Myths about Bison Management

Bison management in and around Yellowstone National Park is a very complex and controversial issue. Many groups, agencies, tribes, and individuals have strong opinions about how to preserve this iconic, genetically-pure population of native, wild animals. We don’t expect everyone to agree, but we do expect everyone to tell the truth.

Here are some common myths repeated by groups, individuals, and the media. If you care about bison conservation like we do, be part of the solution by recognizing fact from fiction.

Myth 1: “The National Park Service (NPS) will roundup 900 bison in the next few weeks.” Not true. This year, all the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) partners announced that their goal was to reduce the Yellowstone bison population by 600-900 animals. This reduction was to occur through both hunting and shipment to slaughter and research facilities. For full transparency, we announced this number early in the season so there were no surprises, but unfortunately people use the number to knowingly stir up additional controversy by saying 900 animals will be slaughtered in the next few weeks. In reality, nearly 400 animals have already been taken by tribal and public hunters outside the park, which has reduced the potential number for capture and slaughter to 200-500. As of March 4, 2016, we’ve captured approximately 150 animals that will be processed during the week of March 7th. We aren’t sure if additional animals will be captured this year. We will not capture or ship later than March 31st.

Myth 2: “The NPS is trying to hide what is happening at Stephens Creek.” Not true. We provide a lot of visual media to help people understand what occurs at Stephens Creek. This includes video Q&As with our lead bison biologist, a Flickr photo gallery, and video b-roll of operations. It’s true that the Stephens Creek facility isn’t open to the public. As an administrative area with various uses including a horse corral operation, a native plant nursery, a law enforcement firing range, equipment storage, and our bison handling facility, Stephens Creek is closed to the public year-round, not just during bison operations. This year, we held a tour of the facility and are offering opportunities for media and stakeholders to observe processing and shipping operations in person.

Myth 3: “Culling puts the bison population at risk.” Not true. Yellowstone’s bison population has grown steadily over the last 45 years: from 500 animals in 1970 to 4,900 in 2015. Due to high rates of survival and reproduction, the bison population can increase by 12 to 17% per year. Predation by wolves and bears has little effect on these numbers. Along with elk, bison are the most numerous large mammals in the park, and these culls will not alter that fact. In fact, we don’t know of any bison conservation herds in North America that are naturally regulated: all require population reduction by direct capture and removal or hunting. If met, the reduction target this year will only reduce the population by up to 10%.

Myth 4: “Animals are abused at Stephens Creek.” Not true. The safety of people and animals is our top priority at Stephens Creek. The Humane Society has evaluated the operation twice, and each time we’ve adopted their recommendations. These have included things like creating visual barriers (plywood walls) so the animals can’t see out of the corrals, and eliminating all nonessential people from the catwalks during processing. Two old photos are often used by other groups to depict handling practices at Stephens Creek. One shows a bison being held with a nose ring during brucellosis testing, a practice that has not been used in more than eight years (we now have a hydraulic chute that holds the animals relatively still during testing). The second shows a bison being carried by a front-end loader: a photo that was taken outside the park, most likely after a bison was shot by a hunter or hit by a car. Adult bison can be very large and heavy and often times require heavy equipment to move carcasses from vehicle accident scenes.

Myth 5: “The NPS has failed to explore other options.” Not true. We have a legal obligation to maintain the park’s bison population at 3,000 animals due to a 1995 lawsuit filed by the state of Montana, and the subsequent legal settlement that created the IBMP. To further complicate things, Yellowstone bison carry brucellosis (up to 40% of animals will test positive on a blood test, depending on age), and it’s currently against state and federal laws to move animals exposed to brucellosis anywhere except to approved meat processing or research facilities. IBMP partner agencies and tribes proposed the hunting of bison outside the park as the primary method for reducing the population. However, hunting has never been able to meet the reduction goals set by the IBMP, so capture and shipment to slaughter sometimes has to make up the difference. We are working with the state of Montana to update the IBMP (, and we’re also working to establish quarantine facilities for bison (, but neither of these efforts provides options we can take advantage of right now.

Myth 6: “Native American tribes are not involved.” Not true.Native American tribes participate in the management of Yellowstone bison through year-round conversations with their IBMP partners, and through tribal hunts outside the park. We recognize that bison are an important cultural animal to the tribes as well as a source of food for Native Americans, so animals captured at Stephens Creek are transferred to tribal partners who arrange for shipment to slaughter and then distribute the meat and hides to their members.

Myth 7: “Yellowstone is catering to the livestock industry.” Not true. As mentioned above, we are legally obligated to follow the directives of the court settlement and the IBMP: the multi-agency effort that guides the management of bison in and around Yellowstone. Its members include:

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
Intertribal Buffalo Council
Montana Department of Livestock
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Yellowstone National Park (National Park Service)
Nez Perce Tribe
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
Custer Gallatin National Forest (U.S. Forest Service)
Villainizing any one agency oversimplifies a complex issue: one that deserves the careful consideration of all concerned citizens. Each agency has a different perspective on the preservation of wild bison, so conflict resolution is an integral part of the conservation and management strategy.

Myth 8:“Brucellosis is not a threat.” Not true. People both understate and overstate the risk of brucellosis transmission. Transmission of brucellosis from bison to livestock is possible because in late winter, bison migrate to low elevation areas outside the park where livestock are concentrated. At the same time, bison are late in their pregnancy, and that’s the most probable time for a transmission event to occur should an infected animal shed the bacteria in the amniotic fluid and a susceptible animal subsequently licks the birthing tissues. The fact that there’s never been a documented transmission of brucellosis from Yellowstone bison to cattle doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Rather, the lack of documented transmissions is a testament to the diligent management efforts put forth by the state of Montana and the NPS to prevent co-mingling of bison and cattle during the time period when transmission is most likely. During the past 16 years, nearly 20 livestock operators in the three states surrounding Yellowstone have discovered a brucellosis positive reactor among their livestock. In each case, the transmission vector has been identified as wild elk. Therefore, elk also appear to be a significant risk to livestock interests across the ecosystem, yet receive very different treatment by state wildlife officials.

Source: National Park Service

Montana Livestock Groups Submit Bison Comments

brucellosisMontana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Association of State Grazing Districts and the Montana Public Lands Council, submitted comments regarding the Montana FWP’s DRAFT Environmental Impact Statement Bison Conservation and Management in Montana document. The 90 day comment period closed on September 11th. FWP has stated a record of decision is expected by early next year.

Our organizations comments were reflective of our membership policies regarding bison management. Some of the general concerns regarding a potential bison relocation included:

  1. Damages to fences by bison that compromise landowner attempts at good grazing management
  2. Private property owners expected to bear the brunt of the expenses
  3. Wild bison would be direct forage competitors with livestock, which would force cattle producers to reduce their herds if bison populations were present on their lands
  4. Federal and state grazing allotments may be put in jeopardy by the relocation of bison to these lands, negatively affecting Montana’s livestock industry

Our members have clearly stated in our policy that we are opposed to bison relocation, but we are committed to being active participants in future negotiations with all entities involved. Some of our critical concerns to any bison relocation include:

  1. The use of private lands without the landowner’s permission
  2. Any relocation must follow strict guidelines:
    • No diseased bison will be relocated anywhere in Montana, other than a state and federally approved quarantine facility or a packing plant for immediate processing
    • Before any other relocation, DFWP shall develop and adopt a comprehensive statewide management plan that is entirely consistent with 87-1-216, MCA

In reviewing the proposed alternatives, our organizations supported Alternative 1: No Action. In reviewing the entire document, there were numerous concerns regarding a number of sections in the Draft EIS.

Starting with the Genetics section, there appeared to be a recommendation to have a bison population of at least 1,000 animals for genetic purposes. Our comments stated potential herds with these types of population numbers would need extremely large landscapes and nutritional requirements that would lead to significant impacts on neighboring family ranches.

On the section of Brucellosis Management, disease management is one of the livestock industry’s most serious concerns. In the Bison/Agriculture Interactions section, federal grazing permits are referenced. Our organizations have experience with groups seeking to reduce or eliminate these grazing permits to allow more habitat for wildlife. Our concerns stated that many ranchers could be faced with significant legal costs to defend their permits over such challenges.

In the section of Costs to Bison Management, our organizations see some deficiencies it the realization of actual costs to the Department to manage a potential bison population. One of the major concerns among our members is the Department would engage in a restoration project and then have a shortage of funds to adequately run the program. Our organizations also recommend that if a bison proposal moves forward, it be conducted in an area where there is local support.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Association of State Grazing Districts and the Montana Public Lands Council will continue to engage in all facets of this decision making process and keep the members informed on any developments.

Livestock Groups Consider MOU for Brucellosis Management | Podcast

PodcastThe National Public Lands Council is hosting their annual meeting this week in Cody, Wyoming. Several Montana ranchers are taking advantage of the close proximity to attend the conference and meeting with public land users from across the country. Montana Stockgrowers and Montana Public Lands Council has several representatives at the meeting and we’ll be catching up later with Jay Bodner to learn more about the big topics of discussion coming out of the event.

Ranchers representing the Montana Public Lands Council in Cody this week include Vicki Olson of Malta and MPLC President, John and Joe Helle from Dillon, George Trischman from Sheridan and Johnny Schultz

Earlier, Montana Stockgrowers took part in a Tri-State Meeting prior to the PLC conference in Cody, to meet with representatives from our neighboring states of Idaho and Wyoming. MSGA Executive Vice President, Errol Rice, shares more about the topics discussed on the Stockgrowers podcast. As part of the meeting, the three states agreed to encourage state and federal agencies to create a working committee that will work toward better solutions for managing brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

Click here to listen to today’s podcast on a new page.

Livestock Groups Submit Comments on Yellowstone-Area Bison Management

brucellosisThe Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA), Montana Association of State Grazing Districts (MASGD and the Montana Public Lands Council (PLC), recently provided comments to Yellowstone National Park, regarding the Yellowstone-area Bison Management Plan/EIS.

Currently, the National Park Service (NPS) and the State of Montana are serving as joint lead agencies in the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a plan to manage Yellowstone-area bison.  As stated in their documents, the goal is to minimizing brucellosis transmission between these wild bison and livestock to the extent practicable. This EIS would be developed to replace the existing Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). In addition to submitting comments, MSGA also attended the public scoping open house in Bozeman.

The main basis of our comments, were the result of policy that was passed at the MSGA Mid-Year meeting.  Those recommendations included:

  1. No increase in the current population goal of 3,000 for the entire Yellowstone area bison herd.
  2. No further increases of the current areas outside YNP where migrating bison are tolerated.
  3. Continual vaccination of captured bison in the Park.

In reviewing the preliminary draft alternatives, our organizations most support the current No Action alternative. This alternative incorporates population control, spring haze back dates, vaccination, culling, hunting and shipment of excess animals to processing facilities. While other alternatives include some components of this alternate, the remainder of the alternatives tend to reduce management actions by the agency, which in our view will lead to greater conflicts.

The comments also included provisions in each alternative that we supported or opposed. Some of those concerns included removal of livestock from private land or federal grazing leases on the Forest Service or other federal lands. These private lands and grazing leases are an important element to any ranching operation and the removal of livestock from these areas will put these family ranches in jeopardy.

Lastly, it was our recommendation YNP, stay the EIS planning until the National Academy of Science’s study of brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area is complete. This study is scheduled to examine factors associated with the increased occurrence of brucellosis transmission from wildlife to livestock and the recent expansion of brucellosis in non-feedground elk. In addition, it is slated to consider the role of feeding grounds, predators, population size and other factors in facilitating brucellosis infection.

One important aspect will be the committee’s work to explore the likelihood of developing vaccines that are more effective, delivery systems, and diagnostic protocols for cattle, bison and elk. Our organizations feel it is imperative to engage and complete this critical study before any action is taken on the Yellowstone-area Bison Management Plan/EIS.

Public Comment Period and Meetings on Bison Management

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There are a number of bison planning efforts underway that impact the state of Montana and so MSGA is providing a brief update on these planning documents and how members can become involved. The first effort is between the National Park Service (NPS) and the State of Montana, who are serving as joint lead agencies in the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a plan to manage Yellowstone-area bison. As stated in their documents, the goal is to minimizing brucellosis transmission between these wild bison and livestock to the extent practicable.

NPS and State of Montana will be hosting a series of three public scoping open houses in Bozeman, Gardiner, and West Yellowstone, Montana. The open houses will have an identical format and agenda. The meetings will be held in Bozeman on June 2 at the Hilton Garden Inn, Gardiner on June 3 at the Gardiner School, and West Yellowstone on June 4 at the Holiday Inn. Each meeting will run from 6 to 8 p.m. and have an identical agenda.

This document planning process is in the scoping phase, which is the first opportunity to provide comments. The comment deadline is June 15, 2015. Comments can be submitted online at NPS Planning, Environment & Public Comment or by mail to:

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone Bison Management Plan EIS
PO Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190

There are currently six preliminary draft alternatives, ranging from No Action alternative to year-round bison tolerance. This EIS is designed to update the 2001 Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP).

MSGA is currently reviewing these draft alternatives and will provide talking points to members and submit comments to the NPS. Even though this is the first phase in the planning process, MSGA has been active in communication with our Congressional delegation, APHIS and MT state agencies over impacts of bison to our members.

In addition, MT FWP is finalizing a Statewide Bison Conservation and Management EIS.  FWP has stated the development of this EIS is to address the potential for bison restoration in Montana. There have been four draft alternatives developed, ranging from No Action to bison being restored on public lands. FWP plans to release a draft in late May, followed by a 90-day comment period. MSGA, along with a number of members, attended a series of meeting held by FWP to discuss the development of this EIS. MSGA will once again be very involved in commenting on this document and providing talking points to members, upon its release.

Click here to visit the NPS website and learn more about Yellowstone’s Bison Management Plans.

Livestock Organizations Encourage BLM to Deny American Prairie Reserve’s Flat Creek Allotment Requests

Montana PLC LogoThe Montana Association of State Grazing Districts (MASGD) and Montana Public Lands Council (MPLC), recently submitted comments to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in response to a request by the American Prairie Reserve (APR) to change class of livestock from cattle to bison and to remove interior fences on Flat Creek Allotment in south Phillips County.

These organizations, along with Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA), National Public Lands Council (PLC) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), do not support the changes requested by APR.

In the application submitted by APR to the Malta Field Office, requests were made to change the class of livestock allowed on the grazing allotment from cattle to bison. APR seeks permission to remove interior fencing and manage their private lands along with the public lands as one common pasture. The request also included changing the allotment grazing season to year-round from the current May 1 – Nov. 15 grazing.

Change the class of livestock from cattle to bison

Given the APR’s plan for bison restoration on a desired millions of acres of contiguous land, the local, state and national livestock organizations request BLM consider a comprehensive review of bison management, before allowing additional change requests to occur.

MASGD LogoAPR’s application for class change from cattle to bison appears to be a simple request for a change of livestock. However, BLM’s decision to convert grazing leases from cattle to bison represents a significant management change, which requires consideration of many other factors beyond the conversion of grazing from one livestock category to another.

Removal of Interior Fencing

The request to remove all interior fencing has raised considerable concerns in the livestock communities. In recent years, BLM has supported range management plans that utilize cross fencing, which allows livestock producers to increase carrying capacity and maintain additional control over the livestock movements. Removal of interior fences decreases management options and reduces carrying capacity when animals concentrate in desired areas.

Mr. Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch in Gallatin County provides a prime example of this type of management action and reversal. During an interview in reference to his book (Last Stand, 2013), Turner described how he sought to “re-wild” the land and help the bison by tearing down all the fences on the ranch’s 170 square miles.

A few years later, Turner recognized the grazing management strategy was not working as planned. The ranch replaced some of those same fences to better manage bison grazing. A similar situation would exist should APR’s request be permitted on the Flat Creek Allotment.

Questions are raised for the need to remove interior fences when APR reports the success of wildlife friendly fences already in existence. APR’s website promotes its replacing of old fences and constructing “new fences designed specifically to manage bison and allow for the free movement of wildlife.”

Year-Round Grazing

BLM generally allows for very limited permits where year-round grazing is allowed. This application questions whether this is a special exception due to the animals being bison.

Concerns should be raised over the magnitude of this allotment management change, including how range monitoring will be completed and documented to meet BLM range standards. With the possibility of no interior fences and year-round grazing, it will be difficult for BLM to address range conditions that are not meeting standards and take corrective actions.

An additional concern is the impact this request may have on sage grouse and the pending decision on the status of the species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While grazing is certainly compatible and beneficial to sage grouse, it is important to implement grazing practices based on sound management principles. BLM has typically supported, encouraged and, in most cases, required grazing systems that allow for control of domestic livestock in a form of rest-rotation systems.

These time-controlled grazing practices tend toward increased herbaceous cover on rangelands, which is beneficial to wildlife and the resource itself. Given the importance of this potential listing and reduced options to address resource concerns, livestock organizations recommend BLM deny this request.

From the local, state and national level, MASGD, MPLC, MSGA, PLC and NCBA are directed and made up of ranchers representing the West’s livestock producers. The livestock organizations’ missions are to maintain a stable business environment for ranchers that utilize combined state, federal and private lands so that ranching families may continue their traditions of livestock production and stewardship.

Many of the requested changes in this grazing allotment have raised a number of resource concerns that these livestock organizations feel have not been fully vetted and analyzed by the BLM. Given these concerns, local, state and national livestock organizations request that BLM deny APR’s application for the proposed changes to the Flat Creek Allotment.