GYC spotlight: Shana Drimal and bison conservation

In November 2018, I interviewed Wildlife Program Associate Shana Drimal on her bison conservation work. She dives into her experience, GYC’s bison background, what she’s working on now, and some fun bison facts.

Could you give us a brief introduction of your experience and role at GYC?

I am a wildlife biologist by training and before coming to GYC spent over a decade conducting wildlife research in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) through various state and federal agencies and institutions on nearly all of Yellowstone’s iconic large mammals, including wolves, grizzly bears, wolverine, bison, and elk.  From this work I gained a great appreciation for the complexities of wildlife controversies in the GYE, and the need for a practical, science-based approach to resolve conflicts and conserve the area’s outstanding resources. I joined GYC in January of 2015 and currently lead their bison conservation efforts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Can you describe GYC’s bison work?

For decades Yellowstone bison have been largely confined to the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park and managed more like livestock, rather than free-roaming wildlife. Each winter as bison leave the park and cross into Montana in search of grass and calving grounds they are subjected to tax-payer funded slaughter and hazing practices because of limited tolerance for bison in the state. We are working toward a future where wild bison are valued and managed like other wildlife in Greater Yellowstone. This entails a future where Yellowstone bison are truly free-roaming and are once again allowed to migrate with access to ample habitat outside the park; a future where these bison are no longer subjected to slaughter and hazing, and excess numbers are instead used to restore conservation herds elsewhere in North America. 

 A bison calf, also known as a red dog, in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo Cindy Goeddel.)

A bison calf, also known as a red dog, in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo Cindy Goeddel.)

Why do Yellowstone’s bison need more habitat outside the park?

Yellowstone National Park is really a high elevation plateau. Bison are naturally a migratory species and just like many other migrating ungulates (e.g. elk), much of their winter range exists in the lower elevation valleys outside of the park. But because of limited tolerance for wild bison in Montana, many are rounded up and sent to slaughter as they attempt to leave the park in search of these areas. The key to reducing and ideally ending the slaughter is increasing social tolerance for the species and securing enough habitat outside the park for them to safely use year-round so they can be managed like other wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone.

What is GYC doing to help secure more room to roam for bison?

We are working to secure additional habitat for bison as well as remove the roadblocks that are impeding bison use of existing habitat that is available but virtually inaccessible.

The first approach involves conflict reduction work to promote tolerance for and successful coexistence with bison on the landscape outside the park including voluntary grazing allotment buyouts, grazing land leases, outreach and education, and our Yellowstone Bison Coexistence Program. The Yellowstone Bison Coexistence program offers financial and technical assistance to landowners interested in building exclusion fences on private property to prevent property damage and keep bison out of potential conflicts (e.g. gardens, landscaping, yards, or livestock pastures). This program has helped more than 40 landowners since 2011.

We are working with managing agencies to promote bison movement in the available year-round habitat outside of the park. We’re also advocating for a new Yellowstone Bison Management Plan – one that moves away from the practice of slaughtering wild bison and focuses on Montana’s responsibility to manage bison as “wildlife” outside of Yellowstone National Park.

 Shana Drimal in Centennial Valley, Montana. (Photo GYC.)

Shana Drimal in Centennial Valley, Montana. (Photo GYC.)

Why do you love bison? What are some bison fun facts?

I fell in love with bison after spending many winters in and around them while doing field research in Yellowstone. They are true Pleistocene relics– massive beautiful creatures perfectly adapted to these harsh environments. I’ve seen them endure and survive the harshest winter conditions and predatory attacks. As a species, they have survived ongoing mistreatment, mass slaughter, and near extinction at the hands of humans. But their unending perseverance and toughness is equally matched by their loyalty and gentleness – especially the mothers with their calves.  I’ve watched mothers never leave their calf’s side even when it meant sacrificing her own life. There is something old and wise and spiritual about these animals that is hard to put in to words. I think we all have something to learn from them if we’re willing to listen.

Yellowstone’s bison are particularly special. Many consider them to be the last remaining truly wild, ecologically viable, genetically pure, and wide-ranging population of plains bison in existence. They descended from the last wild herd in North America and Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the U.S. where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times.

Other fun facts:

Bison calves are born orange-red in color earning them the nickname “red dogs”, and they are ridiculously cute. 

You can tell a bison’s mood by its tail. When it’s down and switching naturally, the bison is usually calm. At half mast, they are likely interested or curious. If the tail is sticking straight up, the bison is likely agitated and ready to charge!

If you have any questions or want to learn more about how you can help Yellowstone’s wild bison, e-mail me at sdrimal@greateryellowstone.org.

—Emmy Reed, Communications and Digital Media Associate