GARDINER – In the decade since five state and federal agencies came up with a plan to manage bison in and around Yellowstone National Park, no confirmed cases of cattle being infected with brucellosis from bison carrying the disease have been reported.
Many people involved in the effort say that’s proof the Interagency Bison Management Plan, or IBMP, is a success.
However, that success has come at a cost. Since the agreement was signed in 2000, more than 3,500 bison have been killed to stop the potential transmission of the disease.
It’s estimated that more than $20 million has been spent on bison management by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Montana Department of Livestock and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That doesn’t include a 30-year, $3.3 million lease agreement for private land north of Yellowstone that removed cattle and allowed some bison to graze there.
And the plan has some critics. A 2007 review by the federal Government Accountability Office, released in March 2008, reported that little progress had been made; the IBMP had no measurable objectives; the partners were acting as individual entities with differing goals; and there was little communication among them.
The report also said that, while the IBMP was supposed to involve “adaptive management” techniques, the plan hadn’t changed since its inception.
“Is it working? I guess that would depend on who you ask,” said Joe Maurier, FWP director, whose agency is in charge of managing wildlife in Montana. “We’re still mulling over how best to approach that. From what I have gathered, there’s still quite a bit of tension in the group, and depending on what you want to achieve with the plan, there’s differing opinions as to whether it’s been a success.”
Matt Skoglund, a wildlife advocate with the National Resource Defense Council, says the IBMP has failed to eliminate or mitigate chances of cattle catching the disease – two recent outbreaks in livestock are thought to have been transmitted from elk, not bison – and that because the bison that leave Yellowstone are hazed back into the park, they’re not the free-roaming, wild bison called for in the plan.
“Without a doubt, unfortunately, the IBMP has not been successful in its 10 years of existence,” Skoglund said. “Simply put, disease outbreaks have occurred and there has been very little tolerance in Montana for wild bison.”
Montana state veterinarian Marty Zaluski strenuously disagrees with that assessment. He notes that despite the variety of agencies tasked with different missions, they’ve been able to reach compromises that are ensuring protection of cattle from the disease.
“I would suggest the IBMP has worked surprisingly well,” Zaluski said. “We’re maintaining a population of bison, a free-ranging herd, within boundaries that have been established … and there have been no confirmed cases of transmission between bison and cattle.”
The IBMP, created after federal litigation forced the five agencies into crafting an agreement, has two stated goals: “To maintain a wild, free-ranging population of bison, and address the risk of brucellosis transmission to protect the economic interest and viability of the livestock industry in Montana.”
On the plan’s website, IBMP.info, it also promotes managing bison that leave Yellowstone National Park and enter Montana, along with maintaining Montana’s brucellosis-free status for domestic livestock.
Keith Aune, FWP’s former chief of wildlife research who now works as the senior conservation scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said when they crafted the IBMP it wasn’t as much of a bison management plan as it was a brucellosis management plan.
“So it’s good if you’re looking at it from that lens. We’re finally getting that where it needs to go,” Aune said. “But looking at it through the ecosystem lens, there are some things I’m not happy about or comfortable with, like hazing of bison, moving them in certain seasons and removing them completely at time” through slaughter.
Tom Reid, the chief ranger for the National Park System in Yellowstone, disagrees with Aune’s assertion that the plan was focused on brucellosis management, and said that when you look at what it was meant to do – halt the transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle and allow bison to freely roam – that it’s working just fine.
“It has achieved those goals,” he said. “But the IBMP is a postage stamp on a landscape of issues. It’s a small, humble plan that focused risk management on 3,000 bison in a 22-million acre ecosystem.
“Still, I think it’s a springboard for some good science that will move forward future decisions whether under this plan or new plans.”
Zaluski noted that the IBMP has evolved in recent years by allowing greater tolerance for bison that migrate outside the park. In particular, he noted that bison are allowed to stay longer on Horse Butte, just north of West Yellowstone, because cattle no longer graze there.
IBMP members also contributed to the purchase of grazing rights for 30 years for bison on the Royal Teton Ranch north of Gardiner.
There also is continued work on brucellosis vaccines, and Zaluski added that when hazing is done now, it’s in an “organized and, I think, highly cooperative fashion” among the partnering agencies. They’re communicating better, he said, and have created measurable objectives.
Yet bison aren’t allowed to live outside the park year-round, and the hazing still takes place when cows either are pregnant or have recently given birth, prompting concerns about their health. Glenn Hockett with the Gallatin Wildlife Association said if the animals are really going to be wild and free, they should be allowed to roam into public lands – including the nearby Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area – and be legally hunted.
“I can’t stand the hazing. What a waste,” Hockett said recently, after watching about 300 bison being pushed back into the park by riders on horseback and all-terrain vehicles, as well as a low-flying helicopter. “You need to manage cattle reasonably and wildlife ecologically.
“What we always ask at IBMP meetings is to get a map out and see who is complaining, then fix those spots, maybe using strategic fencing. But this is just a perpetual bureaucracy.”
But do you put up fences to keep the bison out of areas with cattle, or fence the cattle to keep them from the bison?
“Is free-roaming bison possible? I don’t know,” Maurier said, adding that he hopes to have answers to that by the end of next year, as well as find areas outside Yellowstone where wild bison would be tolerated.
“I hope we’ll have answers to those kinds of questions and look at the crux of wildlife management areas, as well as what would it cost to do proper fencing. Realistically, I don’t see how we can have free-roaming bison herds without that.”