State, federal and tribal representatives tasked with managing bison in and around Yellowstone National Park voted again Tuesday to reduce the herd size as animals migrate out of the park this winter.
The interagency bison management team voted to remove 600-900 bison through hunting, quarantine and slaughter. Representatives and the public gathered in West Yellowstone for the team’s third and last meeting of the year.
Yellowstone National Park biologist Chris Geremia said currently there are nearly 5,000 bison, which is 60 percent higher than the interagency’s original goal two decades ago.
Geremia recommended hunting 200 to 300 bison and slaughtering another 400 to 600. These management tools are only used for bison that leave Yellowstone.
“Bison migration depends on the weather. It also depends on the bison population," Geremia said.
Last year, fewer bison left the park’s northern boundary due to a mild start to winter. Hunters and wildlife managers removed 460 animals even though the goal was twice that.
"We're trying to hit a fine balance," Geremia said.
Geremia said the group wants to maintain bisons’ natural role and movement on the landscape while also offering hunting opportunities.
"We’re also keeping the population at a level where they’re generally staying in the conservation area,” Geremia said.
The Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) team was created in the 1990s after the state of Montana sued Yellowstone National Park for allowing wild bison to leave park boundaries.
It was largely due to concern about a bacterial disease called brucellosis. It can spread between cattle, elk and bison if animals come into contact with infected afterbirth and causes pregnant animals to abort their fetuses.
There hasn’t been a confirmed case of bison spreading brucellosis to cattle, but wildlife officials say this is in large part due to management: hazing bison out of areas where cattle graze and keeping the herd size from getting too large.
Yellowstone biologist Geremia said 110 bison that are brucellosis-free could be captured this winter to go through the quarantine program, which isolates and regularly tests the animals for disease.
Of the dozen people who spoke during the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting, some said they supported the quarantine program and hoped it would expand.
“Good afternoon. My name’s Don Warner. I’m a private veterinary practitioner in Laurel. I work with both commercial and conservation herds, and I’m excited about the quarantine program, and I hope that we can continue to do this and give these animals a chance.”
This summer, 55 bull bison were sent to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for the final stage of quarantine. Some of them will join the herd there but most will be sent to other tribes, zoos and organizations.
Other people expressed frustration that the bison population is being suppressed.
James Holt is the executive director of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a non-profit advocacy group working to "stop the harrassment and slaughter of America's last wild buffalo."
“These buffalo are constantly referred to as Yellowstone National Park’s buffalo. There should be more, filling the Yellowstone Ecosystem, fulfilling its habitat and its homelands as it’s its right,” Holt said.
“If it’s OK for elk to spread the disease out there, why isn’t OK for bison not to be out there, too?" Mike Mease, another member of the Buffalo Field Campaign, asked.
“What I think we could easily do is open that lands up for all wildlife, and if we have a problem, we got 20,000 hunters that could go out and do damage control for any problematic bison,” Mease said.
This year, over 10,500 people applied for 85 tags, according to Greg Lemon with Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission Thursday will consider whether there should be any changes to hunting seasons and district boundaries in Montana, which will include bison. It’s part of a process that comes around every two years, and the public will have comment period.
Nathan Varley is the president of Bear Creek Council, a citizens group from Gardiner that has been working to make the annual bison hunt safer and more aesthetically pleasing for residents and visitors.
“We definitely want to see the tribes come here. We don’t mean to be a thorn in the side of tribal hunters by raising these safety issues,” Varley said.
Varley said he supports the interagency bison management team’s decision Tuesday to form a working group to consider a carcass removal program in areas where hunting is most concentrated. This could look like a temporary, modified dumpster where hunters could put bison remains to prevent conflicts with grizzly bears and appease nearby homeowners.
The agencies said they would need to figure out who would pay for the dumpster and the labor to transport it to a carcass composting site or landfill.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks will take the lead on the working group and start those discussions at the beginning of 2020.