Hunting for the right mix on bison management

A bison bull plods through shallow snow near Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park.

Fewer bison migrated out of Yellowstone National Park this winter, reducing the hunter harvest to almost 170 animals, according to numbers compiled by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Last year, hunters killed more than 200 bison, with another 260 shipped to slaughter.

Because so few bison were available to hunters this season, the park’s staff decided not to capture any for its Bison Conservation Transfer or slaughter programs, despite agreeing to a recommended culling quota of 500 to 700 animals last year. As a result, the herd could grow to as many as 5,100 to 5,200 animals by the end of the summer, close to the 10-year average, the park’s bison biologist Chris Geremia predicted.

“This has been an interesting year to see what happens if we only rely on hunting” as a means to control the bison population, said Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone, during a recent online meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan. “It kind of proves the point that we may not be able to rely on any single mechanism from a population management standpoint.”

Options

The park and its partners are discussing how best to fulfill tribal treaty rights for bison while also reducing Yellowstone’s publicly unpopular capture-and-slaughter program — an outgrowth of a lawsuit settlement with the state of Montana to reduce the bison population — in favor of more capture for quarantine and eventual transfer of live bison to tribes.

It’s a difficult process Sholly referred to as “threading the needle.”

“Ultimately, I would like us to get to the point where we substantially reduced or eliminated how many bison get consigned to slaughter each year,” he said.

To that end, the park is ramping up its Bison Conservation Transfer Program by building new facilities to quarantine bison near Gardiner. Once the animals pass initial testing protocols for the disease brucellosis, they can be shipped to the Fort Peck Reservation for the final round of quarantine and eventually gifted to partner tribes.

Fort Peck has the capacity to quarantine 600 bison, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service won’t allow the full quarantine process to be conducted there, despite approval of the facilities. That’s because the agency wants to contain brucellosis as much as possible to the Yellowstone area, despite the fact that free-roaming elk also carry the disease.

Less meat

The park’s goals to capture more for transfer and slaughter fewer bison could reduce tribal partners’ annual supply of lean bison protein.

The Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes of northwest Montana view hunting as the main means of controlling Yellowstone’s bison populations and supplying tribal members with meat, said Tom McDonald, manager of the CSKT Division of Fish, Wildlife and Recreation. Yet the tribe also has supported the “administrative harvest” of bison.

“That’s become a very important program for our tribes here,” McDonald said. “If that’s reduced or changed in the future, that’s when I say we need to bring more hunters to bear.”

The confederated tribes alone license 300 to 800 bison hunters a year. Six other tribes also claim treaty rights to hunt Yellowstone bison. The state of Montana issues only 50 permits to public hunters. CSKT and state hunters shot only six bison each this year. The Nez Perce Tribe shot the most, 77, followed by the Yakima Nation, with 24, and the Blackfeet and Umatilla, with 20.

Hunting

The problem with using hunting as a means to reduce bison populations is that the area where the animals can be shot is very limited on the north side, where most of the bison migrate in winter in search of food. Consequently, bison may meet a “wall of guns” when they cross the Yellowstone boundary into Montana, where they can be hunted legally, said Geremia, the park’s bison biologist. This is especially true near Gardiner, when bison move into the Beattie Gulch area.

Having a large number of hunters in a small area has forced tribal, state and federal officials to work more closely coordinating hunters to ensure safety and avoid hunting violations. This year, that included weekly communication, which seemed to work well.

Some locals have complained about the intensity of the hunts and their close proximity to homes, even filing lawsuits seeking to halt the killing. Jardine resident and hunting outfitter Ralph Johnson noted some tribal hunters also kill elk, deer and pronghorn while in the area for bison.

“A lot of local people around Gardiner are getting fed up with it,” he said.

With bison moving later, McDonald said the confederated tribes will consider altering their hunting season to provide more opportunity later in the winter.

“The harvest for the past few years is getting later and later,” agreed Carl Scheeler, wildlife program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Bottleneck

More hunters may reduce bison populations when they are available, but what if — like this year — few animals are available?

Geremia and the Park Service are pushing for hunters to allow greater numbers of bison to move beyond the park’s immediate boundary into the wider “tolerance zone.” How that may be facilitated is up for discussion.

One possibility is to create a safe zone on the west side of the park near West Yellowstone so more bison move onto the Custer Gallatin National Forest along the upper Gallatin River. Unfortunately, the Central herd — from which those bison would come — is the smaller portion of the park’s overall bison population. Out of this year’s hunter harvest, only 39 of the 169 bison killed were shot on the west side.

“I do think limiting hunting on that west side, it’s a double-edged sword we talk about all the time, when looking at the conservation demographics of the population,” Geremia said. “But at the same time, the west also provides an opportunity to spread out hunters.”

How will the park meet its goals of reducing bison herds, expanding tolerance zones for bison outside the park and also providing live animals for transfer while still meeting American Indian tribes’ desire for bison meat and hunts?

“I do think there is room for improvement, there is with everything involving bison,” Geremia said. “We need to come together, take the next step, how do we get more animals further out into the tolerance area, into a bigger space?”

French may be contacted at french@billingsgazette.com.