s opinion the status quo works; there’s not been one documented case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle.
"And that has happened and has been a success story out of this current Interagency Bison Management Plan," says Carpenter. "That is our goal in moving forward. We want to continue to minimize the risk of brucellosis transmission between bison and livestock."
To do that, officials are considering six proposed alternatives. One takes "no action", continuing as-is. The other five propose various population goals as well as brucellosis management and suppression strategies.
All options continue physical separation of bison and livestock.
Darrell Geist of the Buffalo Field Campaign is unimpressed with all of the preliminary alternatives.
"So far it looks a lot like the old plan; similar management tools, the range of alternatives look an awful lot like what was evaluated in 2000. Not a lot has changed despite the fact that the government has pointed out that the new information and changed circumstances give rise to this need for another plan."
Geist says the Buffalo Field Campaign wants officials to treat bison just as any other big game like deer or elk; allowing them to establish home ranges and calving grounds as they see fit.
"For the most part wild elk have recovered under this model. We're talking right now about 0.1 percent of Montana's land base where buffalo are tolerated. That's not conservation. That's not recovery. That's managing for extinction."
"We understand their perspective" says Yellowstone National Park’s Jennifer Carpenter.
"Given the complexity of different jurisdictional boundaries adjacent to the park, it’s a challenge because we have to work with three adjoining states; Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, in managing the wildlife that cross into those respective states.”
The Montana Stockgrowers Association is equally as leery of that “hands-off” approach.
The Association’s Errol Rice says a change he’d like to see is more brucellosis research. Rice says right now concerns about bio-terrorism means researchers don’t have wide access to the pathogen that causes brucellosis. His group wants to change that.
"It’s prohibited our research and development opportunities to develop better vaccine products, not only for our cattle but for potential trials in wildlife populations."
Public scoping meetings on the six preliminary management alternatives will be held next month. The comment period ends June 15.
State and federal officials will then evaluate all feedback. A draft Environmental Impact Statement may be available by the middle of next year with a final decision issued by the Fall of 2017.