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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of Agriculture 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of Agriculture 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of Agriculture 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of Agriculture 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of Agriculture 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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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