On April 17, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis announced that an agreement had been struck that opens up additional habitat for bison north of the park. This deal signifies the biggest step forward for Yellowstone bison in over a decade and will result in bison roaming onto traditional winter habitat over six miles north of Yellowstone National Park. The agreement provides a vital corridor for bison to move through the Royal Teton Ranch and north to Cutler Lake, south of Yankee Jim Canyon.
This agreement signifies the first time since federal and state agencies have been managing bison together that an investment will be made in the welfare of bison rather than simply hazing them back into the park or shipping them to slaughter when they attempt to leave the park. The Park Service has secured $1.5 million, the State of Montana has committed $300,000, and Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other conservation organizations have pledged to raise the remaining $1 million by this fall to have everything in place for next winter.
Year after year, the bison slaughter results in unflattering national and international attention and is a black eye for local communities and Montana. This long and snowy winter was no exception. It reminds us once again that current management of this species is significantly flawed and changes are needed if we hope to manage bison as valued, native wildlife.
And if the day-to-day reporting on the largest bison slaughter since the 1800s wasn’t enough to hammer home that bison management isn’t working, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) just completed a two-year study that concluded the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), which directs all aspects of bison management, is stalled and needs significant improvement.
The GAO reported that $16 million has been spent on bison management since 2002 (this does not include money spent this year). Despite several years passing and that amount of tax dollars spent, not a single new acre of habitat has been opened up for bison use since the plan was signed. Funding for this deal will support a positive step towards much-needed habitat for bison and reducing the senseless hazing, capturing, and slaughter that has devoured tax dollars in years past.
More habitat is a key component of a long-term, sustainable solution for bison. Specifically, removing cattle from the Royal Teton Ranch was raised over and over again by bison advocates as an important part of the bison management puzzle—and again by the GAO this spring.
Bison use of the habitat made available by the Royal Teton Ranch agreement will be directed by the IBMP signed in 2000. The plan outlines that a small number of bison can use the public lands outside of Yellowstone the first year and then up to 100 the year after. Both Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Regional Director Pat Flowers and Superintendent Suzanne Lewis stated that as the agencies gain experience managing bison on this newly opened-up landscape they can use the adaptive management provision of the IBMP to allow even more bison to utilize this habitat.
While this agreement is a huge step forward, it alone does not solve the larger challenges of bison management outside of Yellowstone Park. Groups supporting this agreement – Montana Wildlife Federation, National Parks Conservation Association, National Wildlife Federation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and others - recognize that this is a first step in what we all hope is a series of conversations and projects to find ways to open up more habitat for bison north and west of the park.
For example, north of West Yellowstone, cattle no longer graze Horse Butte at any point during the year and no cattle are in the larger Hebgen Basin in the winter. Bison should be allowed room to roam there. Local residents are calling on state and federal agencies to allow bison to forage on Horse Butte. This is one of several examples in which the IBMP must respond to on the ground changes that will provide bison more room to roam outside the park while maintaining separation between bison and livestock.
Working together, all of us who love bison need to push for those changes and more. The ultimate goal we all share is a free-ranging bison population that’s treated like other wildlife.
The Royal Teton Ranch agreement should be viewed as a beginning of, not an end to, positive change for Yellowstone bison.
Amy McNamara is the National Parks Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. She lives and works in Bozeman.