Bull by the horns 

Bison management under federal investigation

Management of Montana’s wild bison provokes plenty of in-state discussion—particularly following the recent revival of an annual bison hunt—but national attention to North America’s premier wild bison herd has also recently reasserted itself.

On Feb. 20, at the request of two members of Congress, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) commenced an investigation of Yellowstone bison management issues, according to GAO spokeswoman Laura Kopelson.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., and chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources, and Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., recently wrote separate letters requesting examinations of how the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) has been implemented. They say the agreement, which was adopted in 2000 after 10 years of negotiations by the five federal and state agencies that share management roles for Yellowstone’s bison, hasn’t fulfilled its goals or obligations. Seven years and millions of dollars later, they say they want to know why.

“Unfortunately, it does not appear that the IBMP is accomplishing its goals, or even progressing beyond its initial phase,” writes Rahall. “What is evident, however, is that bison continue to be slaughtered with federal support and cooperation.”

Federal and state officials say they welcome the GAO’s involvement, and although only the federal managing agencies involved—the Forest Service, National Park Service and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service—technically are subject to the audit, workers for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and the Montana Department of Livestock have also recently been interviewed by GAO representatives.

Both FWP spokeswoman Melissa Frost and Al Nash, spokesman for Yellowstone National Park, agree that the IBMP envisioned more progress by now, but contend that significant advancement on a long-running, complicated issue has been reached.

“In terms of the timeline we are behind where we said we’d be, but we have made progress on almost every task,” Frost says.

The IBMP governs the treatment of bison that leave Yellowstone and enter Montana, and set out the twin priorities of maintaining a wild, free-ranging bison population and managing the risk of brucellosis transmission between cattle and bison. It establishes three management phases for handling bison, including hazing and slaughtering bison that leave Yellowstone, as well as planning the development and implementation of a vaccine for brucellosis, a disease that ranchers fear bison may spread to their cattle. Currently, the Yellowstone bison herd is estimated at 3,900 animals.

Besides evaluating these aspects of the IBMP, the GAO’s Kopelson says it will also examine a $13 million land deal that federal agencies made with the Royal Teton Ranch (RTR) to protect habitat adjacent to Yellowstone for wildlife.

Rep. Hinchey writes in his letter that the RTR land deal, made in 1999, was supposed to result in additional acreage for bison range by 2002, as well as the development of a management plan for bison in the RTR lands north of Yellowstone. Today, RTR is still grazing cattle on those lands and no supplementary plan has been completed.

“As a result, Step 1 of the bison management plan is still in place on the north side, and bison continue to be slaughtered in an effort to keep them from moving onto these lands,” Hinchey writes, citing the 915 bison slaughtered by federal officials last winter.

Hinchey’s letter continues, stating the “failure to live up to this responsibility is seemingly an unacceptable waste of $13 million of taxpayer money earmarked explicitly to protect Yellowstone’s bison…”

Frost disputes that the deal promised more rangeland for bison specifically, but says nevertheless that FWP has been in negotiations with RTR representatives for the last several months to secure just that. She says the state’s goal is to lease RTR grazing rights, thus creating bison access.

In regard to development of a brucellosis vaccine, Nash says the National Park Service is currently working up a draft environmental impact statement examining different ways bison managers might remotely vaccinate bison herds, though he doesn’t know when it might be completed and available for public review.

Nash says progress has also been made in terms of reducing the harassment and hazing experienced by bison that wander outside Yellowstone.

“The plan did envision that we would be further along in increasing tolerance for bison outside park boundaries, but we’ve taken some small steps this year that are important but are hard for those not intimately involved in the issue to see,” he says.

For instance, bison managers recently agreed to expand their tolerance for bulls that wander outside the park and to use strategic—rather than wholesale—hazing when feasible.

Dan Brister, project director for the Buffalo Field Campaign, which advocates protection and additional habitat for the wild bison, says the statements of increased tolerance are encouraging, but he’s waiting to see how they’re actually implemented during the bison’s spring migration. He says he welcomes the GAO’s and Congress’ involvement in the hope that it will spur bison managers to make more progress on living up to the IBMP’s objectives.

Nash says that while not all the IBMP’s goals are yet fulfilled, it’s important to recognize that the two key aims have been met:

“We’ve not had an instance of brucellosis transmission and we have a very vibrant bison population that continues a healthy growth rate—so if you look that those two tenets we’ve succeeded at those two major goals,” says Nash, who also points out that the five-way partnership among agencies heightens the issue’s complexity.

Kopelson says the GAO is still working out a proposed timeline and scope of its investigation, and will submit its proposal to Resources Committee Chairman Rahall by the end of March for approval. She says this isn’t the first time the GAO has been asked to wade into bison management conflicts; in the ’90s the GAO produced three reports about Yellowstone bison management issues, and “I guess we can say they’re obviously still unresolved.”

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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