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Yellowstone Bison: Room to Roam at Last?

Latest News: Thank You GYC supporters for speaking up for bison, your voice was heard! Thousands of you asked Montana Governer Steve Bullock to improve his new bison proposal by giving this iconic animal more room to roam.

After years of frustration and indecision, management of Yellowstone’s wild bison recently took a small step in the right direction. In November, Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock proposed a new plan that would allow bison year-round access to lands on the west side of Yellowstone Park. Letting bison migrate to lower elevation lands with better forage in late winter is crucial to their survival. In places where conflicts with private landowners and livestock are minimal, this is a common sense approach to managing one of the North America’s most iconic animals. We applaud Governor Bullock for recognizing the need to allow bison room to roam outside of Yellowstone.

Ultimately, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is working to ensure wild bison are valued and managed like other wildlife in Greater Yellowstone. While not perfect, Governor Bullock’s proposal to allow a modest amount of expanded, year-round habitat for wild Yellowstone Bison is progress. Unfortunately, the proposal ties access to habitat outside the park to reducing the size of Yellowstone’s bison herds. We believe this aspect of the plan is not scientifically valid and or good conservation policy. At the same time, we believe the imperfections of the plan can be fixed and we look forward to working with the Governor and his staff to resolve these issues in the weeks ahead. You can read the proposal here.

Overview: For more than a half-century, Yellowstone bison were the only wildlife in the U.S. largely confined by the boundary lines of a national park. Now, we might be closer to having this treasure trove of genetically pure wild bison roaming free outside of the park's boundaries year-round.

Wild bison from Yellowstone National Park are some of the most intensely tested wildlife in the country. Because some of the Yellowstone bison herd carries the disease brucellosis -- a disease that can abort calves in ungulates like cattle -- many cattle ranchers in Montana are worried about bison transferring the disease to their cattle. It gets complicated, however, because elk carry the same disease and they aren't tested. Moreover, it has never been proven that bison have ever transferred the disease. Even so, wild bison are often captured and tested when they wander out of Yellowstone and into the state of Montana.

After all the testing, when Yellowstone bison are repeatedly proven to be disease-free, some bison have been allowed to be transferred to appropriate lands, including two Indian Reservations in Montana: Fort Peck and Fort Belknap. In 2012, 62 arrived at Fort Peck. This experiment has demonstrated that we can transfer disease-free, wild Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck, Fort Belknap and other suitable habitats across the West, providing another tool to help reduce the need for the hazing and slaughter of bison leaving Yellowstone National Park.

Additionally, Yellowstone bison roaming appropriate landscapes across the West and Midwest is closer to fruition. Earlier this year, the government announced a proposal to use wild Yellowstone bison to create or enhance free-roaming herds in no fewer than 19 locations in nine states, including Montana. 

This spring more than 1,000 bison were allowed to wander north of Yellowstone National Park, thanks to over a decade of work by GYC and our partners to secure more habitat and tolerance for wild bison. Of course, that many bison on the landscape creates new challenges and we are working with landowners to help address these issues through a cost-share partnership that provides financial help for fencing and other tools to keep bison away from areas where they cause property damage or safety concerns (Read a recent op-ed co-authored by GYC Executive Director Caroline Byrd about the need for year-round Yellowstone bison habitat in Montana).

Project goals: We are working toward a day when Yellowstone bison are managed as healthy, free roaming wildlife throughout national parks, national forests and other suitable habitats in Greater Yellowstone and to provide Yellowstone’s genetically-pure bison for restoring conservation herds elsewhere. 

Photo: Cindy Goeddel Photography.

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OVERVIEW
  • The 4,200 bison in Yellowstone constitute the largest genetically pure (no cattle genes) and only continuously wild herd in the United States.
  • Yellowstone bison seasonally migrate northward along the Yellowstone River and westward down the Madison River in search of winter forage outside the Park boundaries.
  • State and federal wildlife managers have undertaken a research program to prove that brucellosis-free bison from Yellowstone can safely be relocated to new ranges.
  • Montana is working on a statewide bison management plan to allow establishment of free-ranging bison herds elsewhere in the state.

Contact
Barb Cestero, Montana Conservation Coordinator

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