Federal, state and tribal officials have agreed to kill as many as 600 to 900 Yellowstone National Park bison this year.
The Park’s bison population has held steady at about 5,000 for the past couple of years. That’s about 2,000 more than what a multi-agency bison management plan called for when it was adopted in the year 2000.
Stephanie Seay of the bison advocacy organization Buffalo Field Campaign characterizes this year’s culling plan as a big problem.
"We think the culling plan is horrible. We’re dealing with an ecologically extinct native wildlife species. There is zero reason for any culling whatsoever."
The bison will be killed using two methods: public and tribal hunting outside the park, and capturing some animals inside the park boundary. Those captured bison will then be transferred to Native American tribes where their meat and hides will be processed and distributed.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk says the long term goal is to manage the bison as any other wildlife, but adds that’s not possible right now.
"Doing this is difficult, but we do it because it’s the current agreement that we have with the states and we will continue to do it and we will continue to manage with respect for the agreements that we have until those change."
The park captures bison and Montana allows them to be hunted when they wander outside the park because of Brucellosis. It can cause disease in humans and the livestock industry fears bison will infect cattle. Critics point out there's never been a documented case of Brucellosis transmission in the wild between bison and domestic cattle.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Regional Supervisor Sam Sheppard says public and tribal hunting is always the preferred wildlife population management tool, but …
“Sometimes that not enough. There’s only so many (bison) that, successfully, we’ve been able, over the last couple of years, to harvest via hunting. So, while we’re managing at that number (the current bison population) right now, it’s not necessarily for that number.”
Sheppard says some bison management partners initially hoped to cull more than 900 bison this winter.
"And there was some thoughtful discussion and differences of opinion on what that number should be. Instead of going back and forth and negotiating down to a specific number, we all agreed that we were going to manage for a decreasing population and allow the flexibility to see how it goes with the hunt – see what the out-migration is – and take those necessary steps to do that."
Yellowstone superintendent Wenk points out this year’s planned bison cull isn’t necessarily a fait-accompli.
"This is dependent on bison moving to the lower elevations and the boundary of Yellowstone and outside the park. There is no hunting within Yellowstone National Park, so in order for the public hunt and the tribal hunts to be successful, there has to be enough of a winter so that bison will move outside of the park."
Yellowstone had a mild winter last year, when over 700 bison were culled from the herd. Bison that are captured in the park this year can also be transported to the tribes to be culled. But the number of bison captured inside the park is weather-dependent, too. If it’s a mild winter, not many of the animals may migrate to lower elevations where they could be captured.
Buffalo Field Campaign’s Stephanie Seay says none of it is warranted.
"They’re catering to livestock interests and that what this is all about. Elk have been implicated in transmitting Brucellosis numerous times and they’re free to roam. Bison are being singled out because of competition with cattle for grass and that’s what this has always been about."
Governor Steve Bullock recently proposed a plan to allow bison to roam outside Yellowstone’s western boundary, but that plan hasn’t yet been finalized. The park’s largest herd lives along Yellowstone’s northern boundary, where they’re more likely to be captured. Hunting and capturing will start no earlier than February 15 and end no later than March 31.