Back to Stories

Weighing new options for Yellowstone bison, NPS records 12,500 comments

Deadline for public comment on new bison management plan is Oct. 10

Approximately 6,000 bison roam through Yellowstone National Park and officials have been wrestling with plans to manage them for years. The Interagency Bison Management Plan was introduced in 2000 and now the National Park Service is taking public comment through Oct. 10 on three new options. Photo by Neal Herbert/NPS
Approximately 6,000 bison roam through Yellowstone National Park and officials have been wrestling with plans to manage them for years. The Interagency Bison Management Plan was introduced in 2000 and now the National Park Service is taking public comment through Oct. 10 on three new options. Photo by Neal Herbert/NPS
by Bella Butler

The National Park Service is calling on the public to engage in the process of updating its bison management plan for Yellowstone National Park, a significant milestone in one of the nation’s most revered stories of conservation.

Per a recent extension, interested parties have until Oct. 10 to comment on a draft environmental impact statement published by the park service which presents three alternative actions for bison management inside Yellowstone. These alternatives offer a spectrum of ways the park can work with state, federal and tribal agencies as well as other stakeholders to manage the herd for varying populations unique to each alternative.

The action toward a renewed management plan for the park was prompted by recent studies and new circumstances that update information previously used to inform the currently operating Interagency Bison Management Plan, created in 2000.

Among this new science is evidence that brucellosis, a disease that has been known to be transmitted from bison to livestock, is now understood to be primarily transmitted by elk instead. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can harm cattle, elk and bison, including causing them to abort their babies. It’s an epidemic that’s had rippling economic impacts on ranchers as well as wildlife-related industries.

“All recent cases of brucellosis in [Greater Yellowstone] cattle are traceable genetically and epidemiologically to transmission from elk, not bison,” reports a 2020 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The study adds that of the 27 cattle herds affected by brucellosis between 1998 and the time of the study, no cases were transmitted by bison. It’s a change the study says is likely due to both the Interagency Bison Management Plan, as well as reduced cattle operations in Greater Yellowstone where bison migrate outside the park boundary.
“The important thing is that we need to try to find common ground among these very different opinions. And that's where science can come into play.”  – Chris Geremia, Bison Program Manager, Yellowstone National Park
Currently, the park employs a number of methods including hazing, hunting, relocation and slaughter to keep the park’s bison population at a capacity that its resources can handle to limit their migration outside the boundary. In cooperation with the Interagency Bison Management Plan, that number is currently between 3,500 and 5,000. The first alternative presented by the park is to maintain this plan.

The second option increases the estimated population range to between 3,500 and 6,000 animals. This plan prioritizes management methods involving Native American tribes, including treaty hunting outside the park boundary as well as use of the Bison Conservation Transfer Program, a collaborative conservation effort in which brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison are rehomed on tribal land. These methods are used in the current plan, but this second option emphasizes collaboration with tribes in hopes of creating more hunting and relocation opportunities.

The third alternative would cease slaughter efforts, leaning entirely on hazing, tribal and public hunts, as well as the Bison Conservation Transfer Program to manage for an estimated population of between 3,500 and 7,000. Though slaughter isn’t detailed in each alternative, the park service retains the right to employ such methods as necessary for maintaining the overarching goals laid out by the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

Chris Geremia, bison program manager for Yellowstone and a contributing party to the EIS, explains the management of bison as a dichotomy between conserving them for wildness inside the park boundary, while accounting for conflicts and additional interests on neighboring private and public land.

“It’s hard for anyone to get a grasp of how complicated the issue is,” he said during an Oct. 4 interview with Mountain Journal. “How different agencies or entities or organizations control different pieces of the puzzle of basic conservation.”

A Yellowstone bison plods through the January snow near Tower Junction. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
A Yellowstone bison plods through the January snow near Tower Junction. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
This dichotomy is further emphasized by the hot-button issues that render bison a popular headline. While America’s national mammal is pedestaled as an icon following its return from the brink of extinction, many continue to fight to expand protections and allowances for bison. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving forward in the process to evaluate Yellowstone bison for endangered species status following three petitions filed between 2016 and 2018. Just this month, the Department of the Interior announced that $5 million from President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda would support the restoration of bison populations and grassland ecosystems in tribal communities.

Yet the bison is also a symbol of challenge at the interface of wildness and developed society. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, its Attorney General Austin Knudsen and the Montana Stockgrowers Association each filed to appeal the Bureau of Land Management’s decision this summer to lease 63,000 acres of land to the American Prairie Reserve for its conservation herd of bison to graze.

Similarly, Geremia said Yellowstone bison are a contentious subject, with opinions on management ranging from reducing the population so bison won’t leave the park at all, to allowing for unlimited numbers of bison managed solely by the tribes. “That means that there are a lot of different people with different visions, different cultural values of bison, and in turn different visions of how this resource should be managed,” Geremia said. “The important thing is that we need to try to find common ground among these very different opinions. And that's where science can come into play.”

The science of note in the context of this EIS, according to Geremia, points to an expanded capacity for larger populations. “It’s important to recognize that we’ve learned that larger numbers of animals have sustained, and in some cases enhanced, the Yellowstone ecosystem. We've also learned that larger numbers have provided an opportunity for tribes to harvest animals outside of the park and receive animals that are brucellosis free to start their own herds. We've learned that we can manage brucellosis spilled over to livestock under a much wider range of population numbers than we initially thought.”

More than 12,500 comments had been received as of Oct. 5, Geremia said, comprising a critical component for next steps in the process. “This is a really important time for people because we need to receive input on what we didn't get right in our analysis, or what alternatives we didn't consider that we should be considering,” he said.

Following the Oct. 10 deadline, the National Park Service will consider public comment with the goal of producing a final document in June of next year, followed by an official record of decision.

Public comment can be submitted via the park service’s preferred form here. Comments may also be mailed to: Superintendent, Attn: Bison Management Plan, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.
Bella Butler
About Bella Butler

Bella Butler is a freelance journalist focused on reflecting upon, challenging and inspiring community. Based out of Bozeman, she is currently the managing editor of Mountain Outlaw magazine.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
GET OUR FREE NEWSLETTER
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places

SUPPORT US
SUPPORT US

Related Stories

March 7, 2024

The Complex and Confounding Task of Wrangling America’s Wild Horses
As management agencies wrangle with wild horse management, advocates, nonprofits and the general public are pushing back.

January 23, 2024

Call of the Mild
With regional snowpack at record lows and average temperatures well above normal, how are local wildlife coping with the unusual winter?

January 2, 2024

50 Years: How the Endangered Species Act Influenced Greater Yellowstone
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, Mountain Journal looks at the landmark legislation’s impact on some of Greater Yellowstone’s...