The Buffalo Field Campaign attended the April 13th Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) meeting in Bozeman, MT. Like all other IBMP meetings before, we were given a very brief three minutes to say our piece while the partners jumped into various lengthy topics and disagreements amongst themselves. The public comment period felt rushed, and like many government meetings not much was changed after the closing statements. They covered "success stories" of bison quarantine and transfer, and plans and concerns regarding the west side and North side hunting, bison tolerance zones, and the low level of migration. Tribal voices expressed frustration at the early trapping in Gardiner this year. The National Park Service and Montana Department of Livestock dived into the process of quarantine, with questions about quicker quarantine procedures and the unfair treatment of bison for brucellosis treatment when compared to cattle.
The Environmental Impact Statement was talked about as well, with the Department of Livestock parties vehemently expressing their disdain for the Statement’s alternatives, while the National Park Service and other important members cited the Department of Livestock for their poor level of communication in their complaints during the Environmental Impact Statement drafting process. It was truly a moment where the room openly turned on the Department of Livestock, the National Park Service telling the truth: That the Department of Livestock’s over-influential hand in bison management overpowers an Environmental Impact Statement public scoping comment period. Partners went on to declare bison being treated as livestock "a fatal flaw in wildlife management in North America ... We probably wouldn’t even be here if buffalo were wildlife from the get go under federal and state management." This meeting was full of frustration amongst all parties attending.
Reflections on the West and North Sides of the Park
The morning opened up with an all too familiar remark from tribal voices: “Let them roam '', before the partners dove into three topics under Winter Operations. The first was to improve utilization of expanded bison habitat, especially in the new west side tolerance area, to improve safety, quality of the North side hunt, boundary issues, and work done on bison quarantine and translocation. On the west side of things, Tom McDonald expressed tribal hunters’ concerns that intrusive logging actions on habitats outside Yellowstone may have caused buffalo to not utilize them this winter. These actions carried out by the Forest Service are not only a travesty to bald eagle protection, but to calving grounds crucial to the bison. Such recklessness displays a disconnect between the federal and state agencies to the land and its wildlife. The National Park Service reported that a few bulls have accessed the Fawn Pass area, as well as areas north of the park in small numbers. Once again, they mention allowing for natural migration into Taylor Fork, however, our observational data has shown for decades that, outside a few bulls, the buffalo simply don’t want to migrate there. The state of Montana and the national park endorse protection of habitat buffalo don’t use, yet not habitat they do use?
The Hypocrisy of Brucellosis
Brucellosis is brought up in the meeting, another unscientific cattle-centered campaign used as a crutch by the State of Montana. The National Park Service talks about hopes to expand current quarantining facilities to take 250 animals at any given time, but no real plans were drawn at this meeting. Chris Geremia, senior bison biologist for Yellowstone National Park, claims the bison program has been a huge success, but has also caused controversy. Controversy indeed, as the bison that are sentenced to quarantine are not given a fair chance, unlike cattle. As we spoke in our public comment period, we pointed out that the standard blood tests don’t actually determine active disease. Montana Department of Livestock’s state veterinarian, Dr. Marty Zaluski, speaks on how cattle undergoing these blood tests are never confirmed positive, but either negative, or non-negative. This is because the blood test is a mere screening for the disease, and not a diagnosis. To have a true diagnosis, tissues from “non-negative” animals must be tested. This tissue study is quoted again by the Department of Livestock Veterinarian as "the gold standard" test for brucellosis because it would reveal if there is an active infection within the animal. Buffalo do not get this treatment in the quarantining process. Dr. Zaluski goes on to say that in cattle, less than one percent is infected, whereas 40-50% of bison are infected. Sounds reasonable, right? The sampling inaccuracy is apparent when you realize he’s only considering the inconclusive blood tests. In tissue samples, only 2–20% of buffalo have an active infection at any given time! Clearly less detrimental than what has been told to the general public. A majority of bison tissue testing has ceased, despite these tests showing that the disease is not as rampant in the population as it is so publicly declared. This shows that the funding priority is still centered on cattle, mere pennies, compared to the millions provided for Montana cattle ranchers, tribal representatives reflect. They ask: "Why the hell aren’t we putting the keystone species back?"
The Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the tribes considered moving bulls through quarantine faster when looking at the scientific data. Chris Geremia answers a question many have asked over quarantine phases, "Has an animal ever converted positive after the first phase of quarantine," in the Stephens Creek Capture Facility? "The answer is no," 617-620 animals have been tested to confirm this, yet the lengthy, stressful quarantining phases are drawn out for our last wild buffalo taken from their natural habitat. Tribal voices once more state the obvious, elk herds are impacted by brucellosis more so than buffalo. Cattle are the invasive species that brought the disease into the ecosystem under poor ranching choices, yet buffalo are the scapegoat for brucellosis under current bison management regulations. The Buffalo Field Campaign has always recommended the removal of cattle from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as it is the cattle, not the buffalo nor even elk, that are the problem on the landscape. Why don’t we manage wild buffalo as we do wild elk?
A "success story" was spoken of, such as Melissa Berns’ work in establishing a herd of bison on Sitkalidak Island in the western Gulf of Alaska, including the recent FedEx shipment of three yellowstone bulls, however, confirmation on whether the original group of twenty-five was beefalo or genetically intact bison is up in the air. On one hand, the established herd offers a safe, protein-rich food supply and is an animal of great cultural significance for the local tribe, but the animals are not native to this specific island, and when the buffalo attempt to swim to Kodiak Island and other nearing land masses, they are captured and brought back to Sitkalidak Island. Will they be allowed to colonize their native habitat around the island?
The Two Heads of Bison Management Clash
The meeting got heated when the park’s new Environmental Impact Statement was discussed. The three alternatives include: one, 3-5000 buffalo, two, 4-6,000 buffalo, and three, 8-10,000 buffalo. The second alternative was clarified by Yellowstone National Park’s Superintendent, Cam Sholly, as being where the current population of wild buffalo is at, and possibly being the current, agreed-upon, stable bison population. Cam Sholly tiptoed around the topic, clarifying to all that the National Park Service was fully cognizant that, depending on one’s stance on the bison issue, that number could shock the mind. And shock it did, as the Department of Livestock, to absolutely no surprise of Cam and his team, rejected the third alternative. However, the Department of Livestock had remained silent on one and two which was taken as acceptance by the National Park Service. Cam Sholly mentioned that the National Park Service would like to work with the State of Montana partners on a fourth alternative that includes cattle-based views.
Mike Honeycutt, Executive Officer of the Montana Board of Livestock, publicly announced to all that their silence did not mean consent to alternatives one and two, proclaiming that the achieved population of 5500 buffalo was not out of choice, but rather limited ability to slaughter bison with so few migrating out of the park. He stated that "because the number has gotten to 5,500 and we have sat at this table doesn’t mean we agree with a stable population of 5,500," and that they still want a "declining population," as if a stable population that’s supposed to be based on science is something to be choked up to the whims of a department that manages livestock first and foremost. Mike Honeycutt goes on to say that had he known that rejecting the first two alternatives would have prevented the public from being able to comment on them, he would have scrapped them. This sparked a switch in the meeting, where it was no longer just about the Environmental Impact Statement, but about the Department of Livestock’s overall poor communication.
Cam Sholly and the National Park Service make their thoughts known, telling the Montana Department of Livestock and Mike Honeycutt that their silence is a cop out. He goes on to criticize that they should have spoken up, and that their influence in the ecosystem and bison management has always been heavier than, an influence “probably beyond someone just adding public comments into the system.” Furthermore he calls out all partners at the table that if “you have a silver bullet solution about what these alternatives should look like … or what changes should be made, that you do it,” that no partner be silent when discussing important decisions. “Because being silent while the process moves forward down a path you disagree with is not acceptable. I don’t care if we disagree, we disagree on a lot of things ... Ultimately, we have to do the right thing for the bison.” The State of Montana and the Yellowstone Park Service have failed time and time again to do right by the bison, but statements like these are gratifying to hear. The Department of Livestock has had control of bison management for far too long, and maybe the Yellowstone National Park Service is finally realizing this.
Buffalo have always Been Wildlife
Tom McDonald shared some very true, buffalo-friendly words: "The 3000 number was wrong because IBMP is managing successfully right now with 5500," and even more amazingly, "It’s a crying shame that buffalo weren’t treated as wildlife from the get go. That was a fatal flaw in wildlife management in North America ... We probably wouldn’t even be here if buffalo were wildlife from the get go under federal and state management." It’s quite clear that some partners of the management plan are looking towards science and conservation, much to the dismay of the State of Montana and its Department of Livestock. The "restoration of buffalo is a restoration of treaty rights. It’s honoring treaty rights. Treaties are the highest law of the land,” Tom McDonald said. The Yellowstone National Park Service, State of Montana, and all other parties of the Interagency Bison Management Plan owe the buffalo better. It is in their goals that they maintain a wild, free-ranging bison population. Free-ranging is one of the goals. The buffalo know where they want to migrate - the disconnected agencies have to realize this and work to ensure accessible habitat for the buffalo’s migration corridor, rather than try to force them on land they’ve proven time and time again they don’t want to go on.