In response to a guest editorial I published in the Missoulian on the shameful slaughter of Yellowstone’s bison, a group of three retired USDA range managers wrote a commentary that was published in the Missoulian on December 30th  on Yellowstone’s  bison. They argue that bison numbers must be reduced, and thus implicitly supporting the Dept. of Livestock’s agenda for controlling park bison. Though I have no doubt that their motives are to protect the park’s resources, the issue is more complex than they suggest.

Here is a link to their commentary. http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/reducing-bison-population-key-to-saving-yellowstone-s-northern-range/article_89d6b7ad-9f19-5ccf-bce1-b544adc0bf14.html

The idea that Yellowstone is “overgrazed” is an old debate that has been on-going for decades. Without getting into the weeds too much, I try to provide some perspective in my comments below.

The bottom line is that bison are bottled up in Yellowstone due to livestock policies that interferes with natural migration. Until bison can move freely on to other public lands, it is disingenuous to argue that we need to reduce bison numbers.

The debate about native wildlife grazing influences, particularly elk, has been argued for decades, particularly by those trained in livestock management, as is the case with the authors of this commentary.

The traditional range management approach ignores many unique factors about wild ecosystems and does not transfer readily to Yellowstone’s wild ungulates.

Domestic livestock are concentrated on public lands in the summer months when plants are actively growing. The negative consequences of livestock grazing are well documented which includes reduction in seed production, loss of vigor, and selective removal of perennial plants.

Damage to riparian areas by bank breakage and soil compaction, social displacement of native ungulates like elk as well as the forage competition with native wildlife from butterflies to elk are also other livestock induced impacts.

By contrast, overall wildlife numbers are much lower than domestic livestock and are widely distributed during the summer, reducing ecological impacts.

For decades, I have hiked weeks at a time in Yellowstone’s backcountry leading trips as a commercial guide, as well as for my own enjoyment. Even during the 1980s and 1990s when many asserted there were “too many” elk in Yellowstone, I could go days and sometimes a week or more in the backcountry without seeing more than a few elk at a time and an occasional small herd.

Elk, bison and other native ungulates are only concentrated at lower elevations in the winter months when plants are dormant.  In addition, soils are frozen, so compaction, and bank breakage all of which helps to reduce the browsing/grazing impacts associated with native wildlife.

Though Park willow and aspen were often hedged (short), they persisted despite heavy browsing pressure because they could put out leaves in the summer months and grow without significant browse pressure, maintaining seed and energy production. Interpreting bison and elk influences without considering seasonality of use is a mistake.

Furthermore, there is another temporal aspect to the entire debate of wildlife numbers as well. Wildlife populations fluctuate over decades in response to long term climatic conditions, predators and other influences.  Just as wildfire comes and goes over decades in the Yellowstone ecosystem, so does the grazing/browsing effects of native wildlife.

By contrast livestock are shielded from these kinds of stresses. If the winter is harsh, they are fed supplemental feed. If there is drought, they are brought water. If there are predators–well we know what the livestock industry does about them.  In short, livestock are sheltered from significant population fluctuations, while wild ungulates are not.

As we have seen with regards to Yellowstone’s elk herd, the presence of wolves, combined with other factors like changing migration patterns, drought, harsh winters, and wildfires has led to an overall reduction in elk influence on plant communities.

Evolutionarily plant communities are adapted to periodic heavy use-which is why many shrubs and trees sprout from roots and can persist for decades with heavy WINTER browsing. However, plants also get periodic relief from heavy ungulate browsing due to natural ungulate population fluctuations.

The authors also assert that research by Charles Kay and others demonstrated that elk and other ungulates were rare in the mountains

Yet nearly all early references to wildlife in the park region by trappers, miners, and military expeditions cited by Kay, were recorded in the SUMMER months when wildlife is widely distributed. Even on the Great Plains, wildlife was patchy in distribution, and expeditions could go weeks and months without seeing a single bison herd.

When the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled up the Missouri River in Montana in 1804, they noted an abundance of bison. Yet, on their return trek, the Corps of Discovery split at Lolo, Montana. William Clark traveled hundreds of miles in bison habitat including down the Upper Missouri tributaries to Three Forks, through the Gallatin Valley where Bozeman is located, over Trail Creek by Livingston, and down the Yellowstone River nearly to present day Billings area before he encountered a bison herd.

I can provide many other similar references that recorded both an abundance, as well as absence of bison on the plains. One must be careful to account for season of observation, as well as local climatic conditions, predators, and other factors that influenced wildlife numbers and distribution.

Bison remains have been recorded in many mountain locations, including at elevations of over 10,000 feet in Colorado and elsewhere. With freedom to migrate, ungulates in mountain locations generally wintered at lower elevations.

The major problem Yellowstone’s bison is that the traditional migration routes are blocked by hunters and Dept. of Livestock agents who corral bison for slaughter.

If there are too many bison for the northern range, it is an entirely artificial problem created by the livestock industry. Until we free up bison to move to other public lands outside of the Park, one cannot assert that reductions are necessary.

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

25 Responses to Yellowstone Bison Are Not Livestock

  1. Another fantastic piece George. Thank you so much! Will share this widely.

  2. avatar Greer Haseman says:

    Totally agree and this would apply to the ever shrinking yet totally inflated (by the BLM) wild horse numbers. Big animals like bison and wild horses are benificial to the land as they redistribute plant material over a wide area and to other smaller animals, especially during the winter months since they have the weight to break through ice to get to water. And over grazing of cattle leads to soil degradation. While the wild horse does not pull the roots out of the ground and will in fact eat dry brittle grass when that’s all that’s available. This is also a natural form of wild fire protection. We better get our act together and start relying on real numbers, as this fantastic article implies, for all species and using best science practices in making decisions before its to late.

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      We create our own circular reasoning, it’s so frustrating!

      Naturally, if a migrating animal is confined to a small (and ever growing smaller) area(s), there will be overgrazing! Bison were meant to migrate, and an entire ecosystem has evolved around them. Until it was disrupted by human agriculture and European colonization. Killing seems to be the only answer (or at least the first go-to, knee-jerks’ response) people have.

      The next example of circular, self-serving reasoning is brucellosis, which was brought here with livestock. We allow it to continue with elk, and blame the bison because it’s convenient (and they want to get rid of them anyway).

      I don’t know what the answer is because humans and their numbers won’t be stopping anytime soon.

  3. avatar Diane says:

    I always love reading your common sense articles…..why doesn’t the agencies who are supposed to be protecting the bison get any of this…..oh yeah, cow people tell them what to do.

  4. avatar Craig says:

    Having raised bison for 22 years, I can say bison are aggressive browsers of Aspen and choke cherry during the winter. During summer the big bulls walk willows down to ground level and the whole herd will stand around and eat the leaves. The impact of bison on the land and vegetation is all about the number of hoofs and mouths. Maybe an individual bison has less impact than an individual cow, but they are both large ungulates that impact their environment. The real question is do you want pretty grasses or a functional bison population? If you choose the latter, then you need to have some estimate of what constitutes a functional population.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      Craig,

      Is your observation (aggressive browsers) based on what acreage you have available for your buffalo herd’s needs?

      • avatar Craig says:

        480 acres. We have fenced our riparian area and aspen clones. No matter how much hay they are fed in winter, they will periodically travel through deep snow to browse aspen. Repeated winter browsing will kill young aspen.

      • avatar Mat-ters says:

        Utah’s Salt Lake surrounds Antelope Island which contain what I’m thinking they said is the largest herd of buffalo that are descendants of the Yellowstone herd. I had an opportunity to spend some time on the island and Utah in general just last summer. Those buffalo are feed water by the Natural springs on the island. I suspect that “damage done” at these springs are natural and have been happening around watering places for wild animals for eons…… weather they are caused by wild horses, buffalo elk moose …. and even cattle. Erosion is natural and there is no better place I have seen in all my travels to see erosion…..THAN UTAH.

  5. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Again, any ‘problems’ resulting from bison being ‘confined to’ Antelope Island are from mankind’s interference.

    From Wikipedia:

    “The herd is present on, and confined to, Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake”

    Bison may once have roamed Antelope Island but if so they never seemed to have established a permanent population. At the time of the arrival of early European explorers and pioneers, there were no bison on the island. As they became extinct over much of their range in the late 19th century, a small population was taken to Antelope Island. “Twelve bison, 4 bulls (males), 4 cows (females) and 4 calves were taken by boat to the island on February 15, 1893 by William Glassman and John Dooly.” These 12 animals apparently came originally from a small private herd in Texas and became the foundation for what has grown into the Antelope Island bison herd. By the early 20th century, several hundred bison were present on the island. The herd was managed from the Fielding Garr Ranch on the east side of the island and even today the bison in the herd tend to congregate in that area.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antelope_Island_bison_herd

  6. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Also, they are not descendants of the Yellowstone herd, that would be the Henry Mountain herd:

    The animals in the Henry Mountains bison herd are American bison of the Plains bison subspecies (Bison bison bison). Yellowstone National Park may be the only location in the United States where free ranging bison were never exterminated, since they continued to exist in the wild and were not re-introduced as has been done in most other bison herd areas. As a result, the Yellowstone Park bison herd became the foundation herd for many others in the United States, including the Henry Mountains bison herd.

    We keep trying to exterminate them, though!

    • avatar Craig says:

      Yellowstone Park bison trace their origins to about 2 dozen animals surviving the great slaughter, plus about 2 dozen that came from the Goodnight (Texas) and Pablo/Allard herds (Montana). These were ranch raised in the park for over a half century. The 2 groups have since interbred.

      • avatar Ida Lupine says:

        Thank goodness for that! It always makes me cringe to think that there were only 2 dozen that survived and kept them from extinction.

    • avatar Mat-ters says:

      Ida,
      Sister Emily was an interesting sole. We (our family) would go and visit her fairly regularly at the nursing home. Most of my memories of Sister Emily centered on her visits to Grandma’s (her second cousin) and Grandpa’s house. Some visits were Friday night. Her sister Margret would drop her off and pick her back up Sunday after late lunch to visit and take her home. Most visits just for the day. You see, Sister Emily didn’t live at the Nursing home….. she worked there. Technically, she lived across the street from the home. She loved taking care of the elderly.

      One of her other passions was chess….yup. Sister Emily was a chess player. She challenged her patients (and their relatives) in her off time of which most of our visits were centered on. We would visit and during almost every visit we played at least one game and even more depending on how many made the trip. She was a multitasker, gabbing with mom and grandma while playing one of my siblings (or I), who was deep in thought over the game. She felt the games kept her patients minds sharp whether it was checkers, chess or just conversation.

      As I did, Sister Emily loved the animals on Grandma and Grandpa’s farm. Mostly chickens, dogs, cats, pigs, and the staple dairy cattle of all ages. On her rare longer visits amid feeding the animals and the husbandry that went with it, we would sometimes get in five or six games with myself and siblings over the course of the weekend. On one such weekend I realized one of Sister Emily’s chess strategies. She would intentionally give up a piece (or pieces) early in the game and fight like heck to still win the game. She was fighting/playing with one hand tied behind her back. On a subsequent game with me months later (as predicted) she was trying to give up a piece, at which time I called her on it and discretely told her I was on to her. She quickly made quick work, cleaned my clock, on that game and check mated me with a wink and smile.

      • avatar Mat-ters says:

        Coming from a big family we didn’t have the electronics that some have today, mom and dad didn’t let us watch too much TV and I think enjoyed the quietness of chess so they encouraged it. We learned a lot playing amongst the siblings. I learned even more from a chess strategy book a younger brother had brought home from the library. One of the strategies in the book was to give up pieces to make you work harder to win yet not let your opponent get discouraged (and still want to play). The grape line talk of Sister Emily was that she was very very very smart & knew chess inside and out. Throughout the years our family stayed close with her and we got better and better at chess. Which lead us to a day that impacted my life.

        I had tried one of the strategies on Sister Emily which failed miserably months earlier. But, in the strategies book I talked about earlier, it talked about hiding the fact that you were doing that strategy by congregating certain pieces in one area which were easily move away then coaxing her into that area with a less valuable piece. On this distinct day, my congregating/coaxing strategy didn’t go off as planned early in the game but later came together. The key move is a protected knight move that limits the moves of the opponent’s king (just prior to a checkmate). I had never really beat Sister Emily and I’m thinking that it was an extremely rare occurrence (outside of her purposefully giving up pieces). On this day, I was surprised when she fell for the bait of taking a pawn, which made my rook and ultimately queen in a vulnerable position. All that didn’t mean a thing with the knight move. When she took the pawn I couldn’t believe it…… did she have an antidote to my knight move? I studied the table, played the knight move in my head and looked at the moves she would have. I couldn’t find an out for her. ….. I had a check mate in the making. Right then I notice a change, Sister Emile got up paced a little and sat back down. Her eyes were glued on the board. I didn’t let her know I was watching her. But, I could tell that she noticed my knight move, after a while her eye’s moved from the board to me. I tried to keep my eye on the board but finally lifted my eye’s to hers. What this fine lady said next has impacted me to this day.

        Though, I don’t know the exact words it went something like this: “You have the ability to look forward and see farther ahead than most. You learned this by not taking the easy road a road others were comfortable on but got them nowhere. You earned your next move. You earned it by listening and watching. Use that ability (my full name in three parts), for good things in your life to come.

        • avatar Mat-ters says:

          Ida, I’m sure you’re asking, “what does this story have to do with me?”

          Two-Fold:
          1st Short sightedness & your creed. Your comment here on buffalo has the makings of someone that does not have the ability to look forward. Your visceral towards me shows your short sightedness and dedication to your creed. Your comments here along with other such comments by the likes of Nancy, Jon and Louise show that same short sightedness. The common theme is a promotion of one type of wildlife in true detriment to others and most certainly the animal you supposedly “love” all with an allegiance to the creed. It doesn’t matter if other wildlife suffers and becomes endangered OR EXTINCT as long has you adhere to the creed. It’s an extremely shortsighted creed of hate and bigotry and foreshadows the real needs of wildlife . Here we have an island that has changed from cattle grazing to wildlife and a unique place for bison which should be a good thing. But, your shortsightedness and creed could not look at the good things. Your only focus was on the garnering of bison. It couldn’t look past that benefit for man and the repercussions of not harvesting some of the bison. You always turn it into an “extermination” when in reality your way off base.

          2nd Another side of the religious: A month to the day before Christmas one of the WN posters spread some hate for nuns. I believe he did this for selfish reasons, self-promoting school NON choice with hate. Ida, nuns don’t “crush sole”! Sister Emily and her companions were some of the most loving people I have ever known. They enhanced soles…. they dedicate their lives to helping others and did. I’ve gone to parochial schools then to the public high school as my whole family did. Let there be no doubt that EVERY ONE of my siblings & I were well above the 50th percentile in testing placement for the high school which we owe to the nuns and priests that taught us. They were ALL good people with good intentions & good results. Today’s media hype and treatment of cops, racist that kill black kids with their hands up, is eerily similar to how priest were all pedophiles back in the day.

          • avatar Mat-ters says:

            This is my last post here on TWN for 2017. My work here is done. We have determined that the secondary prey that suffers in the NE MN “back waters” is not the fault of deer …or deer feeding a certain constant in that area for decades. And, how a well implemented MN wolf plan by a good man like Mr Simon would have been extremely beneficial to the moose of MN. We also found that when confronted with a topic of “wolves moving into poorer habitat and the predicable resulting dead wolves that you and the crew can’t blame on the hunter or farmer or the pet owner or taxpayer for which you have saddle them with cleaning up your mess.” Someone couldn’t stay on it and certainly has no answers for it. Just like there were no answers to previous questions on finding a public areas that had “forest damage” when he made the bone head statement… “What is NOT addressed is agricultural and forest damage caused by deer.” Again, my work is done here…. I have more important things to do to help all wildlife NOT just predators. My talents are needed elsewhere.

          • avatar Ida Lupine says:

            No, I think your posts above are great. Sometimes (many times) I wonder if those days were better and we rely too much on technology today. Don’t feel you have to stop posting! We all have different views.

            • avatar Ida Lupine says:

              I should add that I am not anti-religion, just dismayed in how many seem to turn it around to suit them and to justify their behaviors.

              For example, if a Higher Power has ‘given us’ beautiful plants and wildlife, I don’t think it means that we can wantonly do whatever we want with it. There is an assumption that we should treat our beautiful environment and its other inhabitants with veneration and respect.

  7. avatar rork says:

    So, domestic cattle are worse than bison, therefore bison are good. Also, because George failed to see allot of elk on his old Yellowstone visits, proves there were not too many – that one really made me laugh, thanks. I was used to the ground shaking as large groups ran away, but I wasn’t guiding large groups of people, and am often not on trail.
    Stringing together anecdotes does not alter the plant communities one whit. I will tend to believe experts on the quality of the range. I admit there is hope: less elk, and maybe wolves learning to kill bison more.

  8. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    I wouldn’t say cattle are ‘worse’ and oversimplify it like that – it’s just that they are not native to this country, and the way they are raised is contrary to a wild ungulate’s natural behavior, because they do not migrate, causing repeated damage to the environment.

    Bison have been here for millennia, an entire ecosystem evolved around them, both plants and wildlife, all are adapted to natural conditions, and they are migratory, so that damage is limited.

    The fact that colonists were able to do so much damage in 300 or so years to what took millennia to develop never ceases to amaze. And it looks like we’re not done yet!

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      So if there’s drought, the grasses go dormant, and the bison migrate. Natural. They aren’t confined to one area during a drought, and/or in arid areas so that water has to be taken and dammed from rivers and streams. Humans tend to want to fight nature or change it to suit them.

      So, there’s no better or worse for bison – they are the standard.

      That’s my understanding of it, anyway.

  9. avatar Kyle says:

    Excellent George – “excess bison” is a completely artificial problem. Instead of culling wild bison, we ought to focus on the causes of artifice.

  10. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    From the BFC:

    We were supposed to meet with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDOT) last Wednesday to discuss ways we can work together to reduce bison-vehicle collisions, but bad weather and unsafe driving conditions prevented MDOT representatives from coming to West Yellowstone. Just a few days later, on the coldest morning we’ve had yet, an extended family group of about thirty buffalo migrated from Yellowstone along the Madison River corridor, crossing into Montana and across the treacherous US Highway 191. They made it all the way to Horse Butte, but in the frigid dawn a resident rushing through the subdivision on his way to work struck four buffalo on Rainbow Point Road, injuring three. When patrols arrived at the scene, the driver had already returned his damaged vehicle for an intact one and dashed off to work. Two of the four buffalo, however, would never return to ‘business as usual.’

    http://buffalofieldcampaign.org/bfc-news/wild-buffalo-fall-to-speeding-drivers-hunters

  11. avatar Patrick says:

    George, it would be interesting to know the potential bison/elk carrying capacity of the national forest surrounding YNP. The conversation could go something like: “if we could open X area to bison (and exclude cattle), they land could reasonably carry Y additional bison”. Is there data like that available?

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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