Debate heats up over bison safety

Cattle and Beef Industry News
Apr 7, 2014

Management of wild bison in and around Yellowstone National Park is by far one of the most heated debates of Yellowstone’s resource issues. All of the interested parties bring their own wideranging values and objectives to the debate, with some relying on common sense and science, and others bringing in history and sentiments.

On the science end, the National Park Service (NPS) and the state of Montana are currently working on a joint Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to consider possible changes for managing wild Yellowstone bison and the non-native disease brucellosis.

The process will allow the NPS and the state to account for substantial new information and changed circumstances since the implementation of the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) began in 2001, and could result in the creation of a plan to replace the IBMP.

A notice will be published in the Federal Register later this year announcing the start of public scoping, which is an opportunity early in the planning and EIS process for the public, organizations, and other agencies to suggest issues and alternatives that should be considered by the NPS and the state.

“The purpose of management is to conserve a viable wild population of Yellowstone bison while continuing to reduce the risk of brucellosis transmission to cattle, damage to property, and threats to human safety,” according to a press release.

NPS and the state will continue to implement the current IBMP with agreed upon adaptive management changes until new Federal and State Records of Decision are signed at the conclusion of this environmental planning and review process.

Management changes

An Environmental Assessment (EA) was prepared by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the Montana Department of Livestock (DoL) for a proposed adaptive management change to the Interagency Bison Management Plan. FWP took comments on the proposal last fall.

Under the proposal, bison that migrate out of Yellowstone National Park could access and utilize yearround habitat on public lands north and west of the park. Portions of the Gallatin National Forest under consideration for year-round tolerance for bison on the western boundary of the Park are: 1) the Hebgen Basin; 2) the Cabin Creek Recreation and Wildlife Management Unit; 3) the Monument Mountain Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area; 4) the Upper Gallatin River corridor, and the Gardiner Basin on the northern boundary for only bull bison. Five alternatives with different geographic configurations, as well as a No Action alternative, were included in the EA.

Some of the Yellowstone bison are infected with brucellosis, known to be transmitted to other wild bison and elk, as well as cattle, through contact with infected fetal tissue, according to FWP.

Free range bison supporters believe the animals, once facing extinction, are still in danger, in part because of the government’s mismanagement. Under the current management plan, animals that leave the park are open to hunting season.

“Current government mismanagement of this iconic, noble animal severely and unjustly punishes them for following their migratory instincts that bring them across the man-made border from Yellowstone National Park into Montana.

Thousands of wild buffalo have been senselessly killed and thousands more repeatedly harassed and abused by government agencies serving the interests of livestock producers,” Buffalo Field Campaign claims.

The group is actively trying to put an end to any hunting or removal of any of the estimated 4,600 bison that roam the park in two separate herds. Yellowstone and those working with the IBMP would like to get the population down to 3,000- 3,500—not an easy task, considering the opposition.

In March, Comfrey Jacobs, a 20-year-old Montana resident, spent a number of weeks in the Gardiner Basin, where bison are hunted, caught for slaughter or relo cated.

Jacobs blocked the road to prevent livestock trailers from accessing the area by handcuffing himself to a hunter orange 55-gallon barrel filled with concrete, and wire-mesh webbing spanning the entrance to the roadway.


With brucellosis worries at the top of the list for ranchers, a recent study set out to try to curb those concerns.

Results from USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) study concluded that it is possible to qualify bison coming from an infected herd as free of brucellosis using quarantine procedures. These bison can then be used to seed conservation herds in other landscapes without the threat of spreading the disease.

In response to IBMP guidelines on federal and state bison management actions, the USDA protocol for the quarantine of bison was tested to see if it could successfully be used to qualify the animals as brucellosis-free.

Results of the study indicated that it is feasible to take young bison from an infected population and, using the approved quarantine protocol published as a Federal Uniform Method and Rule (UM &R), qualify them as brucellosis-free in less than three years.

Between 2005 and 2008, more than 200 bison calves of Yellowstone National Park origin were transported to a quarantine facility at Corwin Springs MT, just outside Yellowstone National Park. During the study, blood samples were collected from the animals every 30-45 days and tested for brucellosis. Those animals that tested positive were euthanized and those remaining were tested until all had two consecutive negative tests. Since the primary mode of brucellosis transmission is via abortion and birthing events, all animals testing negative were held until they produced their first calf and showed no evidence of the disease in newborn calves, birth fluids, or blood. At that point, the bison were considered brucellosis-free.

The study showed that all bison continued to be brucellosis-free over the course of the seven-year study after the initial screening period and through several calving cycles. No evidence of brucellosis was found in either newborn calves or their mothers.

“The results of this study indicate that under the right conditions, there is an opportunity to produce live brucellosis-free bison from even a herd with a large number of infected animals like the one in Yellowstone National Park,” said Dr. Jack Rhyan, APHIS Veterinary Officer. “Additionally, this study was a great example of the benefits to be gained from several agencies pooling resources and expertise to research the critical issue of brucellosis in wildlife.”

Bison transfer

In addition to the growing Yellowstone population and management problems, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is looking for a home for 135 disease-free bison to establish new or augment existing bison herds for conservation purposes.

The transfer of this group has created its own controversies since 80 bison were captured in 2010.

The animals and their offspring are part of the Bison Quarantine Feasibility Study, a research project that began in 2004 directed by FWP and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The research was conducted at a facility near Corwin Springs north of Yellowstone National Park to produce bison free of brucellosis, a disease that can cause some pregnant bison, elk and domestic cattle to abort their calves. The bison would be relocated from the Green Ranch west of Bozeman.

These brucellosis-free bison have been part of the research herd since 2005 and 2006 from two capture groups. All animals have been tested for brucellosis twice a year, with most tested at least 10 times, some up to 15 times, and have always tested negative. Both Montana Department of Livestock and APHIS consider this group of bison to be brucellosis-free.

Montana FWP is offering the remaining 135 bison and their progeny to an agency or organization capable of taking the animals permanently and managing them for conservation purposes.

Proposals must include a bison conservation and management plan, and describe suitable habitat and secure living space for the animals. For more information, visit FWP online at

Another group of bison that went through the disease testing program were transferred to the Montana’s Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes in 2012, after intense opposition from local ranchers and some lawmakers.

Tribal hunting

The hunting debate is destined to take a new twist with recent news that a local tribe wants rights to hunting within the park. According to reports, Nez Perce tribe once hunted bison in what is now Yellowstone National Park, and some tribal leaders want to revive the practice.

After asserting hunting rights tied to historic treaties in recent years, the Nez Perce and three other tribes already hunt those bison that migrate out of the park. A request to hunt in the park would require extensive federal review and congressional action.

Marty Zaluski, Montana State Veterinarian and member of a state, federal and tribal team that manages bison in and around Yellowstone, is a proponent of hunting in the park and told Reuters in February it needed to be “looked at more seriously as a possible solution.”

Arizona buffalo

Another bison war is brewing in Arizona, with a herd of 400 roaming the Grand Canyon National Park area.

While this herd is considered a hybrid, or “beefalo,” the fight is destined to follow a similar path with activists against any hunting. But park officials say the animals are destroying the area, creating unsanitary conditions.

Federal and state officials have announced three public meetings in which residents of the area are invited to share their ideas on how to manage the population. The meetings are scheduled for April 28 in Kanab, April 29 in Flagstaff, and April 30 in Phoenix. Online meetings are also set to take place.

“It’s the first step in a long process today,” Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said. “We’re just trying to get it out there and get it on everybody’s radar screens.” The bison no longer look like cattle but still have about 10 percent cattle in their genes. The massive animals have reduced vegetation in meadows to nubs, traveled into Mexican spotted owl habitat, knocked over walls at American Indian cliff dwellings below the North Rim, defecated in lakes and left ruts in wetlands, Uberuaga said. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor