Yellowstone’s Bison and Sustainable Management

Published March 2, 2014

If you’ve ever driven through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park at sunset and seen the bison herds it’s a pretty amazing sight.

I currently serve as a Research Fellow at the Heartland Institute, but in my younger days, I was a maintenance crew worker in the Canyon district of Yellowstone and was fortunate enough to have many evenings in Hayden Valley. I even helped save a French tourist who had badly sprained her ankle while hiking on my day off, the picture above is proof!

Yellowstone is an amazing place, heck the park is a supervolcano, and there are a lot of critters there including elk, grizzly bears, black bears, and moose, but none were more prevalent or dangerous than the bison.

Having so many bison in the park brings its challenges. Bison like to lie on the road, and every year there is it seems like there is at least one rented RV that collides with a bison (they both lose, if you’re curious) and while the park is there for all the animals, it is there for people, too.

I remember a time when an elderly gentleman had a heart attack at the Canyon visitor’s center and needed to be rushed to the hospital immediately, but he had to be flown by helicopter the fifteen miles south to the hospital at Yellowstone Lake because of a bison jam that had made the trip nearly impossible by ambulance.

While some groups are upset by the herd management practices used by the National Park Service (NPS), it’s important to remember that the park and the surrounding areas have a variety of interests that need to be taken into consideration.

For instance, a study by NPS states that while the park could technically carry more bison than it does currently, a model predicted that the bison population would be under nutritional stress well below food-limited carrying capacity during winters with deep snowpacks that restricted bison access to forage. As a result, there would be considerable calf mortality and increased adult mortality due to starvation.

It is important that the bison population is managed in a sustainable way, that way, when I have a family, my kids will be able to experience the bison just like I was able to.