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The National Parks Service Proposes New Yellowstone Bison Management Alternatives

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On August 10th, 2023 the National Parks Service (NPS) released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) proposing new bison management alternatives for Yellowstone National Park. Large mammal management in the park system is slightly different than state wildlife management due to a lack of recreational hunting within the park. Yellowstone bison management is centered around maintaining a sustainable population while controlling the spread of brucellosis to cattle outside of the park, which requires some level of animal capture and removal.

In 2000, the NPS drafted the original Interagency Bison Management Plan following a lawsuit by the State of Montana concerning bison transmitting brucellosis to livestock. Cattle introduced the disease to the local bison and elk herds by the early 1900s. The disease was later eliminated from cattle in Montana, but it remains to some degree in wild bison and elk. 

Brucellosis can cause livestock to abort fetuses and is easily transmitted to healthy cattle that contact a newborn calf or birthing fluid or tissue. Therefore, keeping Montana’s livestock brucellosis-free is important to the State and local communities. 

The new management alternatives incorporate the past 23 years of data and lessons learned to maintain a sustainable population goal between 3,500-7,000 animals, depending upon which alternative would be implemented.


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“The purpose of [bison management] is to preserve an ecologically sustainable population of wild, migratory bison while continuing to work with partners to address brucellosis transmission, human safety, and property damage, and support Tribal hunting outside the park. [Management] is needed because new information obtained since the approval of the Interagency Bison Management Plan in 2000 indicates some of the premises regarding brucellosis transmission in the initial plan were incorrect or have changed over time. In addition, fewer cattle range near the park, and federal and state disease regulators have taken steps to reduce the economic impacts of brucellosis outbreaks in cattle.”

The DEIS considered three alternatives including various approaches and tools for managing bison within the park. Alternative 1, the “No Action” alternative (status quo), includes capturing and removing bison within the park to maintain population goals. Captured bison are quarantined and tested for brucellosis. Those that are brucellosis-free may be live-shipped to Tribes for release on Tribal lands. Otherwise, captured bison are sent to slaughter and the products are provided to Tribes. 

Alternative 2 would prioritize the NPS’s Tribal Trust responsibilities by transferring healthy bison to Tribal lands to restore populations, provide treaty hunting outside the park, and provide Tribes with access to bison as a traditional cultural resource. Additionally, this alternative could slightly increase the bison population relative to the “No Action” alternative. It may provide for greater public hunting opportunities outside of the park boundary in the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

Alternative 3 would prioritize managing Yellowstone bison less intensively and more like elk that were exposed to brucellosis. Captures of bison for shipments to slaughter would immediately cease, with natural selection and public and Tribal hunter harvest outside of the park being the primary population regulators. Captured bison that are brucellosis-free may be live-shipped to Tribes for restoration or other uses. Alternative 3 would likely lead to a higher bison population than the “No Action” alternative, which may also translate to increased or additional tribal and public hunting opportunities outside of the park, but if the population reaches 7,000 individuals, up to 1,000 bison may need to be captured and removed by the NPS to maintain sustainable herd size.

The National Parks Service has no jurisdiction or control over actions beyond the park boundary; however, the proposed alternatives can affect herd management within the park and influence external management actions for complementary outcomes. 

“Expected outcomes of the [National Environmental Policy Act] process include an EIS and plan that incorporates new information, changed circumstances, and two decades of lessons learned; an enhanced ecological role for bison; increased hunting opportunities outside the park; and more brucellosis-free bison restored to Tribal lands1.”

A DEIS with no recommended alternative seemingly fails to provide the public with any firm ground on which to base critical review and meaningful comments. The final bison management “plan” may be a combination of management measures combed together from all three alternatives into a fourth “preferred alternative” that was not specifically analyzed for its effectiveness or effects on the human environment. This hybrid alternative development is not necessarily uncommon; however, the agency should identify the hybrid alternative during the analysis stage of the DEIS rather than allow public input to drive the outcome on the back end when the alternatives already include public input from the early scoping process.

One benefit of evaluating new bison management alternatives is that research since 1998 indicates zero brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle. Therefore, new bison management actions may feasibly relax aggressive brucellosis control measures and allow for a larger population. This would benefit the Tribes and Yellowstone National Park patrons, and potentially allow the State of Montana to offer additional limited recreational hunting opportunities. 

The DEIS public comment period closed October 10th, 2023 but everyone should read the executive summary and background information. The DEIS presents a fascinating history of bison and brucellosis in the Yellowstone herd, which is a strong remnant population of our former bison herd. Therefore, the public should be aware of proposed management actions for this treasured public and Tribal resource. The DEIS, presentations by the NPS, and a bison management plan fact sheet are all available from the NPS at: Park Planning – Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Bison Management (nps.gov).

1.Yellowstone National Park Bison Management Plan Draft Environmental Impact Statement

Brad Trumbo

Senior Staff Writer at Harvesting Nature Brad is an author and outdoor columnist who lives in southeast Washington State with his wife Ali and a pack of Llewellin setters on a small homestead. He serves the public as a fish and wildlife biologist and active Pheasants Forever life member. He pens conservation news for Harvesting Nature and authored the upland hunting book, Wingshooting the Palouse, which is available from Ingram Content Group and Amazon. You can find Brad on Instagram @tailfeathers_upland and @palouse_upland_media.

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