Only one Yellowstone bison was reported shot as Montana’s bison hunt ended Monday with most of the animals still inside the national park, where hunting is banned.
Now that the three-month hunt has ended, animals leaving the park will be subject to hazing, capture and possibly slaughter under a program meant to prevent the spread of animal disease to cattle.
And, after being criticized by ranchers last year for what they saw as a migration that got out of control, state livestock officials are planning a more aggressive response this year.
Montana state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said that “proactive” plan will apply even in areas where cattle aren’t present, starting immediately.
Yellowstone administrators have objected, but Zaluski said the state is determined and has the authority to move forward on its own.
The one bison killed by a hunter this year was taken in December near the town of West Yellowstone. More than 10,000 people applied for a bison license; 44 were granted.
But a mild winter prevented or at least stalled this winter’s migration of the park’s estimated 3,200 bison to lower elevations in Montana.
The state does not allow hunting for bison past mid-February because many female bison are entering late pregnancy. Hunting by members of some Indian tribes occurs outside state jurisdiction and could continue into March.
Park bison biologist Rick Wallen said a migration is still possible in coming months if harsh weather pushes bison out of the park or they follow their appetites to greener pastures in Montana.
Bison are not allowed to wander far from the park’s boundaries because of concerns about brucellosis, a disease that can make bison, cattle and some other large animals prematurely abort their young.
Although no bison-to-cattle transmissions have been recorded in the wild, more than 3,000 bison have been slaughtered over the last decade as a preventive measure.
Tolerance for the animals by the Montana Department of Livestock had gradually been increasing over the last few years. Last year, the agency let bison linger into June on private land near West Yellowstone.
After livestock agents had trouble rounding up the animals and ranchers complained their livestock were at risk, the department crafted its new, stricter rules for bison.
The plan is to keep almost all bison inside the park through early spring, so that, if a later exodus occurs, it won’t be so overwhelming, Zaluski said.
Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis wants the state to reconsider. She suggested it would be safe to allow bison to linger on public lands in Montana west of the park into late May or June.
“There is essentially no risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle because cattle are not present,” Lewis wrote in a Jan. 26 letter to Department of Livestock Executive Officer Christian Mackay.
She added that, even if the state removed bison from those areas in February or March, the animals could return yet again later in spring, when the park often remains snowbound but there’s plenty of grass to eat in Montana.
Environmental groups last year filed a lawsuit to force the Department of Livestock to let bison roam more freely. The case is pending in state District Court.