As many as 360 migrating wild bison would be shot by hunters in Montana, captured for slaughter or shipped elsewhere this winter under a proposal from Yellowstone National Park officials seeking an alternative to the indiscriminate slaughters of years past.
The proposal comes amid rising pressure from Montana officials including Gov. Brian Schweitzer to rein in the size of Yellowstone’s iconic bison herds. Others say the animals should roam freely — although cattle ranchers worry that could bring unwanted competition for grazing space and spread the animal disease brucellosis.
Park biologists wrote in the proposal that reducing the population could avoid the need for the large-scale slaughters — more than 1,700 were killed or removed in 2008 — seen during past migrations. In harsh winters, bison leave the park in large numbers seeking food at lower elevations in Montana.
State officials said hunting was their top choice for population control. However, Schweitzer said in an interview that for the strategy to work, the park must open its borders to hunting inside portions of Yellowstone where bison often congregate in winter. Past hunts yielded few bison during mild winters when the animals did not cross out of the park.
“These things have to have some give and take. The buffalo doesn’t know there the line is when it leaves the park,” said the Democratic governor. “We end up taking care of the oversupply of bison because they aren’t managing their population within the park.”
More than 3,600 Yellowstone bison were removed over the last decade to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis. That included the 2008 number, when Yellowstone’s temporary bison capture pens were overwhelmed and many animals went to slaughter without being tested for brucellosis. The disease can cause pregnant animals to miscarry and has been eradicated nationwide except in the Yellowstone region.
Tens of millions of bison once roamed North America. Only about 20,000 wild bison remain and Yellowstone’s are considered among the most genetically pure.
A representative of northeast Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation said slaughtering those prized bison does not make sense when tribes have been trying for several years to get Yellowstone bison to start new herds outside the park. “If they want to give them to the tribes they wouldn’t have this problem,” said Fort Peck Fish and Game Warden Robert Magnum.
Park officials predict this winter’s migration will top 1,000 bison from the park’s two herds — potentially offering an early test of the culling proposal if it garners approval from other state and federal agencies.