Bison leaving Yellowstone National Park looking for something to eat are shot in record numbers at the Montana border
HELENA, Montana––With unusually heavy snow driving bison out of Yellowstone National Park into Montana in record numbers, and bison being killed in record numbers too for following their ancient migration route from the Rocky Mountains into the northern Great Plains, bison were not surprisingly the chief topic of discussion during the February 22, 2023 session of the Montana state legislature.
At issue, however, was only whether the legislature should pass a bill seeking to allocate 13 of the maximum of 85 bison hunting licenses issued each year to people who own or are contracting to purchase 20 or more acres near Yellowstone.
Bison rubbing on houses are not the issue
The bill, HB 522, was introduced by Republican state representative Marty Malone, of Pray, Montana, sixty-five miles north of Yellowstone.
HB 522, said Malone, “gives landowner preference to those folks who have to tolerate these animals on their property, rubbing against their houses.”
Yellowstone bison are not known to have ever scratched their shaggy behinds on anyone’s house anywhere near Pray.
But even if some bison might have at some point rubbed off their winter coats against someone’s house somewhere, this would be far from the crux of the bison issue.
Record numbers of bison descend into Montana
The big problem, Yellowstone National Park biologist Chris Geremia explained to KZBK reporter John Sherer back on February 16, 2023, is that the numbers of bison descending from the Yellowstone highlands into the Gallatin Valley northwest of the park have overwhelmed the tensely negotiated Interagency Bison Management plan that for fifteen years or more has held the annual bison massacre at the Montana border below the numbers that tend to provoke public outrage.
“This year we, the National Park Service, did not set a removal target,” Geremia told Sherer. “But, we are going to manage the migration.
“We’re just going to have to see how the rest of this winter plays out,” Geremia said, “but I would anticipate a steady increase in the numbers of animals coming down here until the middle of March.”
Carrying capacity nearly twice previous estimates
Geremia estimates that Yellowstone National Park might have a maximum bison carrying capacity of as many as 11,000 bison, nearly twice as many as the 6,000 believed to have occupied Yellowstone in 2022.
However, historically, when the Yellowstone bison population tops about 4,000, some spill out of the park to the northwest each winter, descending along the Gallatin River. The more bison are in the park, the more spill out.
In pre-settlement times, bison summering around Lake Yellowstone followed the Gallatin River across Montana to the upper Missouri River, then fanned out across the northern Great Plains, from southern Alberta down into Wyoming and Colorado, where they mingled with other migrating herds wandering north from as far as Texas.
These days, Gallatin County is the second most populated county in Montana, and Montana as a whole is not hospitable to bison.
Explained George Wuerthner for Wildlife News on February 3, 2023, “Bison have been killed near the park border for nearly 30 years, a policy implemented to preclude the transmission of brucellosis, a disease that can cause abortion in cattle. Ranchers selling cattle from “surveillance zones” must test their animals for the presence of the disease before shipment. And though there is a brucellosis vaccine, it is not 100% effective.
“The National Park Service has participated in this disgraceful butchery through a capture and slaughter program, which it admits is done to meet the ‘specific interests of the livestock industry,’” Wuerthner objected.
Elaborated Scherer of KZBK, from Bozeman, Montana, “To keep bison from posing a problem outside the park, state hunters and tribal hunters harvest [kill] the animals. Then about 250 brucellosis-free bison are captured and are intensely tested for two years before being transferred to tribal nations to establish more bison populations.
“Butchering our national treasure”
“Once given to the Assiniboine and Sioux at the Fort Peck reservation,” Scherer detailed, “the bison are kept confined and tested for another year before the animals are released. In order to get those 250 disease-free bison for the tribes, about 500 must be captured. The bison not sent to tribal nations are sent to slaughter. The meat and hides go to Native American tribes.”
“As I write,” fumed Wuerthner in an essay entitled Travesty of Tribal Slaughter of Yellowstone Bison, “sources I trust estimate that at least 700 of America’s magnificent national animal, the bison, have been slaughtered near Gardiner, Montana by tribal members. These people are butchering our national treasure in the name of cultural preservation.”
Wuerthner mentioned having recently seen “thousands of bison congregating in the lower elevations near Gardiner. Unfortunately, almost as soon as they step over the invisible line that marks the park boundary, they run into the lead wall (bullets) of tribal hunters.
“Many tribal members are uncomfortable with the spectacle of their people shooting bison from trucks, or surrounding herds and cutting them down,” Wuerthner acknowledged.
“But they are also unwilling to risk censure within their tribes by openly criticizing the slaughter of Yellowstone bison,” Wuerthner continued.
“Conservation groups culpable”
“The worst part about this senseless bloodbath,” Wuerthner assessed, “is the culpability of so-called conservation groups. Some organizations like Buffalo Field Campaign actively support the tribal killing of bison—indeed, they use the term ‘harvest’ to characterize this bison holocaust.
“Buffalo Field Campaign correctly identifies that the livestock industry as ultimately the biggest problem for bison restoration,” Wuerthner said. “However, this should not obscure the fact that the unnecessary destruction of Yellowstone animals by Native American shooters harms bison restoration and genetics.
“I used to be a big supporter of Buffalo Field Campaign,” Wuerthner admitted, “but once they put human desires ahead of the preservation and sanctity of wild bison, I left the group. I encourage others to do the same.
“Silence in the face of carnage”
“Other groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club, and National Parks and Conservation Association, among others, implicitly give their approval through their silence in the face of the carnage,” Wuerthner charged.
“All of these groups now put human desires and tribal interests ahead of the survival of bison, evolutionary processes, and ecosystem health, to the detriment of the bison and the survival of wildness.”
The National Park Service, Wuerthner allowed, is acting “in response to orders from the very top of the agency to comply with the wishes of Montana politicians. Park rangers and biologists involved in the capture and slaughter express dismay and opposition to the program.”
“No one has to shoot bison”
Yellowstone National Park superintendent Cam Sholly recently “announced that the National Park Service is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement that will cease the capture and slaughter program,” Wuerthner said.
Meanwhile, Wuerthner recalled, “Tribal hunting of bison began in 2012 with the support of state and federal agencies, who viewed it as a ‘management tool.’ But the tribal kill is totally a volunteer decision. No one has to shoot bison. There is no gun held to the head of tribal members.
“The so-called hunt has never undergone any National Environmental Review Analysis, even though it occurs on federal lands,” Wuerthner said, going to mention that “No matter who is removing bison from the Yellowstone ecosystem landscape, as conservationist Phil Knight asserts, ‘the loss of tens of thousands of pounds of biomass’ is in effect ‘stripmining the ecosystem of food’ that would support numerous other species from magpie to grizzlies.”
Observed Wuerthner, “We do not kill wolves, grizzlies, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, or any other wildlife simply because they leave the park sanctuary. Only bison are treated this way, and the cruel fact is that some of them are being exterminated by tribal people who claim that bison are their ‘brothers.’”
The bottom line, Wuerthner concluded, is that “Ranchers oppose the bison movement outside Yellowstone mainly because of forage competition. Bison eat essentially the same plants as cattle. Therefore, if bison herds were to get established on public lands outside of the park, ranchers believe the public would demand that bison get the majority of forage now consumed by their cows. I think they are correct.”
Buffalo Field Campaign agrees
Despite Wuerthner’s criticism of Buffalo Field Campaign, Buffalo Field Campaign expressed much the same perspective in a February 21, 2023 email to members, supporters, and media.
“With record numbers of wild bison outside the park this season, due to the relative inaccessibility of forage under deep snows and hard crusts in much of Yellowstone’s higher elevations,” Buffalo Field Campaign began, “the Park Service and the tribes now appear to be doing the Montana Department of Livestock’s bidding. In spite of previous agreements by all managing partners to maintain a ‘stable-to-slightly-decreasing population’ of wild Yellowstone bison, near-record removals of bison are occurring.
“The total removals [of bison] this winter have already exceeded 1,000,” Buffalo Field Campaign said, “ thanks to the Park Service leaving the Montana Departments of Livestock and Fish, Wildlife & Parks in charge of bison outside Park boundaries.”
“Havoc with herd dynamics”
Buffalo Field Campaign executive director James Holt and wildlife biologist Jackson Doyel observed that the killing this winter “is wreaking havoc with herd dynamics.”
Explained Doyel, “The majority of bison migrating from the park this year are adult females and their young. Looking at the total number of buffalo removed in the Park Service report, the ratio of female to male is roughly 10 to 7.” Doyel pointed out.
“Males already outnumber females by a large degree due to past agency removals,” Doyel said, “making these winter kill numbers weigh even more heavily on reproduction.”
If the intent of the Interagency Bison Management Plan is to “manage for a stable to slightly decreasing population,” for bulls to outnumber cows makes sense.
24% of Yellowstone bison herd already killed
“But due to over-kill by all the partners, under the direction of the state,” Buffalo Field Campaign charged, “calving this spring will no longer be enough to stabilize the population as intended.”
As of February 17, 2023, 1,424 bison had already been removed from the Yellowstone ecosystem, Buffalo Field Campaign enumerated, citing National Park Service figures.
“That 24% removal from the population to date,” Buffalo Field Campaign said, “with hunting ongoing, is right in line with Montana’s wishes.”
Added Buffalo Field Campaign coordinator Mike Mease, “We can’t forget about the number of naturally caused winter kills. That will also be large, due to extreme weather. Many pregnant mothers carrying next year’s generation will not make it to term.”
“Concerns of safety & ethics”
While debate rages on about how many bison Yellowstone National Park should have, and whether landowners far from the park should be awarded a preferential quota for shooting any bison who might venture far enough to scratch their butts on houses, “Concerns of safety and ethics have been raised by landowners and homeowners that live in the Beattie Gulch area near Gardiner,” Jane McDonald of KZBK reported.
Explained McDonald, “Beattie Gulch is a piece of land nestled between Yellowstone National Park, residential homes and property, and public roads,” where “a mixture of multiple tribes as well as Montana hunters” gather each year to shoot bison.
Two members of Yellowstone Voices, described by McDonald as, “an organization aimed to preserve and protect the wildlife in and around Yellowstone National Park,” complained to McDonald about alleged reckless shooting around their homes.
“There’s been days that I come out of this house and they’re shooting right there, and I’ve been scared—I’m frightened,” Sandy Monville said.
“There’s no fair chase with habituated animals, and certainly this is not safe, nor is it ethical,” Yellowstone Voices board member Bonnie Lynn told McDonald.