YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - Yellowstone National Park wants to change the way it manages bison but it could be a very contentious issue.
There are some environmental groups who strongly oppose the current practice of rounding up bison to be sent to slaughter, and some ranchers are opposed to any plans that would allow bison to share the range with cattle.
Bison are perhaps the most iconic of Yellowstone images but the animals barely managed to survive. By 1901 there were just 21 roaming free in the park. So, the Buffalo Ranch was created in the Lamar Valley to bring the herds back.
It worked. but in 1995, the state of Montana sued the federal government for allowing bison to roam outside the park.
A court-mediated settlement in 2000 led to the creation of the Interagency Bison Management Plan which kept the bison population at about 5,000 animals by allowing hunting outside the park, and by capturing bison to be shipped to slaughter.
Now, the US Park Service says it’s time to consider changes. Three proposals include changing nothing, allowing a herd of up to 6,000, allowing a herd of up to 8,000, and reducing or ending the slaughter.
Yellowstone National Bison Program coordinator Tim Reid warns those aren’t the only choices. In a telephone interview, he said, “This isn’t a menu with boxes to check.”
He said there will be lots of negotiation, with meetings for the public and with other state and federal agencies to develop a compromise plan.
“This issue is complex and has a long and contentious history and I think, the most important end state is to get it right and to come up with alternatives that will work,” said Reid.
There are many groups that want to weigh in.
“The park is saying anywhere between 5,500 and 8,000 animals, potentially more. We, however, would like to add to that,” said Shana Drimal of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
She said the group definitely wants to see the park end capturing bison to be sent to slaughter. “And when they learn about this, most people are just entirely shocked, to be honest, and they don’t understand why this is happening."
Rick Wallen, the lead biologist for the Park’s bison program admitted that just because there are no documented cases of that happening, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. He says it’s important to keep cattle and bison separate, especially in late winter.
Wallen also said elk are just as likely to transmit the disease. But, he said wildlife managers in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho are more tolerant of elk and allow the animals to move freely across park boundaries.
The park proposals also envision expanding a program that transfers bison to Indian lands to establish new herds elsewhere.
Drimal supports that, saying, “and these are bison that would otherwise have been shipped to slaughter. So, we’re basically diverting disease-free bison and putting them into this program so they can be used for conservation and ecological and cultural restoration elsewhere.”
Park managers say they also support expanded hunting of bison outside the park but in a safe and more dispersed manner. The Park Service is accepting written comments on bison management until Monday, Feb. 28. A draft plan is expected to be released as early as the fall of this year.
You can learn more about the proposals at park webinars this Wednesday at 5:30 pm or Thursday at noon. Links can be found on the Yellowstone Park website and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition website.