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 (http://parkplanning.nps.gov/YELLBisonPlan), and we’re also working to establish quarantine facilities for bison (http://parkplanning.nps.gov/BisonQuarantine), 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