Yellowstone National Park is taking the lead on two potential changes to bison management in the greater Yellowstone area.
At Thursday's meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan partners, Dave Hallac, chief of the YNP Center for Resources, formally announced that the park was working with the state of Montana on the development of an updated Interagency Bison Management Plan to replace the guidance that has been in place since 2000.
Around 100 people from the greater Yellowstone area and seven tribes packed a conference room in the Homewood Inn in Bozeman to hear the IBMP updates and comment on current operations.
Because such a large change takes a few years to complete, Hallac said, the park was considering a plan to restart the bison-quarantine project in the interim.
“We are in the process of discussing the potential to do an environmental analysis of an operational bison quarantine,” said YNP superintendent Dan Wenk. “The purpose of a quarantine would be to move bison from the landscape of Yellowstone into conservation herds on public land in other areas of the West.”
Hallac said the park isn't initiating the environmental assessment yet.
But it is considering an interim quarantine program that would test bison captured during the winter slaughter operations and place the disease-free bison into a quarantine area.
Wenk said the intent would be to gather bison on an opportunistic basis and not conduct extra capture operations.
However, the park may increase the number of bison it captures in order to get the sex and age ratios needed to create a viable disease-free herd, Hallac said.
Over the past year, park managers have consulted with 26 tribes that want disease-free Yellowstone bison. The InterTribal Buffalo Council has volunteered to partner with the park to assist with the quarantine.
Hallac said the proposal is just in the initial planning stages, so Hallac couldn't give specifics on how many animals would be involved, where they would go and how receiving groups would be selected.
The quarantine facility could be inside the park or on private land outside the park. Several tribes, including those on the Fort Peck Reservation, have offered their facilities for such a project.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and state agencies conducted the first experimental Yellowstone bison quarantine project using 200 young bison starting in 2005.
A scientific paper published a month ago on the quarantine project concluded that young bison could be qualified as brucellosis-free after less than three years of quarantine.
Almost 70 of those bison were moved to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations in the past two years, and FWP will move the remaining 135 this year.
Hallac said the new IBMP might incorporate the quarantine as a tool, but it is also just in the early planning stages.
Last week, YNP and the state of Montana announced they would be conducting an environmental impact statement study on a new IBMP that would incorporate all the new information that has surfaced since 2000.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock recently signed a memorandum of agreement for the Department of Livestock and Fish, Wildlife & Parks to partner with the park on development of the plan.
The park's proposal hit a speed bump Thursday when APHIS district director Don Herriott suggested that elk brucellosis be added as an element of the new IBMP.
“With the old record of decision being reopened, we could bring in more things to lower the brucellosis prevalence in bison,” Herriot said.
Wenk said adding elk would compound the bison issue. Hallac said the park didn't seek to lower the brucellosis prevalence in bison.
Gallatin National Forest supervisor Mary Erickson said other states would probably have to be brought onboard if elk were added.
Wyoming has feedlots that are believed to increase the spread of brucellosis because they congregate elk.
Wenk said the park planned to publish a notice of intent by July 1 so the partners needed to decide the elk question by June 1.
The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several tribes will cooperate with the state and the park but will no longer be lead partners.
Gallatin National Forest supervisor Mary Erickson said the Forest Service didn't need to be a partner. It hasn't had to weigh in on federal issues related to bison management because bison are a native species.
But the Forest Service would still stay actively involved because bison presented multiple-use issues on public land, Erickson said.
The Forest Service may revisit its role with respect to bison as it rewrites its forest plan.
“Don't see this as a lessening of our role,” Erickson said. “There are impacts on forest lands that we haven't dealt with before.”