Charting a New Path for Yellowstone’s Bison

Yellowstone’s bison have faced more hardship and controversy than nearly any other large mammal in America. In the early 20th century, bison were nearly slaughtered to extinction by commercial hunters. The National Park Service estimates that less than 50 wild bison remained in Yellowstone in 1902.

Thankfully, the species has rebounded incredibly since that time. Past conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt and William Hornaday ensured a future for bison by protecting the few that remained.

Bison need more land to roam. NWF Photo by Beth Pratt
With the release of the new report, “The Future of Yellowstone Bison Management,” we believe an incredible opportunity exists to chart a new course for America’s most treasured bison. The top policy recommendations outlined by the National Wildlife Federation and our report partners, The National Parks Conservation Association and the Wildlife Conservation Society include:

  • Provide More Room to Roam: Currently, when bison leave Yellowstone National Park each winter in search of food, they are only allowed on limited adjacent land, and then they pushed back into the park each spring. The organizations urge that the new plan more closely examines park-adjacent public land in Montana as potential year-round bison habitat.
  • Treat Bison Like Other Wildlife: While there have been zero instances of brucellosis transmission between Yellowstone bison and cattle, fear of transmission has served as justification for ongoing intensive management efforts, including shipping park bison to slaughter when bison migrate into Montana. Based on what we know about the likelihood of disease transmission today, bison should be treated more like other Yellowstone wildlife on the landscape.
  • Decrease the Slaughter: Under the current management plan, Yellowstone bison are often rounded up and shipped to slaughter. This winter, more than 600 bison were removed from the Yellowstone herd in this manner. Traditional wildlife management tools should be used to manage the movement and size of Yellowstone-area bison on park adjacent habitat in Montana

Horse Butte Allotment
Horse Butte Allotment, extremely important public lands for bison, retired in 2003. Photo by Steve Kilpatrick, Wyoming Wildlife Federation
Today, over 4,000 bison occupy Yellowstone Park and are a common sight for park visitors. What many tourists don’t witness, however, is how bison are treated when they wander outside of the park boundaries. All too often, bison are subjected to hazing, trapping and slaughter in an effort to protect neighboring livestock from the disease brucellosis. NWF has worked tirelessly to minimize conflict between bison and livestock on public lands adjacent to Yellowstone through our Adopt a Wildlife Acre Program. This wildly successful program is a market-based approach to wildlife conservation.

How does Adopt a Wildlife Acre work?

Upper Dunoir Allotment
Upper Dunoir Allotment retirement near Yellowstone. Photo by Steve Kilpatrick, Wyoming Wildlife Federation
The National Wildlife Federation compensates ranchers for their public grazing near the park where conflicts have occurred. The rancher is then able to secure grazing elsewhere where conflicts with wildlife are minimal. It’s a win-win! Since 2002 we have developed agreements on over 650,000 acres of public lands in the Greater Yellowstone Area, providing bison future habitat outside the Park.

What does the future look like for bison?

The future is bright for America’s largest land mammal. NWF’s decades-long commitment to Yellowstone has resulted in an incredible opportunity to expand habitat for bison beyond the Park’s boundaries. Although bison management in Yellowstone has been heavily debated for nearly a century, NWF couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities on the horizon. As they say, “we’re almost over the hump!”

To see where we’ve been working, check out our Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program page!