Bison details

I'd like to respectfully offer several views about Riverton rancher Dan Ingalls´ proposal to graze bison on public lands in the Gros Ventre River drainage of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. My thoughts stem from having studied bison both in South Dakota and here in Jackson Hole for about five years each (and having written a scientific book, “Bison, Mating and Conservation in Small Populations,” Columbia University Press, New York, 1994).

Bison are indeed a native species to the ecosystem, and I believe Mr. Ingalls should be commended for his serious consideration to shift from livestock, a species virtually defenseless against native large carnivores, to one that has coevolved with wolves and bears. The grazing patterns of bison generally are substantially different from those of livestock, and this is particularly true over broad areas of habitat diversity, but not when restricted to small paddocks. In these broad(er) systems, local impacts of bison on vegetation and attendant animal biodiversity should be less. But in short proposals, details are often lacking, and it is for this reason that I would implore resource management agencies as well as the general public to follow up on these issues. Everyone has much to benefit when the details become clear from the outset.

Among the issues that are likely to be contentious, I would highlight the following (in no particular order of importance) to be recipients of critical attention:

1) Fencing will need to be permeable to allow continued access to habitat and for migration of elk, pronghorn and other species, while at the same time assuring that bison do not wander freely. Bison fencing in at least three parks (Wind Cave, Custer and Badlands) in South Dakota have not been totally successful in containing bison. Who is to determine, and then pay the costs of determining whether the fencing has an effect on other species, and do plans for mitigation exist?

2) Densities of bison at the level proposed will be an order of magnitude greater than those occurring under whatever conditions might be considered natural. While the topic of naturalness is thorny, unusually high densities of any herbivore will assuredly affect the ecosystem, and any putative benefits must be weighed against both short- and long-term ecological costs.

3) Hybrid bison, that is those with a small proportion of cattle haplotypes (genes), typify numerous public and private bison herds. Bison in both Teton and Yellowstone park do not have contaminated genotypes. Thus, despite the best of intentions to fence bison away from national park bison, those in Jackson Hole could become genetically contaminated if they were to breed with private bison that have not been tested for genetic purity. Mr. Ingalls has already prudently addressed the issue of vaccination for disease.

4) Public access to fenced areas is a topic not mentioned in the paper, but is something I am sure Mr. Ingalls has thought about. Is the public to be restricted from wandering, hiking, exploring or driving within the proposed fenced allotment, and who is legally culpable should someone be injured — the forest service or Mr. Ingalls (or both)?

5) Escapees might be called animals that leave the enclosure. Will all animals be permanently marked so that they can be distinguished from the increasingly widely dispersed Jackson bison. Branding has been used at multiple sites for years and results have been mixed in terms of permanent marks.

6) Hunting and recapture of escapees were issues that are in need of details. Consider two scenarios. First, some animals escape and cannot be rounded up. Are these private animals then subject to legal harvests on public lands? Indeed, would there be any difference between hunting inside or outside the allotment? And, if bison cannot be recaptured by foot or horse, can helicopters be used? What provisions have been considered for animal capture? If helicopter capture is permitted, there will be a peculiar irony. In winter, public access is highly restricted, so game species will remain undisturbed. Should special access be granted to Mr. Ingalls for winter use, I wonder why other members of the public would not afforded the same treatment.

7) Bears and wolves are not likely to become serious predators of bison, but the potential for this to occur cannot be excluded. In northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories, bison are the primary prey of wolves. If this were to occur in the Gros Ventre region, what are the contingencies? Will there be predator control irrespective of when delisting occurs?

I raise the above points because much of my interest and training has been geared toward using science to address issues concerning healthy and functioning systems on public lands. The use of privately owned, native grazers is, in my mind, an intriguing possibility and worthy of serious pursuit. I am sure Mr. Ingalls has already considered the implications of his proposal, but for most of us, the devil is in the details. I look forward to knowing more about these finer points.

Joel Berger, Ph.D.,
Wildlife Conservation Society,
Moose, Wyoming