With winter's killing fields still fresh in the memory, several hundred bison that had been held in a National Park Service "capture facility" were driven back into Yellowstone National Park on Monday. While the bison gained the relative safety of the park's landscape, nagging questions over their long-term management persisted.
For instance, would a plan to gain bison access to national forest lands north of the park via the Royal Teton Ranch be finalized? Would it, in the long-run, be sufficient to handle the large numbers of bison that instinctively head down out of Yellowstone's high country in the fall to lower elevation wintering grounds north of the park?
Will Montana officials be able to work out, in essence, grazing rights for bison west of Yellowstone?
While these questions continue to swirl, wranglers on Monday drove about 300 bison -- bulls, cows, and calves -- from the Stephens Creek capture facility near Gardiner, Montana, down to Mammoth and then either east to the Lamar Valley or south toward Fountain Flats, the Central Plateau, and Hayden Valley.
The majority of the bison had been held in the Stephens Creek facility since early April, waiting for release at spring green-up so as to protect Montana’s brucellosis-free status without sending the bison to slaughter.
This past winter, one of the harshest in years, led to the largest loss of Yellowstone bison since the herds were brought back from the brink of extinction in the early 1900s. Since November more than 1,700 bison have been killed or removed from the Yellowstone herd. In addition, Yellowstone Park officials estimate that at least 700 bison have been lost to winter-kill.
Meanwhile, in a report released earlier this spring, the Government Accountability Office showed that despite eight years and $16 million spent since 2002, the Interagency Bison Management Plan put together by state and federal officials is failing to allow bison to range freely outside of Yellowstone. The report pointed to the IBMP agencies’ failure to utilize the adaptive management provision of the plan and encouraged the agencies to implement changes using this provision.