Yellowstone Bison:

Interagency Plan and Agencies' Management Need Improvement to Better Address Bison-Cattle Brucellosis Controversy

GAO-08-291: Published: Mar 7, 2008. Publicly Released: Apr 2, 2008.

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Federal and Montana state agencies have long been entangled in controversy over bison leaving Yellowstone National Park. Some of these bison, as well as elk and other wildlife, have a contagious disease called brucellosis, which can cause pregnant animals to abort. Montana livestock owners and government officials fear that if bison are allowed to leave the park, the disease could spread to cattle, potentially threatening the economic health of the state's livestock industry. To help manage this issue, three federal and two state agencies have been implementing a bison management plan that they agreed to in 2000. This report discusses (1) the progress made in implementing the bison management plan and (2) the plan's soundness and the effectiveness of the agencies' implementation of it for managing bison-related issues in and near Yellowstone National Park. GAO reviewed documentation and research on bison and brucellosis and interviewed federal and state officials and key stakeholders.

The federal and state agencies implementing the interagency bison management plan have made less progress than they originally anticipated. These agencies--the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Forest Service; the Department of the Interior's National Park Service; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and the Montana Department of Livestock--had expected to progress to step two of the three-step plan by winter 2002-2003. Each of the plan's three successive steps for managing bison is intended to incrementally increase tolerance of bison roaming outside the park. As of late 2007, however, the agencies remained in step one because they have yet to meet two important conditions for moving to step two--first, that no cattle graze on a ranch north of the park, and second, that a safe and effective remote brucellosis vaccine-delivery system be available for bison. Nevertheless, the agencies have completed a number of other tasks called for in the plan, including maintaining the separation of bison and cattle in space and time and conducting some scientific research. Combined, the agencies have spent more than $2 million annually implementing the plan, with the federal government and state agencies funding about 95 percent and 5 percent of these expenditures, respectively. The agencies have no estimate regarding how long it will take to meet the conditions for starting step two, nor have they revised their estimated dates for reaching step three, which was expected by winter 2005-2006. Key deficiencies in the plan, and the agencies' implementation of it, limit their effectiveness with regard to managing bison-related issues. The plan has two broadly stated goals: to "maintain a wild, free-ranging population of bison and address the risk of brucellosis transmission." The plan, however, contains no clearly defined, measurable objectives as to how these goals will be achieved, and the partner agencies have no common view of the objectives. As a result, the agencies have no way to determine the effectiveness of the plan or of their management efforts. Also, in developing the plan, the agencies adopted an adaptive management approach that promotes flexible decision making in the face of uncertainties as outcomes from management actions and other events become better understood. But the agencies have not adequately implemented adaptive management, in that they (1) have not established critical linkages among clearly defined objectives (which are absent from the plan), information about the impacts of their management actions obtained through systematic monitoring, and decisions regarding adjustments they make to the plan and their management actions; (2) have continued to act more as individual entities, rather than as a cohesive interagency group; and (3) have not adequately communicated with or involved key stakeholders, such as conservation groups, livestock industry groups, and private landowners. Consequently, their decision making more often resembles trial and error than adaptive management and also lacks accountability and transparency.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to improve the management of Yellowstone bison in the national park and the state of Montana by clearly defining measurable objectives to express desired outcomes and refine, revise, or replace the plan and agency operating procedures as needed to reflect these objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2011, the federal, state, and tribal partners to the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) all agreed to three adaptive management changes to the IBMP, including plans to evaluate the effects of their adjustments and modify them as necessary. In the 2012 and draft 2013 management plans, the IBMP partners included measurable objectives to guide management actions. These included maintaining the bison population near 3,000 animals, establishing an equal abundance in the central and northern breeding herds and and equal proportion of males to females, supporting an age structure of about 80 percent adults to 20 percent juveniles, and avoiding large scale annual reductions in the bison population due to disease, property, and safety concerns.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to improve the management of Yellowstone bison in the national park and the state of Montana by clearly defining measurable objectives to express desired outcomes and refine, revise, or replace the plan and agency operating procedures as needed to reflect these objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2011, the federal, state, and tribal partners to the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) all agreed to three adaptive management changes to the IBMP, including plans to evaluate the effects of their adjustments and modify them as necessary. In the 2012 and draft 2013 management plans, the IBMP partners included measurable objectives to guide management actions. These included maintaining the bison population near 3,000 animals, establishing an equal abundance in the central and northern breeding herds and and equal proportion of males to females, supporting an age structure of about 80 percent adults to 20 percent juveniles, and avoiding large scale annual reductions in the bison population due to disease, property, and safety concerns.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to improve the management of Yellowstone bison in the national park and the state of Montana by systematically applying adaptive management principles, including defining specific scientific and management questions to be answered, identifying the activities to be conducted to answer them, developing a monitoring program to assess the impacts of those activities, and incorporating the results into the bison management plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We reviewed the 2012 management plan and the draft 2013 management plan (dated August 7, 2012), as well as the 2010-2011 Annual Report (available on the IBMP website as of September 2012), and determined that the IBMP partner agencies have taken actions to implement the recommendation. In the 2010-2011 Annual Report, the IBMP partners articulated the activities they conducted and reported data on the impacts of those activities. In accordance with adaptive management principles, the partners used this information to conduct population modeling that informed the management actions for the upcoming year that the partners recommended in the management plans.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to improve the management of Yellowstone bison in the national park and the state of Montana by systematically applying adaptive management principles, including defining specific scientific and management questions to be answered, identifying the activities to be conducted to answer them, developing a monitoring program to assess the impacts of those activities, and incorporating the results into the bison management plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We reviewed the 2012 management plan and the draft 2013 management plan (dated August 7, 2012), as well as the 2010-2011 Annual Report (available on the IBMP website as of September 2012), and determined that the IBMP partner agencies have taken actions to implement the recommendation. In the 2010-2011 Annual Report, the IBMP partners articulated the activities they conducted and reported data on the impacts of those activities. In accordance with adaptive management principles, the partners used this information to conduct population modeling that informed the management actions for the upcoming year that the partners recommended in the management plans.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to enhance interagency collaboration, promote transparency, and strengthen the agencies' accountability to the American public by establishing a single publicly available repository, on a Web site or at a location easily accessible to the public that includes all documents reflecting decisions made and actions taken with respect to plan implementation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2009, the interagency partners established a Web site that is the official repository for all formal documents associated with the Interagency Bison Management Plan. The site includes a document library, information on upcoming and past meetings, links to related bison management and brucellosis materials, and press releases.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to enhance interagency collaboration, promote transparency, and strengthen the agencies' accountability to the American public by establishing a single publicly available repository, on a Web site or at a location easily accessible to the public that includes all documents reflecting decisions made and actions taken with respect to plan implementation.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2009, the interagency partners established a Web site that is the official repository for all formal documents associated with the Interagency Bison Management Plan. The site includes a document library, information on upcoming and past meetings, links to related bison management and brucellosis materials, and press releases.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to enhance interagency collaboration, promote transparency, and strengthen the agencies' accountability to the American public by reporting annually to Congress on the progress and expenditures related to the plan's measurable objectives once these have been clearly defined.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The IBMP partners completed and signed off on an annual report in November 2009. Their annual report is available to the public on the IBMP website.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to enhance interagency collaboration, promote transparency, and strengthen the agencies' accountability to the American public by reporting annually to Congress on the progress and expenditures related to the plan's measurable objectives once these have been clearly defined.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The IBMP partners completed and signed off on an annual report in November 2009. Their annual report is available to the public on the IBMP website.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to enhance interagency collaboration, promote transparency, and strengthen the agencies' accountability to the American public by appointing a group comprised of a representative from each of the partner agencies or by designating one of the five interagency partners (perhaps on an annual rotating basis) as a lead entity for plan oversight, coordination, and administration.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The IBMP partners identified a lead entity to provide administration, coordination, and oversight of partner activities. The lead entity role is being held on a yearly rotating basis. The Montana Department of Livestock took over as the lead on November 1, 2009, from the prior lead, Yellowstone National Park.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the federal agencies to work with their state agency partners to enhance interagency collaboration, promote transparency, and strengthen the agencies' accountability to the American public by appointing a group comprised of a representative from each of the partner agencies or by designating one of the five interagency partners (perhaps on an annual rotating basis) as a lead entity for plan oversight, coordination, and administration.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The IBMP partners identified a lead entity to provide administration, coordination, and oversight of partner activities. The lead entity role is being held on a yearly rotating basis. The Montana Department of Livestock took over as the lead on November 1, 2009, from the prior lead, Yellowstone National Park.

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