Due to high rates of survival and reproduction, the bison population is currently increasing by 10% to 17% per year. Predation by wolves and bears has little effect on bison numbers. Until there is more tolerance for bison outside Yellowstone, the population will be controlled by hunting outside the park and capture near the park boundary. Captured bison are transferred to American Indian tribes for slaughter and distribution of meat and hides to their members. However, many people are uncomfortable with the practice of capturing bison and shipping them to slaughter to reduce numbers. Thus, the National Park Service initiated the Bison Conservation Transfer Program to identify bison that don't have brucellosis and transfer them to new areas as an alternative to sending them to slaughter. The State of Montana, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Yellowstone National Park, and Fort Peck Tribes spent several years figuring out how and where to implement the program, which is now underway. Since 2019, 154 bison have been transferred to the Fort Peck Tribes. Forty of those animals were transferred to 16 other tribes in 2020. Another 110 animals are currently in the program and will be transferred to the Fort Peck Tribes in the coming years.
During August 19-23, 2019, Yellowstone National Park moved 55 bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana. It was the first direct relocation of bison to a new home as an alternative to slaughter and was the culmination of eight years of compromise between the federal government, State of Montana, and Fort Peck Tribes. Those bison had been held in a rehoming facility in the park for the previous 17 months and undergone rigorous testing to show they did not have a disease called brucellosis.
The Fort Peck Tribes started their Yellowstone herd by accepting bison that completed the 2005-2012 pilot study. In 2012, 63 animals were transferred, and 138 animals were transferred in 2014. Today, the Fort Peck Tribes conserve 300-400 bison across more than 18,000 acres on their lands. Yellowstone and APHIS transferred 93 bison to the Fort Peck Tribes in 2019, 11 in 2020, and 50 so far in 2021.
The conservation and transfer program has led to the largest transfer of Yellowstone bison among Native American Tribes in history. The Fort Peck Tribes recently transferred 40 of the animals received in 2019 to the InterTribal Buffalo Council, who distributed them to 16 member tribes across nine states. There are 110 more bison being held in the Yellowstone National Park and APHIS facilities undergoing testing, which could qualify for transfer to the Fort Peck Tribes within the next 1-2 years.
Expanding the Bison Conservation Transfer Program
Currently, there is not enough space for all the bison that qualify for the program. The first two phases of testing require that animals are held within state and federally approved quarantine facilities. There are currently two such facilities, one inside Yellowstone National Park and the other on private land leased by APHIS near the northern park boundary. Yellowstone wants to more than double the capacity of its facility. Currently, the facility consists of a 10-acre pen that holds about 30 animals, and a 20-acre pen that holds about 70 animals. We want to divide the 20-acre pen in half and construct at least two additional pens. Each pen requires double fencing to prevent nose-to-nose contact. The water infrastructure must be reconstructed to provide the amount needed for the larger number of animals. We also need to construct a low-stress handling corral to support the increased testing that comes with more animals.
Conserving large herds is one of the greatest wildlife restoration challenges of our generation. Yellowstone bison remain the model of restoring large, wild herds. There is not another bison population who, by their sheer numbers, restore lost ecosystem processes across large landscapes. The large herds provide unparalleled reconnection of people to the long-lost herds that once roamed the continent, but the benefits of large numbers come with the challenge of managing large numbers. The Bison Conservation Transfer Program cannot solve the dilemma of needing to remove large numbers of bison from the population each year, but it may go a long way to making conserving large herds more doable.
"I longed for that time when Tatanka Sicun, Buffalo Spirit as ancestor, mingled with mine...
Last updated: February 23, 2021