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New Superintendent, Same Bison Management Policies?

When current Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk launched an effort to remain in the post–first via public comments, then from a failed effort to retire in 2019–one of his warnings was that the Park’s bison management policies could come under fire.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Wenk says National Park Service Acting Director Paul “Dan” Smith told him that he would be replaced by August. Though he wasn’t told this directly, Wenk assumes he’s being replaced because some Interior Department officials, including U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (a former Montana congressman), want to scale back the size of the Yellowstone herds and more aggressively limit their movement outside the Park.

Wenk’s replacement, Cam Sholly, has not arrived to assume the superintendent post. Until he does, Yellowstone officials say the current bison management practices, which includes a larger herd and the shipment of bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation later this year, are still on track.

The current plan calls for a quarantine to ensure brucellosis-free bison. A Wenk initiative that has already been approved by the National Park Service, the goal is to initially ship healthy bull bison to tribal governments and other conservation herds, both to spread out the herds and to lessen the need to annually cull the Yellowstone bison. The Fort Peck Indian Reservation would take control of the bison and distribute them to other tribes.

Now, the irony is that this plan would seem to achieve a goal stated by Zinke: to lower the number of Yellowstone bison in order to lessen their impact outside Park boundaries. That goal is shared by Montana stockmen, who fear the spread of brucellosis via Yellowstone bison. That fear is not necessarily based in science, as there’s never been a documented case of brucellosis transmitted from bison to cattle. From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

Tim Reid, the bison program manager at Yellowstone, said the impending change in superintendents shouldn’t impede progress on the quarantine program. Negotiations are still moving, he said, and the transfer of a group of bull bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation later this year should still be on track.

“I think there’s a world of hoopla and speculation that’s kind of overarching things,” Reid said. “The reality on the ground is that we’re moving forward with quarantine.”…

Marty Zaluski, Montana’s state veterinarian, said the state’s Department of Livestock remains committed to advancing the program, and that it seems unlikely to him that the change in superintendents would have a serious impact on its progress.

“I would be surprised if that would be the case,” Zaluski said. “We’re all committed as long as the protocols are followed and the animals are considered free of brucellosis. I think all of us are supporting the next step of the project.”

Sholly will be walking into a difficult job: Wenk is well-regarded both locally and within National Park Service circles. Embracing some of Wenk’s initiatives that seem to benefit everyone upon arrival would smooth the transition.

This article first appeared in the free weekly Yellowstone Insider newsletter. Are you a subscriber? To subscribe, click here.

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