Since February, some 1,400 wandering Yellowstone bison have been killed under a controversial plan meant to prevent brucellosis – a livestock disease that causes spontaneous abortions – from spreading to cattle near the park. Five agencies are charged with keeping the park’s bison population within park boundaries, but the animals keep migrating out, entering private ranchland. Each winter, hundreds are either hazed back into Yellowstone, or rounded up for slaughter. Environmentalists have long decried the hazing and killing – and a new report from the Government Accountability Office confirms that the bison plan has serious flaws.
After a yearlong
assessment, the GAO says that the agencies involved in the 2000
Interagency Bison Management Plan -- the Forest Service, the
National Park Service, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service, the Montana Department of Livestock and Montana Fish,
Wildlife and Parks -- have failed to set clear goals and acted more
as individuals rather than as a cohesive group. In addition, the
agencies have not included key stakeholders, such as livestock
industry groups, private landowners and conservation groups, in the
As of late 2007, the agencies had yet to complete
the first step of a three-step process meant to allow bison to
winter in management zones outside the park. Robin Nazzaro,
director of natural resources and environment with the GAO, says
that the plan will eventually allow bison to freely range in areas
west and north of park boundaries until spring, at which point
they’d be hazed back into the park. But little progress has
been made. Step one was supposed to be completed by 2002, and step
two was supposed to include the development of a brucellosis
vaccine that could be given without having to capture the animals.
Step three was slated to begin in the winter of 2004.
Agency officials accept many of the report’s criticisms. Al
Nash, spokesman for the National Park Service in Yellowstone, says,
“We agree with it in the broadest sense. We’ve made
some progress and we aren’t where we expected to be, but
we’re going to work to get there.” Because of the deep
snow of the past winter and the high numbers of bison in the park,
many animals left to find food. And once they decide to leave the
park, says Nash, it can be difficult to haze them back in.
Steve Merritt, information officer at the Montana
Department of Livestock, says that with five agencies operating
individually, the GAO’s findings are no surprise. “The
(interagency bison) plan is probably as good as we can get until
somebody comes up with something better.” He’s
optimistic that the report will help bring people to the table.
Environmentalists say the plan has caused the unnecessary
deaths of hundreds of bison. “The plan is an example of a
lack of adapting to changed circumstances on the ground,”
says Darrell Geist of the nonprofit Buffalo Field Campaign.
“This past winter, there’s been an almost unprecedented
slaughter of bison,” even in the face of growing public
support for allowing the animals to range in areas outside the park
where there are no cattle. There are no documented cases of bison
transmitting brucellosis to domestic cattle in the wild.
“Taxpayers are spending $3 million a year for something that
isn’t working and yet the agencies are still killing
bison,” says Geist. “It makes one wonder what
they’re basing their decisions on.”
The author is an intern for High Country News.
To access the GAO report, go to