The other shoe has dropped in the Government Accountability Office's investigation into the management plan for Yellowstone National Park bison. In a biting report the GAO says the plan has been a failure on numerous fronts and the involved agencies need to come up with a better solution.
It was back in 2000 that the state of Montana, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service agreed to an Interagency Bison Management Plan. The goal was to come up with a way to prevent Yellowstone bison from spreading brucellosis, a disease that can cause livestock to abort their fetuses, to cattle beyond the park's borders. (There has, however, been no documented case of such a transmission, although there have been suspected transmissions from elk to livestock.)
But according to the GAO, not only are the agencies -- which have spent a combined $16 million on their work in this arena -- far behind the schedule they adopted eight years ago, but they have been, in a word, dysfunctional.
...the agencies have not adequately implemented adaptive management, in that they (1) have not established critical linkages among clearly defined objections (which are absent from the plan), information about the impacts of their management actions obtained through systematic monitoring, and decisions regarding adjustments they make to the plan and their management actions; (2) have continued to act more as individual entities, rather than as a cohesive interagency group; and (3) have not adequately communicated with or involved key stakeholders, such as conservation groups, livestock industry groups, and private landowners. Consequently, their decision-making more often resembles trial and error than adaptive management and also lacks accountability and transparency.
It was a year ago that GAO issued some preliminary findings from its investigation, telling a congressional subcommittee that the agencies were at least four years behind the schedule they established in the Interagency Bison Management Plan.
"A key condition for the partner agencies to progress further under the plan requires that cattle no longer graze in the winter on certain private lands north of Yellowstone National Park and west of the Yellowstone River to minimize the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle; the agencies anticipated meeting this condition by the winter of 2002/2003," Robin Nazzaro, who heads the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment branch, wrote in her report to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
In her final report, which was released late Wednesday by U.S. Reps. Nick Rahall, D-WV, and Maurice Hinchey, D-NY, Ms. Nazzaro says little has changed.
"Each of the plan's three successive steps for managing bison is intended to incrementally increase tolerance of bison roaming outside the park," she noted. "As of late 2007, however, the agencies remained in step one because they have yet to meet two important conditions for moving to step two -- first, that no cattle graze on a ranch (the Royal Teton Ranch) north of the park, and second, that a safe and effective remote brucellosis vaccine-delivery system be available for bison."
Indeed, if you look at just the number of bison killed this winter in the name of brucellosis containment it would appear as if there has been no tolerance of bison roaming beyond Yellowstone's borders. The report is released in the midst of the highest level of annual slaughter since the 19th century - 1,167 bison have been sent to slaughter to date.
Not surprisingly, the GAO report was applauded by advocacy groups who have been urging the agencies find a solution to the bison-livestock controversy.
"After eight years of stalemate, NPCA is pleased that the GAO report focuses on the critical need for agency accountability and better solutions for bison," said Timothy Stevens, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "The management agencies should recognize new research and on-the-ground changes and adapt the plan so that it works for both bison and the livestock industry. Simply put, the current bison management isn't working and must be fixed."
At the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which in 2006 proposed its own solution to the problem, parks program director Amy McNamara said, "Opportunities exist right now to provide additional habitat and tolerance for Yellowstone bison. A critical step to address the lack of progress in the plan is a finalized and funded agreement with the Royal Teton Ranch. Agencies must step up to the plate and provide the resources necessary to complete this agreement."
Now, the GAO report does note that the Park Service intends to "release its evaluation of remote delivery methods for use within the park for public comment in summer 2008." Additionally, it notes that the agencies "have implemented management actions to keep bison separate from cattle in space and time; conducted some scientific research on brucellosis; verified the safety of a brucellosis vaccine in bison, and vaccinated a limited number of bison calves and yearlings on a limited basis; and taken steps to ensure the vaccination of all cattle within certain areas close to the park's northern and western boundaries."
And yet, the GAO questions whether accomplishing all the goals in the Interagency Bison Management Plan will resolve the annual controversy over Yellowstone's bison.
Even if the agencies improve their management and fully implement the current plan through step three, we believe the controversies will continue, in part because critical underlying differences among agency mandates, management philosophies, and political interests have not been resolved," the GAO says. "In addition, the plan lacks clearly defined, measurable objectives to guide the agencies bison management actions, and the agencies are not adequately applying an adaptive management approach in implementing the plan.
Moreover, the agencies’ implementation of the plan has remained fragmented, because no single entity is accountable for coordinating and steering the management, research, and resolution of these bison-related issues. In addition, the agencies’ management lacks the accountability and transparency expected by the public and Congress. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to spend millions of dollars on uncoordinated management and research efforts, with no means to ensure that these efforts are focused on a common outcome that could help resolve the controversies.
Because the plan is not a brucellosis eradication plan, concerns about brucellosis transmission will still require the agencies to actively manage bison moving from the park into Montana, even if they fully implement all steps of the plan. Given these realities, improvements in the partner agencies’ implementation of the plan, including more systematic application of an adaptive management approach, could contribute greatly to helping address the larger brucellosis issue in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Multiple recent suspected transmissions of brucellosis from elk to cattle in the area have highlighted the importance of addressing this disease in its broader wildlife and ecological context, and doing so could have significant implications for the future management of Yellowstone bison.
Earlier this year conservation groups urged Montana's congressional delegation to work harder on resolving this issue.