Transforming Conflict to Conversations at the 2020 SRM Annual Meeting Yellowstone Symposium

A Special Issue of Rangelands titled “An Ecological Assessment of the Northern Yellowstone Range”, published in December of 2018 (Volume 40, Issue 6) and guest edited by Dr. Jeff Mosley, served to highlight a debate regarding issues related to range management in the Northern Yellowstone Range; in particular, the management of bison herds within the rangelands of Yellowstone National Park.

When this Special Issue was first published, I only had time to skim over most of the articles. Keeping on top of my job as a parent, as a Rangeland Scientist for USDA-ARS, as a member the Board of Directors of SRM, and fulfilling other personal interests, had kept me from digging deeper into the debate surrounding the management of bison herds within the Park. Now, in times of COVID-19, quarantines and distancing, I have had a chance to revisit this publication and contextualize the science coming from both sides of the debate. Spoiler alert, there are not really two sides to this debate; everyone involved wants what is best for Yellowstone National Park ecosystems, but we are all looking at this through our own lenses.

Most of the arguments revolving around the debate center on grazing management, ecosystem response to grazing, degradation, historic grazing patterns, and the vision and mission of Yellowstone National Park. The debate involves multiple government agencies, researchers, and stakeholders – all with different points of view; some with historical perspectives, some with data backed science, and some with on-the-ground experience, but all with different ideas of how to manage the bison herds within the Park boundaries. In a way, this reminds me of the ongoing debate between the pros and cons of continuous versus rotational grazing, and of how one size does not fit all when it comes to dealing with management of complex ecosystems.

Until recently, the complexity of issues related to this debate and the many diverging opinions impeded effective communication between those who manage and study bison herds in Yellowstone National Park and its outside stakeholders. This was a huge deal not only to the Park, researchers, or the SRM, but to the broader management of natural areas. As Moseley et al. (2018) highlight in their article “An Ecological Assessment of the Northern Yellowstone Range: Introduction to the Special Issue”, part of the Rangelands Special Issue referenced above, “Yellowstone National Park is the world’s oldest and most beloved national park, a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program, and a World Heritage Site. What happens in Yellowstone National Park influences the management of parks across the globe.” According to this same article, current National Park System (NPS) policy directs the NPS to “maintain all the components and processes of naturally evolving park ecosystems, including the natural abundance, diversity, and genetic and ecological integrity of the plant and animal species native to those ecosystems.”

The Rangelands Special Issue calls for balancing the support for the animals with the support for the land. Where does the conflict within this debate come from and how do we move forward? As with the continuous versus rotational debate, there is no single solution or answer. Much of it is a matter of adapting your tools to your specific goals and system and being willing to adapt and evolve. In the case of Bison management in Yellowstone National Park, I hope that one of the lessons learned so far is that part of this adaptation and evolution involves multiple stakeholder participation, collective learning from each other, method standardization and calibration, and collaboration.

Why did I include method standardization and calibration? How can two groups of scientists measuring the same variables (e.g. vegetation production, rangeland health) in the same place come up with such different results and interpretations? See for yourselves and make your own informed opinions. I invite you to spend some of your quarantine time familiarizing yourself with some of the materials related to this debate.

Two recent media posts include a “YouTube video of the Yellowstone Symposium” at the 2020 SRM Annual Meeting in Denver, and an episode from the radio show “Voices of Montana” in which several key players in this debate participated. To familiarize yourself with some of the published science behind this debate, I invite you to explore the December 2018 Special Issue of Rangelands, and read some of the research conducted by Yellowstone National Park Bison Biologist, Dr. Chris Geremia and other researchers who have also studied Yellowstone National Park ecosystems. Some of this research includes papers on the interaction between bison herd migration and primary production; grazing intensity effects on grassland production; and large herbivore effects on key plant and soil processes.

As a Society that values and promotes science-based management, opportunities to promote and exchange information on topics that are relevant to a broad audience are invaluable for the mission of SRM. Stay informed, stay healthy, and stay socially connected while physically distant.

David Toledo, SRM Director

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