Management team discusses winter plans for Yellowstone bison after deadly year prior

Population dropped by about 2,000 animals due to hunting, winter kill, bison entering the transfer program, and slaughter, park estimates show

By: - November 4, 2023 4:10 am
Yellowstone bison river

A bison crosses the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park in April 2023. (Clark Corbin/Idaho Capital Sun)

Yellowstone National Park’s bison herd dropped to a population of fewer than 4,000 after the harsh winter, which forced most of the northern herd outside of the park in search of food and more than 1,000 of them to their demise at the hands of mostly tribal hunters.

Though the calving season brought the total population back up to around 4,830 as of August, about 900 more than there were in May, park officials are recommending that fewer than 1,100 are removed through hunting and the Bison Conservation Transfer Program this winter to keep the population on the road to getting back to where it was before last winter – at about 6,000 bison.

Those estimates and recommendations for the winter migration were part of Yellowstone National Park Senior Bison Biologist Chris Geremia’s presentation Tuesday at the biannual meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan group at Chico Hot Springs.

Bison population changes after last winter

When the group last met in Gardiner in early June, the winter – the worst in more than a decade, park Superintendent Cam Sholly said at the time – most of the focus was on the total number of animals lost and how to move forward after a winter unlike anyone had seen in years.

Geremia said at Tuesday’s meeting the park estimates the bison population dropped by about 2,000 animals due to hunting – primarily tribal members exercising their treaty rights – as well as winter kill, animals entering the transfer program, and slaughter.

He said an estimated 60% to 70% of the park’s total herd – and almost all of the northern herd – went to the Gardiner area. Around 1,100 were killed by hunters, 218 entered the transfer program in which bison are quarantined to screen for brucellosis and shipped to various tribes across the country, and 88 were slaughtered.

This summer, the park said 1,200 bison were prevented from leaving the park boundary during the winter, two-thirds of which were released back into the park in April.

New recommendations for harvest for this winter

Though the park did not set a quota again this year for the bison harvest, Geremia said the park recommends no more than 25% of the herd should be removed through various means this winter. And if there is another severe winter and large migration out of the park, the recommendation is for fewer than 1,100 to be removed – limited to the park’s northern boundary area.

And in the event there is another large migration and bad winter, the park recommends at least 20% of bison removed be calves and no more than 80% be adults in order to keep the population stable. That would also include about 57-70% of the removals being females, as they outnumber males in the herd, Geremia said.

Though the park does not have a staff meteorologist, Geremia told the Daily Montanan that this year’s El Niño forecast models for the winter appear to be similar to that of the 2015-16 winter, when the peak number of bison north of the park boundary was 311 in mid-January, according to IBMP records.

That winter, 384 bison were harvested by hunters and another 150 were captured at the boundary.

Yellowstone bison spring
A group of bison cross the road in Yellowstone National Park near the Madison River in April 2023. (Clark Corbin/Idaho Capital Sun)

He and others who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting said the winter conditions and the extent of the bison migration would be the key factors in determining exactly how the federal and state agencies, along with tribes, manage the bison this winter.

But there are question marks around one of the resources the group uses. The Bison Conservation Transfer Program — which the group has used since 2018 to capture migrating bison before they reach the park boundaries, quarantine and test them for brucellosis, and send to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and InterTribal Buffalo Council — is out of space after taking in more than 280 bison last winter.

Burke Healey, the executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS), told the group that USDA-APHIS had data that showed bison were brucellosis-free after 300 days and were working on a protocol change that would allow the bison to move out of the Stephens Creek quarantine facility and on to Fort Peck for a final round of assurance testing.

It takes between two and three years for the bison to move out of the initial quarantine phases, Healey said. If the protocol changes are adopted, they would allow for male bison captured this past winter to be released to Fort Peck in February ahead of the peak migration in March so there would be more space for new bison to enter the program.

“When they modeled this on multiple different scenarios and occasions, the risk factor doesn’t change from essentially what it has been,” Healey told the group. “I think it’s safe to make these assumptions. It’s safe to take these actions.”

Yellowstone’s draft environmental impact statement draws attention

In the draft environmental impact statement for an updated bison management plan released earlier this year, the park presented three alternative plans, two of which would involve continued use of the transfer program, and one of which would increase its capacity.

All three options also involved keeping the park’s bison population at a minimum of 3,500 animals, with different maximum levels of 5,000, 6,000, and 7,000.

The plans also stated that while keeping bison from transferring brucellosis, which can cause abortions in livestock, to cattle was an original goal of the IBMP partnership and remains a goal of the park, there are no cases of Yellowstone bison transferring the disease to cattle during the past 25 years.

In response to the plans, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte; Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Dustin Temple; and Department of Livestock Executive Director Mike Honeycutt submitted a 17-page comment calling the plans “substantively deficient” and claiming the plan “undermines and contradicts the statutes YNP is required to follow, as well as the goals of IBMP.”

They also said they would like to keep the Yellowstone bison population around 3,000, continue to focus on trying to get an effective remote vaccine for brucellosis, and threatened to reconsider tolerance zones established for the bison outside of the park implemented under the administration of former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, in 2015.

Montana’s governor, agency officials criticize Yellowstone’s draft bison plans

Some of those disagreements reared their head Tuesday, as Honeycutt, whose department has been the lead partner of IBMP this year, sparred with other IBMP officials over proposed amendments involving brucellosis to the IBMP’s adaptive management plan based off the park’s environmental impact statement.

Honeycutt and Temple told others they were not comfortable making any changes regarding brucellosis or vaccines, but were told in return they were making “philosophical” points rather than holding any concrete position.

The back-and-forth ran well past its allotted time, forcing organizers to move the rest of the day’s schedule around. A visibly frustrated Sholly eventually halted the conversation abruptly: “Let’s move on.”

But public comment came next, and several of the speakers spent their two minutes chastising Montana’s government officials and their response to Yellowstone’s plans.

Wendy Whitehorn changed the lyrics to the folks song “Where the Buffalo Roam” to take shots at the Department of Livestock and last year’s hunt and call for Gianforte to “get a new heart someday.”

Shana Drimal, the senior wildlife conservation associate for Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which has praised the park’s updated bison management plan, said the group was disappointed in Montana’s opposition and called the threat to eliminate tolerance zones to force the park to comply with their asks “shocking and disappointing.” Karrie Kahle, with the Park County Environmental Council, called the state’s letter “disappointing” and a “step in the wrong direction.”

Next lead partner wants more outside input

The remainder of the meeting went smoothly and quickly. Each tribal hunting partner present outlined their hunting seasons and any changes made after last year – the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are having all their hunters undergo another training this year, for instance, and several tribes said they would have more law enforcement officers on site to enforce training and safety.

The IBMP decided on a new way of compiling their plan for this year’s winter in which all the partners will submit their responsibilities for the winter in order to try to cut down on disagreements that have happened over the plan the past couple of years.

Each partner will have to submit those plans by Nov. 10, and a draft plan should be ready for further input by Nov. 17, Honeycutt said. The partners will have until Nov. 29 to submit comments on the plan before it is finalized in early December.

To close out the meeting, Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson challenged the partners to come up with new ideas on how to move the IBMP forward, as the National Forest will take over as the lead partner next year. She also flatly rejected the notion that any tolerance zones would change.

Both she and CSKT Chairman Tom McDonald expressed a desire to again utilize a citizens working group, as it did in 2010-11, to bring forward new ideas to a group that has had many of the same faces at the table for years.

“We need to be more resilient in everything that we do and explore every option and every ability or tools we have in the toolbag within the framework we’re working,” McDonald said. “To be able to identify those action items, or the potential list of things to do, we really need to engage everybody and recognize the diversity of opinions and stakeholders.”

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter for The Daily Montanan based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.