Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) In public comments submitted to Yellowstone National Park regarding its draft environmental impact statement for a bison management plan, the Gianforte administration sharply criticized the options presented and said it might reconsider the tolerance zones it previously agreed to that allow bison to roam in small areas outside the park.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Dustin Temple, and Department of Livestock Executive Director Mike Honeycutt submitted their formal comments on the draft plan on Oct. 10, the final day the public comment period was open.

The administration, which has previously been critical of some of the decisions surrounding Yellowstone bison management, wrote that they believe park administration has not worked with, or listened to, Montana officials enough to meet their asks, and said the draft updates to the bison management plan fail to meet those standards and put the state’s relationship with the park at risk.

“Historically, success in bison management has only occurred when NPS and the State have cooperated and managed together. YNP’s uncollaborative and obstinate posture is reminiscent of a time before the (Interagency Bison Management Plan), when tensions between YNP and the State were high and litigation prevalent,” the three Montana officials wrote to Park Superintendent Cam Sholly. “Absent significant change, the State fears a return to that environment is inevitable. As always, the state stands ready to work with YNP to help rectify the issues identified herein, and asks YNP to reconsider the alternatives presented in the DEIS.”

Park officials declined an interview request from the Daily Montanan to respond to Montana’s letter and pointed to comments Sholly and another official made at an Aug. 28 public presentation on the DEIS and management plan.

“I think most of you probably realize there are a lot of opinions on bison management. This plan does not solve every problem, it does not satisfy everyone” Sholly said at that meeting. “There are people on both sides of this issue. Some want unlimited bison in the park; some want far fewer bison. And we’re trying to strike a balance and really, in many ways, solidify progress that’s been made over the past two decades plus, and I think this plan does that.”

Plan expected to be topic of discussion at meeting this month

As the Interagency Bison Management Plan group made up of federal, state and tribal partners gets ready to meet in Chico at the end of the month to finalize management plans for this winter, the DEIS is expected to be among the main points of discussion.

Last year’s cold and snowy winter in the park forced more bison beyond its boundaries than in recent, milder winters, and due primarily to tribal hunters exercising their treaty rights just beyond the park boundary, was one of the deadliest for bison in recent years.

At a June IBMP meeting, a Yellowstone bison biologist estimated around 1.175 were killed by tribal or state hunters – around 1,100 of them by tribal hunters. Another 282 were captured and entered the Bison Conservation Transfer Program, a program to quarantine bison to ensure they are disease-free before they are sent to tribes across the country, and another 99 were shipped off for slaughter, the park said.

It appears to have been the most bison removed from the park since the harsh 1996-97 winter. Before last winter, the park estimated there were approximately 6,000 bison in the park’s population as of last summer. That was up from approximately 4,000 in 2012.

Bison management in Yellowstone since 2000

The IBMP partnership came together in 2000, five years after Montana sued the Interior Department over concerns that park bison were transmitting brucellosis, a disease that can cause abortions in livestock, to cattle in Montana when they left the park.

In 2000, the group, which at the time did not include tribal members, set a target park bison population of 3,000 to try to keep most of the animals in the park and reduce brucellosis transmission to cattle.

Less than 10% of adult female bison can spread brucellosis, according to park officials, and as of this year, no Yellowstone bison are known to have transferred the disease to cattle. Elk also carry brucellosis, and there are 27 documented cases of them transferring the disease to other livestock during the past 25 years.

But Montana has fought to keep its brucellosis-free classification so it can continue to ship cattle outside of the state without testing them. Around 5% of Montana’s cattle population is within a Designated Surveillance Area where most elk are infected, but Yellowstone bison can only enter small tolerance zones within the surveillance area outside of the park.

Those tolerance zones were authorized by Montana in 2015 just north and west of the park.

YNP proposes three alternative management methods

Yellowstone National Park said when it issued the DEIS earlier this summer that it hopes to make a new plan “that reflects changed conditions, new information and consolidates various planning and environmental reviews from the past two decades.” That would include an environmental assessment done by Montana in 2015 and a Custer-Gallatin National Forest plan finished in 2020.

The DEIS proposes three alternatives to managing Yellowstone bison, which would all maintain at least 3,500 bison in the park, with slightly differing maximum numbers.

Alternative 1, the “no-action alternative,” would keep the population between 3,500 and 5,000 after calving, increase the number of bison sent to tribes, continue to allow hunting outside the park to maintain population levels, and continue working with Montana on mitigating what the park says are already low brucellosis transmission levels between bison and cattle.

Alternative 2 would keep the population between 3,500 and 6,000 after calving and would focus more on utilizing the bison transfer program and tribal hunting to maintain those numbers.

And Alternative 3 would keep the population between 3,500 to 7,000 or more by focusing on natural selection and hunting to regulate the number of bison.

State officials say DEIS does not meet its goals

The Gianforte administration is not happy with any of the alternatives, according to their letter.

In the 17-page comment, the governor and department leaders accuse the park of not coordinating enough with the state while it was drafting the the environmental impact statement during a yearlong period, saying the analysis is “substantively deficient,” and say it “misstates” past goals of the interagency bison management plan and its past decisions.

“YNP’ failure to work with the State has produced a DEIS that picks the science it likes, fails to consider or reconcile relevant science critical of the alternatives, mischaracterizes other science, and revises administrative and procedural history to serve YNP’s ends,” the three officials wrote. “… Every alternative undermines and contradicts the statutes YNP is required to follow, as well as the goals of IBMP. Even if the DEIS met relevant statutory and regulatory requirements, it still fails to set forth or commit to a set of readily identifiable actions.”

Their letter says Montana hopes to keep Yellowstone bison populations around 3,000 and says the park is moving the goalposts by trying to allow for more bison in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, while using scientific research that supports its possible plans while disregarding other research Montana officials say support their position.

Gianforte and the department directors also said they feel that the proposals – if any of the current alternatives are chosen for the final EIS – are “fatally premised” on an idea that the state will continue to allow the tolerance zones as they currently exist.

They said among the only reasons Montana allows bison into the tolerance zones was because cattle numbers had been greatly reduced on Horse Butte and in the Taylor Fork drainage and research showed bison were less likely to transmit brucellosis to cattle than elk were. But other prongs included goals to “manage other conflicts” involving bison and expand the ability to vaccinate bison for brucellosis through darts or other methods, known as “remote vaccination.”

The Montana officials say it is an “unreasonable assumption” for the park to think the tolerance zones could not change. The DEIS says park managers “might” consider expanding remote vaccinations, but found several hurdles to doing so immediately. The draft environmental impact statement says expanding remote vaccinations “would not meet the purpose and need for action and would technically be infeasible.”

Gianforte and the other officials see that as “removing one of the underpinnings” for the 2015 decision to allow the tolerance zones, and say that could put them at risk entirely.

“If YNP has no interest in remote vaccination, then there may well be no need for the State to maintain its tolerance,” the officials wrote.

They said they are also concerned about how a larger bison population similar to 2022 levels could affect elk movement and Montana’s “abilities and resources,” which the officials said could be affected under the proposal and undermines the agreement to “manage other conflicts.”

Further, they said they believe that the proposals at hand only advance the goal of a free-ranging bison population at the expense of trying to fix brucellosis transmission, even if it has been minimal when involving bison in recent years.

“That cannot be the end of the discussion, or of the actions that must occur to mitigate the disease. For YNP to pretend otherwise is disingenuous,” the letter says.

The officials say that the language in the draft impact statement does not contain concrete enough plans or timelines, though it is a series of proposals, for the state to support it or for the public to comment.

“If tools and actions are not tied to, or triggered by, bison population numbers, what is the point of a plan to begin with?” the letter says. “At no point does any alternative provide a clear course of action that the public can identify, let alone meaningfully comment on. This pervasive, noncommittal ambiguity is fatal to this decision-making process.”

Sholly said in August the hope is for the park to maximize on what has worked, continue to speak with agencies involved, and utilize the public comments to further shape what will be the final environmental impact statement, expected to be issued in summer 2024.

“It’s very important that we understand the different perspectives, that we continue to understand that brucellosis can be transmitted under the right conditions, that we manage that interface, that we recognize that there are perspectives of ranchers and some in the livestock industry and concerns around bison,” Sholly said.

“And we can continue to work closely together and develop alternatives that maintain the great partnerships we have … on the issue, and at the same time, do the best job that we can to maximize and capitalize on the success that we’ve had and built on up to this point.”