The northern border of Yellowstone National Park is regularly crossed by Bison. Bison leave the park and enter private and state-owned lands in Montana at this point. Regulation of the renegades is controversial and includes shooting, trapping, hazing, and simply allowing nature to take its own course.


In this section we will make the distinction between policies and politics.  Both categories involve interesting sets of actors and strategies, and both are very important to understand the features and the evolution of the whole conflict in its different arenas of deployment.

Both categories have a distinct field of development, defined by having more technical or political features. On one side we have the policies, the art of administering and managing society. In this case the policies display one conflict that involves and opposes several social players. On the other hand we have politics, the relation between the different political actors implicated in this conflict, and the political and legal actions taken by them in the fight to achieve their goals or to influence the issue.


Natural Regulation:

As much as possible, the National Park Service tries to allow the animals to self-regulate and to minimize the amount of human intervention involved in dealing with the animals.  This policy of natural regulation is controversial, but it keeps with the goals of the National Park Service.  Natural regulation is an effective way to decrease human intervention while still having a healthy population.  However, it is impossible for even a small number of bison to regulate themselves inside YNP during harsh winters.  In these winters, there simply isn’t enough food to support even a low population of bison.  Therefore, bison are forced to leave YNP in order to find enough food to eat.  When bison leave the park, the Montana Department of Livestock takes over right to deal with YNP bison, and the DOL disregards natural regulation.  The DOL argues that implementation of natural regulation policy outside of YNP puts Montana cattle in danger of contracting brucellosis from YNP bison.  In order to eliminate any risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle, the DOL has implemented a policy of trapping and hazing.

Trapping and Hazing:

There is a major bison trap constructed at the Northwest exit of the park.  The policy of the DOL is that the bison follow the fencelike trap and end up in holding pens.  Once in holding pens, all of the captured bison are tested for brucellosis.  The bison are tested for brucellosis by serologic tests, which detect for brucella antibodies within the blood of the bison.  All bison that test seropositive or are pregnant are assumed to be carrying the live B. Abortus virus and are sent to slaughter.  All non-pregnant bison that test seronegative are released or returned to the park.  Also, the DOL has tried, with varied success, to “haze” the bison back into the park.  How it works is that when the bison cross outside the park border, people hold signs and wave their arms in an attempt to scare the bison back into the park.  Many bison have been scared back into the park, but not nearly enough to stop the need for trapping.

For further information:  http://www.liv.state.mt.us/BISONBRUC.htm


Inside National Parks, for many decades, the management practice implemented by the National Parks Service has been so-called natural regulation. This laissez-faire attitude towards the natural processes is a key element of the ideological apparatus that regulates Park management.  The National Parks System works as an archipelago in which every unit acts as an island isolated in a sea of development. Any of these units contains a whole ecosystem, if such a closed thing exists. These conditions make it hard to believe in the feasibility or reliability of the natural regulation practiced on our parks. There are continual fluxes and interchanges across the borders of the parks, and the mobile populations inside the park borders, which are for the most part, constantly under human pressure in the form of hunting, logging, ranching or mining practices.

Natural regulation is also based on the assumption that anthropogenic disturbances aren’t natural, and therefore theoretically exclude all human practices. Humans though, during millennia, have been a keystone species of most ecosystems.  The bison brucellosis problem exacerbates the polemics around natural regulation. The presence of these bacteria into the bison and the economic threat that it represents legitimizes some outside park actors to systematically kill the animals when they cross their borders. The need to save and maintain a viable bison population obliged park authorities to implement policies to keep the animals inside the park (trapping and forced transportation of the animals into the park core area).

That analysis leads to deeper considerations about the biologic rationality of the Yellowstone borders. The park contains wonderful and dramatic landscapes that are an animal paradise in summer, but that turn into a snow reservoir, a hell, in winter. At that time is when large quantities of animals, searching for better grazing areas, exit the park and collide with the different policies implemented outside by different managers, owners and political actors. At that time, if not always, natural regulation policy in the fictitious context provided by national park islands falls apart.


To understand the politics of the bison brucellosis conflict it is necessary to understand the nature of the actors implicated. Each economic conflict mobilizes different institutions that situate themselves behind one of the contending economic interests.

The way to approach the politics of the conflict, therefore, is understand the way each institution chooses a particular side. We have to understand what kind of values and priorities affect the decision of each institution. Public institutions have a particular set of priorities that are directly affected by the interests of voters and lobbies that have power over them. In this sense, the fracture between local and national is quite significant.

The states and a great part of their populations are directly affected by the fate of their local industries and consequently protect them and fight against any threat to the revenues that these industries produce, cattle in our case.

On the other hand, we have the national power, represented by the federal government.  The federal government isn’t pressured by the immediate survival of the local community, which is why it focuses on other kinds of goals dealing with national interests, such as conservation of resources.

Nevertheless, the federal government is more than a complex actor.  It is more like a set of different players with different and sometimes even contradictory agendas. These agendas put them in different sides of the political arena where the bison brucellosis conflict is dealt with. For instance, say the main concern of the Department of Agriculture is the eradication of the brucellosis, while the National Park Service is focused on the survival of the bison.

To have a more detailed description of all the actors implicated in the conflict, go to the actors section of this website.

Creation of the Greater Yellowstone Interagency Committee (GYIBC):

The GYIBC deserves special commentary. The creation of this multilateral committee is a logical result of the different challenges that the issue of brucellosis presents and have been repeatedly exposed in this website. Although we are talking about bacteria present in free roaming wild animals, that fact has repercussions all over the social arc of possibilities. 

A National Park is a fictitious geographical, ecological and political unity.  The migrant behavior of some of national park inhabitants reflects that reality. This behavior puts on contact, on conflict several institutions, governmental bodies and, therefore, their jurisdictional capabilities.

Each of the institutions involved in the GYIBC has a determinate level of jurisdiction on the problem. In the past, and to a certain degree the approaches and initiatives of each one of these actors has been opposed due to the fact that they defend, represent, and are pressed by complete different actors and interests.

This committee intends to reach consensus, or at least to share information between all the players of this crazy game.  It is interesting to note that it is a consensual and advisory body with no mandatory powers and characterized by very broad statutes that allow also very broad interpretations.

 For more information:  GYIBC memorandum of understanding