Northwest tribal representatives urged a small group of Montana legislators on Wednesday to allow bison more room to roam outside of Yellowstone National Park.
Instead the Environmental Quality Council voted by a narrow margin to draft a letter to Yellowstone National Park officials saying they support allowing tribal hunting inside the park.
“I think it’s a damn good thing,” said Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey. “Do I think we’ll get anything out of it? No.”
The decision prompted a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes legal representative to urge the council to note in the letter that the tribe has not asked to hunt in the park. Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, also wanted it noted in the letter that the council was divided on the issue.
The discussion arose during the first day of the EQC’s two-days of hearings on a variety of subjects, including plans for how Montana would manage Yellowstone bison that migrate out of the park this winter.
Last year the Park Service delayed its trapping of bison to allow more hunter opportunity to kill the big animals, which is more politically and socially acceptable. The Park Service traps the bison in part to test for the spread of the disease brucellosis but also to ship animals to slaughter to reduce the size of the herd which otherwise has few natural predators.
The Yellowstone bison population has grown to more than 5,000 animals. Montana would like the park to drop that number to 3,000, a desire outlined in a court-mediated agreement between the Department of the Interior and the state.
The delayed trapping and the coordination of hunts to try and give the bison time to move out of the park before they’re shot created a situation that proved “untenable” in the Beatty Gulch area where the huntable bison congregated, according to Sam Shepherd, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 3 supervisor.
So this year Yellowstone officials have agreed to start trapping bison immediately when the animals migrate out of the park in the Gardiner Basin. Some bison will not be rounded up to still allow for hunter opportunity, Shepherd added.
“We recognize that hunting is not the entire solution,” said Marty Zaluski, the state veterinarian. “We want to make sure we are proactive and not creating a crisis situation with larger numbers of bison coming out of the park.”
On the western side of the park, where bison migrate out near West Yellowstone, Montana last year expanded the tolerance zone for bison. That eliminated what had been an annual hazing of bison back into the park in the spring, which had been conducted by the Montana Department of Livestock and FWP to prevent bison from giving birth outside of Yellowstone. Birthing material is believed to be the main source of transmission of brucellosis, which ranchers fear may spread to cattle.
Shepherd called the new policy “a resounding success. They self-regulated back into the park without any cost to us,” he said. Past roundups included men on horseback, four-wheelers and sometimes the use of a helicopter, actions that gave Montana a black eye among bison supporters.
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Tribal representatives praised the increase tolerance to the western side of the park and asked that it be expanded to the Gardiner region.
“It would be good to watch them go out into their natural habitat,” said Tom Wadsworth, captain of enforcement for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes from Fort Hall, Idaho.
Quincy Ellenwood, of the Nez Perce Tribe, said that Gov. Steve Bullock’s expansion of the bison tolerance zone on the west side of Yellowstone National Park was “a really big step in history,” yet he added that it “has been overdue.”
Management of the Yellowstone bison has been a controversial issue for decades as the state, National Park Service, tribes and an alphabet soup of other agencies have tried to cooperate to reduce the steadily growing bison population.
Incrementally the situation has changed, allowing bison more room to roam outside the park. But many state Republican legislators have called on Yellowstone to take a larger role in managing the park’s animals.
A new bison management plan is being written that could add more options like establishing a disease free herd that could eventually be transported to other herds outside Yellowstone to provide genetic diversity and ease some of the slaughter. But even with that option the hunting and slaughter of bison would continue.
The tribal spokesmen tried to relate to the EQC that bison, to them, are more than just wildlife.
“That animal is the backbone of our community,” said Ron Trehan, of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “I’m here to be that voice for them.”
Trehan recommended that bison be managed by Montana like other wildlife, allowing them free range “within a suitable portion of their historical habitat.”
“Because of our subsistence lifestyle — we learned by living it for thousands of years — we had to learn how to survive,” said Darrell Shay of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes. “And one of the teachers were the buffalo clan.
“They are so important to humankind. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”