Yellowstone National Park biologists have recommended the killing of 450 bison, primarily females, this winter to “reduce abundance and growth potential” in the northern herd.
The statement was part of the operating procedures outlined at the November meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan agencies. The conservation group Buffalo Field Campaign brought the issue to public attention last week with an email solicitation for financial help to “stop the slaughter.”
“We’re going to do everything we can,” said Dan Brister, executive director of the BFC.
He said that would include patrols to monitor bison in the Gardiner and West Yellowstone areas where the animals annually migrate in winter, as well as possible legal measures or public opinion pressure on the Park Service.
By the numbers
The park’s bison herd was estimated this year at 4,200 animals. That’s composed of two main groups, the central herd that gathers close to Old Faithful and the Firehole and Madison river drainages, and the northern herd that populates the Lamar Valley and Yellowstone River drainage.
The Park Service said the 2,600 bison in the northern herd is the most ever observed in that area.
The central herd is smaller, with about 1,600 bison. The Park Service would like to see that number closer to 1,500. The central herd also a sex ratio skewed toward males, the statement says.
The Park Service would prefer to have a Yellowstone bison population of about 3,000 animals — 1,500 in each herd — whose adults are evenly mixed between males and females.
Thinning the herd
The Park Service predicts that about 210 bison will die this season from winter kill and predation. So far, tribal and state hunters have shot about 35 bison this season, Brister said. The hunting season began Nov. 15 and runs through Feb. 15. In the last seven years, hunters have taken about 170 bison.
“Hunting and management removals of approximately 400 bison per year would provide a high certainty of approaching all desired conditions within five years,” the IBMP statement reads.
Management removals include “selective culling at capture facilities” with bison being shipped to quarantine, research facilities, pastures or slaughter.
“Additional bison could be removed if there is a mass migration out of the park or if bison resist efforts to return them from Montana to Yellowstone National Park during spring or summer,” the statement says.
Without the removal, there is a “50 percent chance of more than 4,875 bison in the population entering winter 2014,” the document concludes.
What to do with the Yellowstone bison has prompted a long-running dispute between federal and state agencies, conservation groups and landowners.
Last year, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer blocked the shipment of park bison to slaughter on Montana highways, in what he said was an attempt to get the Park Service to take responsibility for culling the herd. He also allowed the shipment of 63 disease-free Yellowstone bison that had been quarantined near the park to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana.
Montana has also sought with its federal partners to create a larger area for bison to roam outside Yellowstone Park. The expanded bison tolerance zones were challenged by farming and ranching groups. A ruling by a Livingston judge is expected soon.
Brister contends that such habitat expansion is what’s needed, instead of shipping bison to slaughter.
“We’d like to see them treat bison more like elk are treated,” he said. “There’s a lot of great habitat they’re being excluded from.
“We should be looking at those solutions rather than keeping them in the square box that is Yellowstone.”
This summer, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Department of Livestock began an environmental review “allowing some bison to inhabit lands adjacent to or near the border of Yellowstone National Park year-round.” Initially, the groups said they planned to have the document done by December. The date has now been pushed back to March.
“Between Fish, Wildlife and Parks and us, it was one of the biggest environmental assessments we’ve seen,” said Christian Mackay, executive officer for the Department of Livestock. “A lot of analysis was put into the draft, and there were a lot of comments to incorporate.”
The plan is exploring year-round bison use on the Gallatin National Forest in the Hebgen Basin, Cabin Creek Recreation and Wildlife Management Unit, the Monument Mountain Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area, the Upper Gallatin River corridor, and for year-round use by bull bison in the Gardiner Basin.