As large numbers of bison begin moving toward Yellowstone National Park’s northern border, park officials are making plans to truck 300 to 600 of the animals to slaughterhouses, with the processed meat, hides and heads being distributed to American Indian tribes.
“We do have some agreements with tribal entities to take those animals this year,” said Al Nash, Yellowstone’s chief of public affairs. “But everything is very dependent on the bison migrating in significant numbers.”
So far, despite two stretches of bitterly cold weather that included a temperature of 35 below at Yellowstone’s West Thumb on Wednesday, large numbers of bison haven’t migrated out of the park.
“What historically has prompted movement is a weather change that makes accessing forage below the snow more difficult,” Nash said, noting that cold weather on its own doesn’t cause bison to move out of the park.
The last count by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks put the number of bison outside the park’s northern boundary near Gardiner at 60 to 70, with most staying close to private property and away from hunters on nearby public land. Hunting is not allowed inside Yellowstone.
This summer, Yellowstone’s bison population was estimated at 4,600, close to the park’s peak bison population of 5,000 that was recorded in 2005. The bison are divided into two herds, with about 3,200 in the northern herd and 1,400 in the central herd, which migrates out of the park near West Yellowstone along the Madison River.
By agreement with the state of Montana, the park is required to keep the bison population at 3,000 to 3,500 animals. Last year, few bison migrated out of the park, preventing the park from culling the herd as staff had hoped. The park had planned to kill 450 mainly female bison in 2012, but a mild winter kept the animals inside the park.
“Our biologists are saying that if we were to look at a removal of about 600 bison each winter for several winters, then we would have a chance to move that population figure down to 3,000 or 3,300,” Nash said. “If we had no other management action, we could see 6,000 bison by the end of the winter 2016.”
The last and largest removal of bison was in 2008, when more than 1,600 bison were killed. Since 1985, more than 7,200 Yellowstone bison have been killed, according to the bison advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign.
The park’s winter carrying capacity for bison has been estimated at 5,500 to 7,500. The cost of shipping bison to slaughter and having the meat processed was estimated at $50,000 to $100,000 a year.
The bison that the park would round up, corral and ship to slaughter for distribution to Indian tribes is in addition to any that are killed by Montana and tribal hunters. So far this hunting season, almost 100 bison have been killed. Hunter success only recently increased in the Gardiner area, with 23 bison killed since Jan. 23. The majority of the bison taken near West Yellowstone — 58 — were killed by Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe members in the fall.
“It’s been really slow, but it’s picking up,” said Andrea Jones, information officer for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman. “The west side has had very little action for weeks. The bison are holding up on private property where there’s no hunting.”
Jones said Nez Perce tribal members may start hunting in greater numbers as more bison begin migrating out of the park.
Jim Stone, chairman of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, based in Rapid City, S.D., said his group is preparing to line up trailers, drivers and nearby slaughterhouses to process any Yellowstone bison that are captured and held at the park’s Stephens Creek corrals. The council is composed of 58 tribes in 19 states, 50 of which have their own tribal bison herds.
Although they’ll benefit from the park’s removal of bison with possibly thousands of pounds of meat being distributed, “the tribes have been opposed to a lot of what the park has done,” Stone said.
He said the group would prefer to see disease-free young bison quarantined —adding that he didn’t like that term — and then shipped to tribes with existing bison herds.
Such a shipment of 60 quarantined bison to the Fort Peck Tribe two years ago caused an uproar among surrounding ranchers and their legislators, despite the animals' disease-free status.
Ranchers in Eastern Montana are nervous that conservation groups may succeed in their push to restore bison to public lands on the prairie. Stone said tribes should not be lumped in with such groups.
“A couple of things you’ll never hear from us is ‘free-ranging bison,’” he said. “That’s a state issue, not a tribal issue. We’re realists when it comes to managing buffalo.”
Stone said his group supports giving Yellowstone bison more room to roam on public land outside the park where they could be killed by hunters, in keeping with tradition. He said only older bulls and cows should be selected for slaughter.
The current ship-to-slaughter process may be necessary and the meat will be appreciated by tribal members, but Stone said the procedure is not respectful to the animals.
“The problem isn’t with killing buffalo, it’s with indiscriminate killing of buffalo,” he said.