Bison hunters may be stalking more answers than wild animals when Montana’s eighth season opens in the southwestern corner of the state Thursday.
That’s because there are uncertainties clouding the politically charged issue of managing the Yellowstone National Park bison when they cross into the state this winter seeking forage.
The most pressing question for hunters is: Will the winter weather be harsh enough to force portions of the herd -- numbering about 4,230 -- to migrate out of the park into Montana where they can be hunted? On the legal front, a Livingston judge’s decision, expected at the end of December, will determine whether bison will be allowed to roam in the Gardiner Basin rather than being confined to certain forest lands. And in the political arena the question is: Will Montana’s newly elected governor, Steve Bullock, enact an embargo on the National Park Service’s shipment of bison to slaughter, as Gov. Brian Schweitzer did last year?
Despite the many issues circling around this year’s hunt, Pat Flowers, Region 3 supervisor for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman, remains optimistic.
“Hopefully the land will be available and there will be bison there,” he said.
If the judge’s ruling closes the Gardiner Basin to free-roaming bison, people could still hunt but bison will be confined to a much smaller area, he added. Closing the basin would also mean the Park Service has to round up wandering cow and calf bison and contain them at its nearby pasture. There, they would be tested for exposure to the disease brucellosis. In the past, adult females that tested positive for the disease, which can cause cattle to abort, have been shipped to slaughter to lessen brucellosis risk.
“We’ll figure out how to address whatever develops,” Flowers said.
Until the judge’s ruling, bison are allowed to utilize the basin since no injunction was issued.
As always, the weather may play the biggest role in what happens.
The National Weather Service is calling for a warmer than normal winter with average precipitation. For Yellowstone National Park, where the bison live most of the year, average snowfall has topped out at about 30 inches over the past 10 years. Unfortunately, most of that comes in the spring after the hunting season has ended.
Snowfall in the park is responsible for pushing bison into Montana near the communities of Gardiner and West Yellowstone in search of food. More snow typically means a larger migration, as does more bison. So with the bison population at more than 4,200, the chance of migration is higher.
Yellowstone officials would prefer to see the animals’ population reduced by hunters, rather than shipping them to slaughter.
“We would like to keep the population down at a more moderate level to reduce the chance of out-migration,” said Tim Reid, Yellowstone’s chief ranger.
The push point for bison migration out of Yellowstone seems to be when the herds number more than 3,000 animals.
He said a reduction of the current herd by 400 to 500 animals is ideal, but hunters in Montana typically take only a handful of bison. Winter kill and predation are the largest contributors to bringing bison numbers down, Reid said. The park estimates that about nine out of every 100 adult bison die during the winter, a rate that would calculate out to more than 320 this year. Young bison die at a higher rate, about 20 to 40 out of every 100. With the calf population estimated at 600 this year, their mortality rate could range from 120 to 240.
Gov. Schweitzer said he's taking a wait-and-see attitude on whether to enact another ban on the shipment of bison to slaughter. He said last year's ban was an effort to get the U.S. Department of Interior to take responsibility for culling the bison before they reach Montana.
Hunters have a much smaller impact on Yellowstone’s bison herds, harvesting only 173 animals in seven seasons. This year, Montana issued 44 either-sex bison licenses to hunters in its two hunting districts — one near Gardiner and the other near West Yellowstone. Montana also provides 100 cow/calf licenses to hunters on a roster if bison are present in the hunting districts. One tag is also issued through a lottery. In addition, hunters from the Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, Confederated tribes of the Umatilla and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have treaty rights that allow them to take bison outside the park in Montana. Their hunts are not controlled by the state.
Last year, hunters took only 11 bison that migrated out of the park. Incomplete reports from tribal hunters tallied only seven bison killed. The previous year, with a heavy snow season, bison hunters killed 26 animals and tribal hunters took 185.
The state has four seasons that extend from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15.
“The hunting of bison is a much more acceptable way for the bison to leave the population,” Reid said.
Slaughtering bison has created a public relations problem for the park and Montana, whose livestock division has helped round up the wandering animals. Yellowstone’s bison herd is the largest wild, free-roaming population of the shaggy behemoths in the nation. They are only a fraction of what once existed.
Before they were nearly wiped out by hide hunters in the 1800s, bison were estimated to number between 30 million and 60 million across the Great Plains. Yellowstone’s herd was built from one of the last remnants to escape the slaughter, making their pure genetics highly valued. Other bison kept in private herds have been interbred with cattle to make them more docile.
But Yellowstone bison are also heavily infected with brucellosis, making their wanderings outside the park a concern to livestock owners. In the past, cattle that have contracted the disease have been slaughtered to prevent spread of brucellosis. Brucellosis has been eradicated from cattle through extensive vaccination programs. The disease persists in the wild in Yellowstone and has infected elk, which have been implicated in more recent infections of cattle. Containing the spread of the disease is one of the reasons that the bison’s recently enlarged range in Montana’s Gardiner Basin has been contested.
It’s this swirling political fray that bison hunters will step into this winter. According to FWP’s Flowers, some bison have already migrated out of the park near Gardiner, possibly providing an opportunity for early hunters.
“Which is rare for this first period,” he said. “Which is why they run the season for six weeks. They typically come out later.”
Despite the low success rates and the uncertainty of shooting a bison, it seems that hunters may be eternal optimists as well as unconcerned about the politics of the bison hunt. FWP said that on average, about 7,000 hunters apply for the 44 licenses every year.