Montana’s hostility to free roaming bison not shared by Wyoming

Bison allowed to wander Jackson Hole, WY at will-

We have written about bison in Wyoming versus inside Montana a number of times, but not for a couple years. Because of the constant public hostility of Montana’s Department of Livestock (the DOL) and the less-than-in-depth reporting by Montana traditional media, folks probably forget that Montana’s way is not the only way with bison.

The state of Wyoming outside of Yellowstone Park has many bison. Bison are allowed to roam almost at will throughout the big valley of Jackson Hole and adjacent mountains. The bison largely keep to the valley floor. They graze to some extent in the mountain foothills, but not the large tracts of high mountains.

These bison are much more likely to test positive for brucellosis and to be actively infected by the microbe than the bison that try to wander along the fringes of Montana outside Yellowstone Park. The big difference, however, is that livestock owners and others in Wyoming do not launch campaigns to haze them into Grand Teton or Yellowstone Park. For years cattle have grazed alongside the bison.

A couple times Wyoming has lost its brucellosis free status, just as has Idaho. In both cases the vector was almost certainly elk, not bison. When Idaho lost its supposedly critical brucellosis free status, it was hardly regarded as a newsworthy event. It was really hard to find any media coverage at all.

The major issue with the Jackson Hole bison has been their tendency to overpopulate. A decade ago they were becoming extremely dense on the valley floor. The institution of a hunting season has gradually reduced the bison numbers to sustainable levels.

It is often said that Montana’s hostility is due to ranchers coveting the grass the bison eat. However, there are ranchers in Wyoming, though now many fewer in Jackson Hole than in the past. I speculate the real reason for Montana’s onslaught is more due to the DOL seeking to justify its existence and the feeding of federal funds to its ag bureaucracy. Then too, bison hatred serves the purpose of letting the non-livestock owning resident and especially “damn tourists” know who is boss just outside the federal enclave of Yellowstone Park. They also keep trying to force their style of lethal management inside YNP too.

Conservation author Todd Wilkinson has had a (so far) 14 part series on Greater Yellowstone wildlife diseases in the Jackson Hole News and Guide. This week he takes on the differing treatment of bison by Wyoming versus Montana. Specifically he describes the change in the grazing pasture for the Pinto Ranch from inside the Teton Wilderness with its large number of grizzly bears to instead the “Elk Ranch” pasture at the base of Uhl Hill inside Grand Teton N.P..  A large number of bison always graze this pasture and adjacent lands.

To prevent even the slight chance of brucellosis, the Pinto Ranch is pasturing steers instead of cow/calf pairs.




  1. WyoWolfFan Avatar

    It is very interesting to see how Wyoming and Montana are so different in their attitudes toward bison. I know I should know this being from Wyoming, but are bison tolerated in the area around Cody?

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      Bison are not tolerated around Cody. About 25? years ago, bison pioneered a migration route over Sylvan Pass and down the North Fork Shoshone. Each year more came over and the bison tended to stay east of the Divide, of course. This migration was eliminated by the state. I don’t recall just how.

      1. CodyCoyote Avatar

        Ralph- a slight correction to the Bison who migrate east out of Yellowstone over Sylvan Pass to winter in the Shoshone Forest.

        When that initial migration of ~ 35 animals first occurred, it was immediately following the Yellowstone Fires of 88. In the spring of ’89 at least two calves were born outside Yellowstone , one killed by a car, the other migrated back in with this small mixed herd.

        Wyo G&F very hurriedly came up with a Bison plan for the North Fork of the Shoshone corridor. They decided to shoot all cows, QED. Only 15 bull Bison would ever be allowed. Any number of Bulls above that would be taken by escorted hunts, or removed by G & F otherwise.

        Their reasoning was the Bison were competing for winter range forage, and numbers had to be limited to give Elk enough winter feed. We can’t have anything interfering with selling elk licenses, after all. The No Cows thing was, of course, a preemptive strike on brucellosis.

        They had an attrition kill of Bison one year, to reduce numbers down to 15. Shot a lot of Bison right in the Elk Fork Campground and immediate surrounds. I have some graphic photos of that Bisoncide.

        In ensuing years, we have never seen more than 13 total Bison on the North Fork, all bulls. Some years it was as low as nine animals , but in no year has there not been a small contingent of Bison on the North Fork over the winter. We love seeing them. They now linger outside the Park longer than ever. Some do not even migrate back in at all , preferring the lawn of the Pahaska Teepee Resort , and riparian area, which they share with Moose and wolves and quite a few grizzly.

        It’s probably safe to say this now, but back in 1976 I took a horsepack trip up into the headwaters of the North Fork, eventually into the upper Lamar River of YNP via Sunlight Basin. When we got into the head of Red Creek across the divide / Park Boundary from the Little Lamar River, we were surprised to find 60 head of Bison in the subalpine meadows right where we wanted to camp and picket our horses. These were Mountain Bison …the remnant animals that never were extincted back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The true Native Yellowstone Bison. They eluded discovery, for the most part, never hunted except for the occasional camp meat when the eastern drainages of the Lamar were outside of the Park before 1929 and there were outfitter hunting camps inside what is now the Park proper.. The Mountain Bison were ghosts back then , and have since mingled genetically with the rest of Yellowstone’s Bison in the central plateau area. I have not heard of any sighting of Bison outside the Park in that neck of the woods in recent years. But they are/were a distinct animal… taller, narrower, very high sharp withers, faster, smarter, and they love the high country and deep old growth forest. Long may they reign.

        Wyoming may have a big white Bison on its state flag , but only in Jackson Hole does it seem that heritage is upheld by our state game agency. If there were 200 Bison coming east out of Yellowstone down Sylvan Pass ahead of winter, I’m sure you’d see the same wholesale slaughter as Montana.

  2. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Does anybody have an opinion on Dr. Robert Garrott’s work and his position on free roaming bison ?

  3. Jon Way Avatar

    Thanks for this important piece and also to Cody Coyote for his descriptions and (unfortunately but realistically) not getting our hopes up too much with the state of WY and free roaming bison populations outside of the parks – a dream of many of ours…

  4. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    The Elk Ranch changed some of their practices at the request of the Forest Service and the Pinto Ranch did likewise at the request of the Park Service. Why doesn’t the Forest Service request that only steers be allowed to graze on the allotments adjacent to Yellowstone?

    I thought federal agencies ultimately had jurisdication and the responsibility of wildlife management on federally managed lands, but apparently I was mistaken as it seems that states can kill bison when they are on federal land.

  5. alf Avatar

    1) ++ Why doesn’t the Forest Service request that only steers be allowed to graze on the allotments adjacent to Yellowstone? ++

    Because, unfortunately, the land “management” agencies — not only federal, but state as well — for all practical purposes are controlled by the extractive industries (logging mining and ranching) and almost always do exactly what they and their political toadies demand, the wishes of the greater public and the long-term good of the resources be damned.

    2)++ I thought federal agencies ultimately had jurisdication and the responsibility of wildlife management on federally managed lands, but apparently I was mistaken as it seems that states can kill bison when they are on federal land. ++

    I believe in most, if not all, states, the state legally “owns” the wildlife, regardless of whose land it may be on and sets the rules for how it’s “managed”. About the only exception is one can post his private land to not allow hunting, but apparently in Montana, the DOL can ignore that and trespass on posted private land at will to harass and/or kill bison in the areas around YNP.

  6. Jeff Avatar

    Solo bulls do wander as far as the upper Green River north of Cora. They are shot on site. Several years ago a solo bull was in upper Game Creek several miles south of Jackson. He wandered off on his own.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Shot on sight? Why do we do these terrible things?

      1. WyoWolfFan Avatar

        It’s due to paranoia about brucellosis and competition with cattle for forage. All political.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan