In May 2018, Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent was ordered by then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to manage the park’s bison “more actively like cattle on a ranch,” according to a park briefing statement.
About a month later, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk was removed from his post. Wenk was replaced by current Superintendent Cam Sholly who took over in October 2018.
Before being appointed to lead the Department of Interior, Zinke was Montana’s lone representative in Congress. He left his Interior post at the beginning of 2019.
The revelation of Zinke's order didn't surprise Darrell Geist, habitat coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, a nonprofit bison advocacy group.
“These are things we’ve been saying for a long time … that the herd is being managed for the good of the livestock industry and not the public trust,” Geist said.
Confirmation of the group’s theory came after a long court fight by BFC seeking the release of documents from the National Park Service through the Freedom of Information Act. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled the NPS must release nine documents in their entirety. Buffalo Field Campaign recently made the documents available online, including the briefing statement.
The group is also suing the Department of Interior for similar documents and hopes to receive the records by this fall.
The Yellowstone briefing statement goes on to say, “Managing Yellowstone bison more intensively like livestock on a ranch would be a set-back for restoration and would likely lead to intense negative publicity, civil disobedience, litigation, and further attempts to list plains bison as threatened pursuant to the Endangered Species Act which would constrain future management options.”
Dan Bailey, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in an email that his group “encourages Yellowstone to continue working with stakeholders, Native American tribes and other partners to expand opportunities for bison to be managed similar to other valued wildlife.”
Since 2018, and under new leadership at the Department of Interior, Bailey said NPCA has seen progress on the issue of bison restoration, “including with the recently released Department of the Interior Bison Conservation Initiative 2020, outlining goals including conserving bison as wildlife.”
The documents released to Buffalo Field Campaign include a scientific paper co-authored by three Yellowstone wildlife biologists. The March 2018 paper, which was never published, is titled “Resolving intractable governance issues to recover wild bison while maintaining public and tribal trust.”
In the document, the biologists argued that “declarations that expanded tolerance for bison managed similarly to elk would threaten the economic interest and viability of the livestock industry appear to be exaggerations designed to bolster special livestock interests through fears of reprisal.”
Unlike bison, which are not allowed to roam very far outside of Yellowstone, elk migrate freely into and out of the park. Elk also carry brucellosis, the same disease ranchers cite as a reason for keeping bison numbers low and holding the big animals close to Yellowstone, instead of allowing them to roam more freely like other wildlife.
The biologists also advocate for a capture facility farther north of Yellowstone than the current one at Stephens Creek and recommended that “managers evaluate relocating some bison captured for removal from the population to the upper Gallatin watershed … Yellowstone bison used this watershed into the 1990s, but have not been observed there in recent years and are unlikely to naturally recolonize this area …”
The biologists noted that such a move would require Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to conduct an assessment and develop a management plan.
The Custer Gallatin National Forest, which manages the upper Gallatin watershed, recently released its proposed forest plan. Buffalo Field Campaign has objected to the document saying it fails to secure habitat for bison, which it argues is a species of conservation concern.
“Releasing bison in the watershed would not substantially increase the risk of brucellosis transmission to livestock because elk in the vicinity are chronically infected with brucellosis,” the Yellowstone biologists wrote. The lead author for the paper is P.J. White, the park’s chief wildlife biologist. The other authors are biologists Rick Wallen, who has retired as bison manager, and Chris Geremia, who replaced Wallen.
Together, the three biologists concluded, “The current management approach for Yellowstone bison is not serving the broader common good, but rather specific livestock interests based on perpetuated myths and misperceptions.”
Geist speculated the biologists may have written the paper because the Interagency Bison Management Plan cooperators — who collaborate on managing the animals — have not updated the bison management plan, which was finalized in 2000. The IBMP, which includes tribes, the state of Montana and Yellowstone officials. Yellowstone’s own website notes that “we believe we’ve outgrown” the old plan.
“We need a new paradigm that recognizes bison as wildlife and gives them the ability to move more freely on suitable public lands outside the park,” the website states.
Another document revealed in Buffalo Field Campaign’s FOIA includes emails between White and Wallen. In April 2018, White wrote a draft document “considering alternate management paradigms,” much of which is redacted. Wallen responded to the proposal saying: “This is absolutely the right message to share.
“I am feeling a lot like Phil Connor (Bill Murray’s character in the movie ‘Groundhog Day’), and that makes today February the 2nd. I am a bit numb from seeing this proposal so many times I don’t know how to respond now.”
Yet progress on a new bison management plan has stalled.
Buffalo Field Campaign’s fight for the park documents began in 2018.
“This threat of domestication has been hovering over buffalo for many years,” he said.
Yellowstone is home to one of the most iconic bison populations in the nation. The story of a small herd’s survival, when thousands of other plains bison were eliminated during the 1800s, is a success story for wildlife conservation.
As the bison population has grown in the park, with the herd numbering more than 4,800 animals at last count, Montana officials and lawmakers have been able to force the Park Service to annually cull and slaughter hundreds of animals every winter.
Buffalo Field Campaign’s website says that 12,575 Yellowstone bison have been killed and another 540 have been captured since 1985. The purpose of the capture and slaughter program is to keep bison from migrating into Montana.
Last winter, 442 bison were removed from the park through the capture and slaughter program. Another 105 were isolated for quarantine to see if they can be eventually transferred alive to Indian tribes. About 280 were killed, mostly by tribal hunters exercising their treaty rights.
Geist said recent successes in moving small numbers of bison from the park to tribes after lengthy quarantine is not what his group wants to see. BFC wants bison to roam as freely as other wildlife.
“The buffalo may live, but they’re not the restoration of wildlife that was promised a long time ago,” he said.