Yellowstone Bison Benefit Little from New Management Plan

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 21, 2000 (ENS) - Bison in Yellowstone National Park and the state of Montana may not have much to be thankful for this winter. A new Joint Management Plan for bison was released Wednesday by three federal agencies, but environmental groups say the plan does little to protect the animals from hazing and slaughter.


Yellowstone buffalo rests near Old Faithful geyser (Photo courtesy TwoSocks)
The National Park Service (NPS), the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) agreed Wednesday on an adaptive management plan for bison in Yellowstone National Park and Montana.

The plan is designed to preserve the largest wild, free ranging population of bison in the U.S. while minimizing the risk of brucellosis disease transmission between bison, also known as buffalo, and domestic cattle. By allowing bison the opportunity to seek critical winter range outside the park, the plan "reflects a commitment on the part of the agencies to end the unnecessary killing of bison outside Yellowstone National Park," the agencies said in a release.

But conservation groups working to protect the bison herd said the plan gives bison little leeway to expand outside the park, and allows state and federal agencies to continue to harass or even kill bison that wander into cattle grazing areas.

The plan culminates more than eight years of negotiation and seven months of mediation between the federal agencies and the state of Montana. But it will not end the controversy over the issue - several groups are already planning administrative and legal challenges to the new rule.

For more than a decade, groups such as the Buffalo Field Campaign and the Ecology Center, Inc. have opposed federal and state efforts to confine the Yellowstone bison herd within park boundaries. The buffalo have a habit of roaming outside the park, particularly in the winter when they seek better foraging areas.


Montana cattle (Photo courtesy Montana Hereford Association)
But outside the park, the bison run the risk of encountering cattle grazing on federal lands, including the Gallup National Forest. Cattle ranchers fear that the bison could pass brucellosis, a disease that can cause cows to miscarry their calves, to their herds.

Although there is no solid evidence that bison can transmit brucellosis to cattle, the fact that some buffalo carry the disease is reason enough in the eyes of federal and state regulators to prevent contact between bison and cattle.

To achieve this, bison that leave the park are regularly harassed to drive them back across park boundaries. Buffalo that refuse to be driven are captured and tested for brucellosis.

If they test positive, they are slaughtered.

While the new Joint Management Plan is not intended to be a brucellosis eradication plan, it employs many tools to manage and reduce the potential risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle.

Limited numbers of bison will be allowed on public lands outside the park during winter when cattle are not present. Bison will not be allowed to intermingle with cattle and will continue to be hazed back into the park in the spring - mid-April on the north side of the park and mid-May on the west side.


Brucellosis, a disease that causes spontaneous abortions and stillborn calves, has never been proven to be transmitted from wild bison to domestic cattle (Photo courtesy National Academy of Sciences)
Federal and state agencies will "capture or remove" bison outside the park that refuse to return to the park in the spring, the agency press release states.

Only limited numbers of bison will be permitted outside the park, within their prescribed winter range. The agencies involved pledged "intensive monitoring and hazing," to maintain those limits, and said they would, when necessary, capture, test and slaughter brucellosis positive bison.

The closer the bison come to the invisible line separating their mandated winter range from the open range, the more official resistance they will encounter.

"That is not what I would deem to be a wild free roaming herd," said Jim Coefield of the Ecology Center in Missoula, Montana. "Sure, bison can come out of the park and roam in this little area they have designated, but they can only do that when cattle are not around."

"The public lands surrounding Yellowstone should be managed for native species, not cows," Coefield said. "Wild buffalo hold a special place inside the American public's hearts and heritage. They need room to roam outside Yellowstone Park on federal lands to survive."

Coefield and his group object to the new caps on the number of bison that will be allowed outside the park, and the additional limits on the buffalo herd's size within the park. Under the plan, the federal agencies pledged to maintain the herd's springtime numbers - after expected winter casualties - at 3,000 animals.

"We don't believe that managing population levels without further data on a sustainable population is a wise thing to do," said Coefield.


Heads and hides offered at auction of slaughtered Yellowstone buffalo. These were from an auction six months prior to it being legal for Montana to kill and auction the animals. (Photo courtesy Meghan Fay and Mike Mease, Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers)
The Joint Management Plan, included in the Record of Decision released Wednesday, is a slightly altered version of the existing plan presented in the federal agencies' final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The state of Montana incorporated and adopted the federal agencies' FEIS into its own FEIS for bison management and will implement the same Joint Management Plan as the federal agencies.

The plan employs an adaptive management strategy, allowing the agencies to change the plan based on additional research findings in the future.

"The problem with adaptive management is that we never really know what the final outcome is going to be down the road," said Coefield. "If future research shows there is no way that brucellosis can be transmitted from bison to cattle, that could change the way the plan is implemented."

But changes could go the other way, if new studies demonstrate that transmission can occur, he noted.

The plan aims to minimize any possible risk to cattle by mandating a waiting period before cattle are allowed to return to public lands on which bison have been grazing. The waiting period should ensure that the bacteria which causes the disease is no longer alive outside the park.

But that waiting period ignores the presence of other animals, like elk, that also carry brucellosis, and are not covered by this management plan.


Yellowstone's 100,000 or so elk also carry brucellosis (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
The plan also ignores elk when it orders the mandatory vaccination of bison against brucellosis, which will be required if 100 percent of all vaccination eligible cattle are not vaccinated within one year. APHIS will pay for all direct vaccination costs.

Untested bison will not be allowed in most areas outside the park until the National Park Service begins vaccinating bison inside the park.

"So we've gone from a zero tolerance plan to basically zero tolerance with minor modifications, that I don't believe are going to be that significant," Coefield said, noting that "this thing was signed yesterday, and yesterday the [Montana] department of livestock was out there hazing animals."

The Record of Decision on Bison Management for Yellowstone National Park and the State of Montana is available at: or by calling 307-344-2159.