Less than 150 years ago, the species was on the brink of elimination and today, at least 4,500 bison inhabit our first national park. However, more could be done to protect the animals outside of park boundaries in Montana.
BY TODD WILKINSON
Among the world’s most prominent conservation biologists, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is considered a touchstone for “post-Pleistocene rewilding,” a concept playing out in a region where native species once prolific in North America still find a home and wander freely.
Rewilding isn’t about bringing back now-extinct species that existed on the continent such as saber-toothed tigers, camels and woolly mammoths through genetic engineering a la Jurassic Park, but rather fostering conditions for their closely related descendants—which some call “charismatic megafauna”—to still persist.
In the Lower 48 states, Greater Yellowstone remains unparalleled, boasting the full complement of large mammals that inhabited the landscape just prior to the arrival of Europeans.
On a September night in 2018, we set out with ambitions of having a primeval predator encounter—to catch sight of an active wolf pack in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At the old Elk Ranch in the northern reaches of the valley, dusk is advancing. For a moment, the sun appears to balance perfectly still over the Tetons. Before us smoky mountain air fills with guttural murmurs that grow in intensity, but these aren’t the timbres of howling lobos.
Instead, the vocalizations carry a different call of the wild, one arguably even better.
In these final throes of summer, several hundred wild bison pepper the tawny grasslands of Grand Teton National Park. Emanating from the herd is a chorus of deep bellowing. If you close your eyes and listen to the collective sound of rutting bulls, it could easily be mistaken for roaring African lions.
I’m here with other nature-craving pilgrims, led by guides with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, a homegrown American wildlife safari company. Together we muse out loud: Imagine the acoustics when tens of millions of bison blanketed the prairie, drifting across it in massive herds, subherds and extended families.
Greater Yellowstone commands historic status as the region that helped rescue bison–once the most populous large land mammal on earth–from the very brink of extinction.
Less than 150 years ago, the species came close to elimination by meat and hide hunters; a deliberate military campaign of annihilation, to subdue indigenous people by decimating their primary sustenance; and to clear the West for domestic cattle and sheep.
Yellowstone National Park, created in 1872, was the last refuge for two dozen wild survivors at the end of the 19th century, among the last known to exist. Today, at least 4,500 bison inhabit our first national park. More remarkably, America is now in the midst of a renaissance of appreciation for the woolly-coated giants, punctuated in 2016 by Congress voting to declare bison as the nation’s official land mammal.
“It’s a miracle we still have bison, given how we almost lost them, and the comeback of the species is a dramatic success story with this region being right in the center of it,” said biologist Keith Aune, a retired advocate who spent years with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman. He is one of many individuals who helped push for the Congressional designation.
The coalition of organizations and citizens to which Aune belongs are also trying to achieve another momentous feat: enabling Yellowstone bison to enter the state of Montana without encountering lethal malice. Since the late 1980s, more than 11,400 bison have been shot by hunters or sent to slaughter when they’ve wandered into Montana, based on the now-disproved assertion that they’re an imminent threat to pass a disease, brucellosis, to domestic cattle herds.
According to Aune, there are about 500,000 bison in Canada and the U.S. today—300,000 of which reside in the Lower 48 and the vast majority of those in private hands. “I think we could be headed toward a new golden age,” he says.
Aune credits Ted Turner, the legendary media-mogul-turned-bison rancher, with playing an important role in elevating the public profile of bison. Turner, who just turned 80, is proud to call Greater Yellowstone his adopted home. All told, he has 55,000 bison spread across more than a dozen ranches in the West and operates 45 different outlets of his restaurant, Ted’s Montana Grill, across the country that features bison on the menu.
Up the Gallatin Canyon from Bozeman on Turner’s flagship ranch, the 113,000-acre Flying D, wildlife watchers can see 5,000 bison roaming behind a large perimeter fence. The ranch is accessible via a public road leading from U.S. Highway 191 to Spanish Creek Campground, where the Custer Gallatin National Forest begins.
As spectacular as the setting is, only in the heart of Jackson Hole will you find a Greater Yellowstone bison herd that holds a different kind of special distinction. Here, a herd 500-strong is allowed to move relatively freely and does so without causing major controversies or conflict.
“There is an overall attitude of social acceptance for bison in Jackson Hole. We have a benign respect,” Dr. Franz Camenzind says. “What it basically comes down to is that we like having them around, we like seeing them. They are icons of the West and their presence confirms the reason we live here. It’s not the melodrama you see in Montana.”
Camenzind has worked as an award- winning wildlife cinematographer, field researcher and professional conservationist in Jackson, and he sees bison as bellwethers for assessing the ability of humans to co-exist with nature.
Descended from 20 transplants brought from Yellowstone in 1948 and then held in a smallish 1,500-acre enclosure called the Jackson Hole Wildlife Park near Moran, Wyoming, the origins of these Jackson Hole bison lie with predecessors that escaped from captivity.
"It’s a miracle we still have bison, given how we almost lost them, and the comeback of the species is a dramatic success story with this region being right in the center of it."
They move, for the most part, unencumbered across Grand Teton National Park, the adjacent National Elk Refuge and Bridger-Teton National Forest, and even occasionally onto private lands where there are cattle, horses and the trappings of suburbia. As long as they don’t venture beyond the vast, invisible 4,200-square-mile boundary of Teton County, they can wander. Beyond that, they can be shot.
Could bison in Jackson Hole provide lessons for how to change attitudes toward Yellowstone bison moving into Montana?
“I think there are lessons to be learned in the Tetons,” said Dan Wenk, the former superintendent of Yellowstone who retired in October 2018 following a distinguished 43-year career with the National Park Service. Wenk was devoted to finding a way for Yellowstone bison to have more latitude outside of the park but faced stiff resistance from Montana livestock interests. It was Wenk’s advocacy for using Yellowstone bison as seedstock for other herds that, some say, led to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke acting to remove him from Yellowstone.
Today, Wenk’s successor in the job, Cam Sholly, is picking up where Wenk left off, aspiring to resolve a vexing, contentious controversy that has raged for two human generations. After that, the disease does not affect reproduction, but it can mean trade restrictions for infected cattle herds.
The longstanding rationale invoked by Montana officials for slaughtering Yellowstone bison is that they pose a danger to domestic cattle herds. However, a recent benchmark report from the National Academies of Sciences notes there has never been a case of wild bison passing brucellosis to beef cows, and all documented cases of transmission between wildlife and livestock have involved elk. Elk are not only several times more numerous, but they range far more widely.
The NAS study corroborated a peer-reviewed analysis from park scientists spelled out in a 2015 book, Yellowstone Bison: Conserving an American Icon in Modern Society. “The estimated risk of brucellosis exposure to cattle from Yellowstone bison is insignificant (less than 1 percent) compared to elk (more than 99 percent of total risk) because elk have a larger overlap with cattle and are more tolerated by managers and livestock producers,” they noted.
Both the wild bison and elk in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone carry the bovine disease, brucellosis, that in infected animals causes pregnant cows to abort their first calves.
“Many of the approximately 450,000 cattle in the Greater Yellowstone Area are fed on private land holdings during winter and released on public grazing allotments during summer—but throughout the year they are allowed to mingle with wild elk. Thus, the risks of brucellosis transmission to cattle are primarily from wild elk, and management to suppress brucellosis in bison will not substantially reduce the far greater transmission risk from elk.”
Another claim is that bison moving outside Yellowstone pose serious traffic hazards to motorists passing along U.S. Highway 89 north of the park and U.S. Highway 191 running along Yellowstone’s west side. Jackson Hole also has a busy stretch of U.S. Highway 89 running through it, and bison, for the most part, do not cause many wrecks.
Critics of bison in Montana further insist the behemoths cannot co-exist in a mosaic of public and private lands, and that they represent a threat to people and property. Jackson Hole serves as a counterpoint to that argument.
For 20 years, Eric Cole, who today is a senior biologist at the National Elk Refuge, has watched Jackson Hole’s relationship with bison mature. “What a rare situation it is that we have one of the largest free-ranging bison herds in North America and it’s remarkable that it happens in close proximity to so many people,” Cole said.
He shared another observation that he knows might not play well with many elk hunters: “Personally, based on my observations, bison just seem to have more going on mentally and socially than elk do. Their interactions with each other are more complex and they are curious about what people are doing. Plus, I would say they are more resilient than elk and less vulnerable to predators.”
In terms of danger to motorists, Cole said that “elk, because of their larger numbers and how they move, are a far greater risk. And humans accept that risk.”
Jackson Hole ranchers know they share the neighborhood with publicly beloved wildlife, rancher Brad Mead—the brother of former Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead—told me years ago. As part of that responsibility, they vaccinate their cattle against disease and accept the likelihood that wildlife may co-mingle with beef cows and horses. Co-existence between bison and ranchers might be less controversial in Wyoming than in Montana due to fewer ranchers as well, Brad Mead told me recently. Many in the Jackson area have either quit the profession or gotten into the real estate business.
“I’m not sure I know why [the conflict is lower], but one reason might be because bison didn’t really increase in numbers here until the post-ranching era in Jackson Hole,” he said. “By the time the combination of herd size [increased], and the federal government’s brucellosis eradication efforts focused locally, there weren’t a lot of ranchers to organize or complain.”
One of the main culprits behind lack of tolerance for bison in Montana is a document called the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which was ratified in 2000 and has been assailed as antiquated in the face of more scientific knowledge. One former Yellowstone superintendent, Mike Finley, said the Park Service was forced to abide by its terms by the state of Montana and the federal Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service that created an exaggerated fear about disease risk.
Federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars over the last 80 years zealously trying to eradicate brucellosis from the American landscape. Today, the Greater Yellowstone is the last major region in the country that still has endemic brucellosis in animals, and the prime vector is free- ranging wildlife—ironically, this was caused by contact with contaminated cattle a century ago.
"… a recent benchmark report from the National Academies of Sciences notes there has never been a case of wild bison passing brucellosis to beef cows and all documented cases of transmission, between wildlife and livestock, have involved elk.’"
Most experts confess that, technologically speaking, it isn’t now possible to eradicate the disease and the risk can be managed through common sense and the potential development of a better vaccine for cattle. However, some fear that if the disease isn’t aggressively contained it could spread to other parts of the country.
Yellowstone bison, critics of Montana’s policy say, are victims of misperception. “For most of the 20th century, as Yellowstone bison recovered from near extirpation, they did not regularly and extensively venture outside Yellowstone National Park,” authors of Yellowstone Bison wrote, noting it led to a misconception that bison should—and could—be easily contained inside the park.
In 1963, the small Jackson Hole herd being held captive near Moran was discovered to be infected with brucellosis and all adult animals were destroyed. In 1968, the survivors, then numbering 11, escaped. Franz Camenzind moved to Jackson Hole in 1970 and he said the Park Service response of letting them roam freely was somewhat controversial because ranchers claimed they’d be vectors of disease, cause property damage and be hazards to motorists. But eventually, bison began grazing on the National Elk Refuge and the doomsday scenarios never panned out.
“Bison in general, as a species, passed through a bottleneck when their numbers were reduced from tens of millions to hundreds,” Camenzind said. “All the animals alive today are descended from a few survivors.”
Camenzind served a lengthy tenure as executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, the leading wildlife protection group in the valley. He recalls the questions raised when the bison herd began to grow, and the same issues flaring in Montana were raised as reasons to contain the animals. An early bison management plan proposed a maximum of 50 animals—one-tenth the population today—but the community pushed back. By then, ranching was on the wane in Jackson Hole.
Not long ago, there were more than 1,000 bison in Jackson Hole, but slowly, by using a sport hunt, the number was reduced to its management objective of 500.
Camenzind is appalled by the treatment of bison in Montana. With a little bit of tolerance, and citizens and other stakeholders working together with government agencies, many perceived problems can be overcome,” he said. Camenzind believes that the flats of Horse Butte near Hebgen Lake northwest of West Yellowstone, Montana, are analogous to Jackson Hole where there is U.S. Forest Service land and private property owners who are either friendly to bison or willing to erect fences to keep them off their land.
Former Yellowstone backcountry ranger Bob Jackson, who today has a private bison herd in Iowa, has been outspoken in his criticism of Montana’s policies. “If elk and cattle were treated the way bison are, there would be outrage like you wouldn’t believe. These are wild Yellowstone bison, members of the most famous public herd in the world,” he said.
“Montana’s abusive mindset has got to stop,” Jackson added. “The way the state is treating them, in my mind, is a national disgrace.”
Other critics say the disease issue is a smokescreen and the Montana Department of Livestock’s opposition to the animals is really based on its refusal to let bison inhabit more public land where cattle can potentially graze.
As an alternative to the controversial slaughter, Wenk promoted a quarantine program that allowed bison, deemed free of brucellosis, to be moved to other areas such as the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Northern Montana.
In the late 1990s, when several thousand more bison had yet to be killed or sent to slaughter, then Yellowstone superintendent Mike Finley told a reporter with The Los Angeles Times, “It’s the toughest Gordian knot I’ve ever known. We are witnessing the second persecution of the American bison, and it is almost as violent and prejudicial as the first.” Twenty years later, Finley told me the persecution continues, but this time it has no scientific justification based on alleged threat of disease.
By all accounts, 2019 could be a momentous year for Yellowstone bison. With Sholly now at the helm of Yellowstone, some are hopeful a new era of peaceful co- existence is possible. Sholly knows he has a tough mission ahead, but in his previous stint, as director of the Park Service’s Midwest region, he facilitated the movement of bison from national parks to native reservations, and he dealt with wildlife disease issues.
Yellowstone and its bureaucratic parent, the Interior Department, are currently engaged with the state of Montana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service—which sets policy for disease strategy—in writing a new bison management plan.
With public outrage fueled by the National Academies of Sciences report, the focus now turns to giving bison more flexibilit—something that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock agreed to do a few years ago. It means finding areas north and west of Yellowstone that bison can inhabit year-round in peace.
Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, and a coalition of other conservationists, including retired college professor, biologist and author Jim Bailey, have identified several spots on public land and private property where they’d be welcomed. Hockett notes the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area north of Yellowstone and the Gallatin Wildlife Management Area encompassing the Porcupine Creek and Taylor Fork drainages near Big Sky.
“Both of those areas were established by the state legislature and managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks specifically to serve as winter range for wildlife,” Hockett said. “They would be ideal for smaller populations of bison that could be hunted, and, in fact, the entire west side of Yellowstone that abuts U.S. Highway 191 south of Big Sky has plenty of open country where bison could make a living and where they are presently absent.”
Longer term, Hockett would love to see bison restored to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the Centennial Valley. Management practices there allow private cattle grazing in order to mimic the grazing of native wildlife that is essential to maintaining grassland health. In the 19th century, a sizeable bison herd inhabited the current-day refuge, and it’s unknown how long it would take before they reached Red Rocks, if they were to naturally disperse west from Yellowstone.
Patrick Holmes, Gov. Bullock’s chief natural resource policy advisor, told Mountain Outlaw that Montana already is exhibiting “expanded tolerance” for bison thanks to a decision the governor released in 2015. It allows bison to roam outside the national park past the former May 15 deadline, which annually resulted in bison being hazed back into Yellowstone using snowmobiles, riders on horseback and helicopters.
"We are witnessing the second persecution of the American bison, and it is almost as violent and prejudicial as the first."
Holmes also said the focus of disease control has shifted to elk and both state wildlife and livestock managers continue to evolve a monitoring program that complements a risk management strategy already in place for bison. Finally, he said the governor supports the translocation of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for conservation and cultural purposes—recognizing that bison bulls represent a low threat of brucellosis transmission, Bullock supports a shorter quarantine process for disease-free males.
Already on the high plains of central Montana, the American Prairie Reserve, a non-profit conservation organization, has acquired several hundred thousand acres near the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge with a goal of stitching together 3 million acres to create a new refuge with bison as the prime keystone species. But its plans have faced opposition from local cattle ranchers whose protests are more cultural rather than holding scientific or economic merit.
With the chorus of bison advocates growing, will these Western icons finally earn treatment befitting of America’s national mammal?
Prior to his departure from Yellowstone, the park’s science chief David Hallac—who has since become superintendent of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore—stood on an overlook at Mammoth Hot Springs in early February 2014.
He peered northward at the landscape rolling away to lower snow-free ground in the Upper Yellowstone Valley and, farther beyond, Paradise Valley. He was thinking like bison. Like water adhering to the pull of gravity, bison in winter flow downhill, he said. “For all that these animals, this species, has been through, and for how special Yellowstone bison are, we owe them some accommodation. They are the only wildlife species we have in this ecosystem not allowed to free roam and punished for doing it.”
Hallac was optimistic that someday Montana’s intolerance will end, and I witnessed the potential that he was imagining. Only a few hours to the south, on a different night late in summer, bison in Jackson Hole provided an inspiring post-Pleistocene vision of what once was, and what’s still possible.
Starting his career as a violent crime reporter in Chicago, Todd Wilkinson has been a Montana-based national environmental journalist for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Washington Post. In 2016, the National Newspaper Association named Wilkinson’s “The New West” the country’s best serious column for small-town papers. He is also the author of Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.