Park Service, US Forest Service propose new analysis of Yellowstone National Park bison management

Justin Post — Enterprise Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
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A bison stands inside Yellowstone National Park. (Enterprise photo by Nate Howard)

In what some are calling a “historic” decision, the federal government is proposing to reevaluate how it manages Yellowstone National Park bison.

The National Park Service has decided to prepare a new National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, analysis of bison management in the park. The U.S. Forest Service plans to participate in the process, according to court documents filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Billings.

The decision comes after lawsuits were filed in recent years challenging the agencies’ management of wild bison.

Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and Neighbors Against Bison Slaughter filed two separate lawsuits against the feds, both seeking changes to the management of Yellowstone bison.

Beattie Gulch resident Bonnie Lynn, who is named in the lawsuit filed by Neighbors Against Bison Slaughter, has argued that the annual bison hunt on a quarter-mile-square area is dangerous for residents, hunters and visitors.

Washington, D.C., Attorney Jared S. Pettinato, who represents Neighbors Against Bison Slaughter, and Lynn applauded the agencies’ decision to reevaluate bison management.

“We think it’s long overdue,” Pettinato said. “Other environmental groups have been asking for this for years and decades without success. We see this as a win-win for everybody.”

A new analysis of bison management could translate to a boon for American Indian tribes, bison, bison advocates and area residents, with the possibility for expanding bison range onto additional public land, he said.

“Native American hunters can also benefit because they may see an expansion of land where they can exercise their treaty rights to hunt bison and may have more bison transferred directly to tribal land,” a Neighbors Against Bison Slaughter news release said. “Beattie Gulch neighbors hope to see the concentrated slaughter there end as bison populations grow and other opportunities for bison hunting open up on state, tribal, and federal land.”

Pettinato said in a phone interview Wednesday that residents in the Beattie Gulch area are hopeful that an evaluation of bison management in and out of the park will change how bison are hunted as they leave the park in search of food at lower elevations.

“For the neighbors, we expect that the agencies will not authorize the hunt like this again,” he said.

Neighbors argued the agencies created a “concentrated slaughter that puts too many hunters and bison” on federal land at Beattie Gulch while Cottonwood claimed in its lawsuit that new studies show that bison should be allowed to move on a larger area of state and federal land outside of Yellowstone, and that the park can sustain a larger population of the beasts.

“Since 1992, six other environmental groups have brought lawsuits challenging the agencies’ Yellowstone bison management, but the court dismissed every single lawsuit,” the Neighbors Against Bison Slaughter release said. 

“This victory ensures the agencies will generate a new environmental impact statement or environmental assessment under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) that almost certainly will change how the Forest Service, the Park Service, and the state of Montana manage our treasured United States’ national mammal.”

Lynn, the Beattie Gulch resident, told The Livingston Enterprise she’s pleased the agencies have decided to reevaluate bison management, but says the work is not yet done.

“I am grateful that I could be a voice for the animals who cannot speak,” she said in a statement.

In its brief filed with the court, the National Park Service says that in preparing an additional NEPA analysis for bison management it will consider a range of alternative options for managing bison in Yellowstone, and any major changes since the 2000 adoption of the Interagency Bison Management Plan, or IBMP, among other issues.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly outlined plans for a new analysis for managing park bison in an affidavit filed with Tuesday’s National Park Service brief.

Sholly said in the document that since the IBMP was signed in 2000, the park has completed compliance and planning efforts, including a bison quarantine plan and the remote vaccination program to reduce brucellosis in park bison. Sholly added that the National Park Service will initiate the NEPA analysis for managing bison in its jurisdiction.

“This NEPA analysis will incorporate new information and changed circumstances, describe adaptive management adjustments to the IBMP since 2000, and evaluate the efforts of alternative approaches for managing bison,” Sholly’s affidavit states. “The appropriate NEPA process will be followed, including preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, if necessary.”

He added that the agency would “engage other agencies with jurisdiction by law or special expertise in bison management” during the process.

The goals and scope of this new process are dependent on the interests of IBMP partners and positions, which he said vary widely. 

“Alternative elements will include, but are not limited to, different bison population ranges, options for managing bison inside the park, and actions for dealing with brucellosis in bison,” Sholly wrote. 

The analysis, he wrote, will also study the impacts of bison management outside of the park while pointing out that the National Park Service has no jurisdiction over the tolerance for bison outside of Yellowstone or for state or tribal bison hunts.

With the filing, Pettinato said the agencies are asking the judge to dismiss the pending court challenge of Yellowstone bison management and to give the agencies time to prepare a new NEPA analysis. This, he said, would give the public and plaintiffs an opportunity to weigh in on the future of bison management and challenge, if they choose, any final decision.

That process would likely take a couple years, he said, and the agencies are seeking to maintain the status quo for bison management in the meantime, which means the annual bison hunt would continue at Beattie Gulch.

Pettinato said not everyone agrees with maintaining the status quo, however.

“We want them to shut the hunt down in the meantime — we think that’s the right thing,” he said. “If you haven’t done the environmental analysis that you say the law requires, then you don’t have the authority to manage the hunt in this way.”

Meanwhile, the National Park Service and Neighbors Against Bison Slaughter on Tuesday filed a joint motion essentially seeking a 30-day pause in the case while the parties try to resolve their disagreements.

One major issue the parties will seek to resolve is disagreement over whether the bison hunt should move forward while future bison management is being analyzed, Pettinato said.

The court has not yet ruled on the latest filings in the case.