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Cauldron of Democracy

American Pluralism and the Fight over Yellowstone Bison


Scott Turner
Department of Behavioral & Social Sciences
University of Montevallo


This case study explores the controversy surrounding Yellowstone bison (Bison bison) and the relationship between wildlife management and pluralist democracy. In the late 1960s Yellowstone National Park suspended the policy of strictly managing bison by culling in favor of "natural processes" management. This led to dramatic herd growth and to bison exiting the park in winter in search of forage. Montana cattle ranchers reacted angrily for fear that the animals would infect their cattle with brucellosis. Since 2000, several government agencies have administered the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which uses culling to manage the population at around 3,000 head. The resumption of culling has upset environmental groups, while the recently approved expansion of bison habitat beyond park boundaries continues to upset ranchers.  The ongoing political battle between ranchers, environmentalists, Native American tribes and government agencies shows how difficult it can be to balance legislative mandates, ecological values, and conflicting public demands. The case study may be employed in a variety of courses, including American Government, Public Policy, Interest Groups, Environmental Studies and National Parks.


  • Understand the interests and values motivating major stakeholder groups in regard to the Yellowstone bison controversy.
  • Understand the dilemma faced by Yellowstone National Park in crafting a bison management policy that balances a legislative mandate to conserve and protect wildlife, scientifically based "natural processes" management, and conflicting public demands.
  • Gain understanding of the complexities of public policy administration by reviewing the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a court ordered compromise among multiple state and federal agencies, as well as Native American tribes.
  • Learn why the Yellowstone bison herd is unique and important in the effort to restore North America's largest mammal from near extinction.
  • Develop understanding of why economic and ecological values often conflict.
  • Learn about strategies that have secured additional habitat for bison outside of Yellowstone National Park, thus pointing to the potential for reducing or eliminating slaughter as a management technique.
  • Enrich their understanding of the challenges and opportunities provided by American pluralist democracy.


Bison; buffalo; ecology; environment; national parks; national park service; public lands; natural resources management; pluralism; wildlife management; Yellowstone National Park; ranchers; Native American

Topical Areas

Legal issues, Policy issues, Regulatory issues, Social issues, Social justice issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division, Graduate, General public & informal education, Continuing education, Faculty development



Type / Methods

Analysis (Issues), Debate, Dilemma/Decision, Directed, Discussion, Public Hearing, Role-Play



Subject Headings

Agriculture  |   Biology (General)  |   Ecology  |   Environmental Science  |   Interdisciplinary Sciences  |   Natural Resource Management  |   Science (General)  |   Science Education  |   Wildlife Management  |  

Date Posted


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