Bison management group discusses deadly winter for Yellowstone bison, plans for next season
Many of the federal, state, and tribal representatives of the Interagency Bison Management Plan described this winter’s hunt of Yellowstone National Park bison – the deadliest winter for the herds in 15 years – as a success, and the biannual meeting showed there is still some disagreement when it comes to management of the animals.
The group met for its meeting Wednesday about 10 miles north of Gardiner and Beattie Gulch, where hundreds of bison were shot and killed this winter, primarily by tribal hunters, as they moved out of Yellowstone National Park looking for food during one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent years.
“It was the hardest winter in over a decade,” said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.
At the meeting, the group was initially told that 1,186 bison were killed in tribal and state hunts, and 1,223 bison total were lost due to hunting or other reasons, which drew some gasps from members of the public in attendance.
But before the meeting had ended, Chris Geremia, the senior bison biologist at the park, told the Daily Montanan that new data showed there were 1,551 lost this winter from the Yellowstone herds – most of which died just north of the park’s boundaries. A Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson did not return messages seeking confirmation of that number on Thursday.
To start the winter, there were just more than an estimated 6,000 bison in the Yellowstone population after a 27% increase since 2020 – mostly in the northern herd that includes around 4,400 bison –because of warmer and less snowy winters the past two years.
A status report from last September last year showed the National Park Service recommended capping the removal this winter at 1,500 through hunting, quarantines and transfers to tribes. The same report, written by Geremia, recommended removing 800 bison this past winter to “stabilize the population and cease current exponential growth.” At last fall’s meeting, there was disagreement about whether around 800 or 1,100 bison should be removed.
The IBMP, formed in 2002, has a goal of maintaining a wild and free-ranging bison population in the park, which recent estimates showed could hold 5,000 bison in the northern area of the park and 10,000 across it.
Last September’s report said that removing more than 25% of the population was “not recommended due to unintended consequences on population conservation, reducing tribal hunting opportunities, and reducing future transfers of live bison to tribes.”
For 10 years, the IBMP has aimed to maintain a population around 5,100 bison after starting with a target population of 3,000 in 2002, the report said.
After only 50 bison were removed during the 2021-22 winter, including 13 that were harvested outside of the park boundaries, several environmental groups balked at this year’s hunting and removal numbers as they skyrocketed from February into April.
Roam Free Nation and Alliance for the Wild Rockies took out billboards across Montana calling the hunt, which includes eight sovereign tribal nations who have hunting rights under treaties as well as the state of Montana, a “slaughter” and saying the “firing line” of hunters in Beattie Gulch did not abide by fair-chase practices.
The park did capture 1,213 bison this winter that it prevented from leaving the boundary, park officials said, and released 837 of them back into the park in April. Another 282 were quarantined for the Bison Conservation and Transfer Program that sends the animals to tribal lands once they are proven free of brucellosis, a disease the bison can spread to cattle.
The group determined at its meeting last fall it wanted to move away from slaughter and focus on transferring more of the bison to tribal lands.
Another 88 were sent to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for a program to feed tribal families, which were slaughtered. Another 200 remain at the Stephens Creek holding facility, park rangers said.
IBMP members – including representatives from Yellowstone National Park; the InterTribal Buffalo Council; the Montana Department of Livestock; Fish, Wildlife and Parks; CSKT; the Nez Perce Tribe; Custer Gallatin National Forest; and U.S. Department of Agriculture – largely said Wednesday they were happy with the harvest and saw few issues with hunter infractions.
Among the descriptions of the hunt were “a banner year,” one that “went well” and saw few issues. The tribes that have treaty hunting rights have different seasons, some longer than others, and different ideologies regarding the hunting and preservation of bison.
The Nez Perce Tribe harvested 417 bison this winter, which Natural Resource Chairman Quincy Ellenwood said showed respect to the ancestors and benefitted the tribe. But a representative for the Crow tribe said members harvested 36 bison, adding that the tribe would “rather have them live than dead.”
Montana hunters took 75 bison this winter, according to FWP. The department works with hunters outside of the park to ensure they are following state law and helps move the animals when needed. An officer said at Wednesday’s meeting there were only “slight impacts” to law violations, public safety and property issues.
“It went well considering there was such a large migration,” said FWP’s Adam Pankratz.
But during public comment, outfitters, environmentalists, people who live in Beattie Gulch, and others told the IBMP officials they felt the number of bison killed and the manner in which they were taken was disrespectful. Some believe the bison should be listed under the Endangered Species Act,
In the northern zone, mid-April data showed 340 adult females had been killed along with 243 calves and 142 bison of an unknown sex and age. Many of the females were pregnant and set to deliver calves later in the spring, several people said, which they worried would constrain efforts to bolster genetic diversity among the bison.
“This hunt was a killing frenzy. There was no restraint. There were so many babies and gut piles,” said Stephany Seay with Roam Free Nation, who also wrote opinion articles this winter about the hunt published by the Daily Montanan. “I walked Beattie Gulch and it was just littered with babies and gut piles. There shouldn’t be anything left up there. There shouldn’t be any need for a cleanup of gut piles. And that we’re even having these discussions is a testament to how wrong this hunt is.”
Others said the number of bison taken, combined with the winter kill, could put the bison population down below where it has been during the past several years. Several also lamented the small area the bison have to roam outside of the park and suggested expanding tolerance zones and accounting for the fetuses of pregnant females.
U.S. Forest Service officials said that one thing the group could have been better prepared for was the carcass cleanup that followed the hunt. A slide the USFS presented at the meeting showed it cleaned up and hauled off 53,000 pounds of carcasses in two days in late February and early March.
While none of the partners were assigned to coordinate the cleanup, USFS officials said the partners were able to communicate and get the work done. But that conversation also showed some of the hurdles the group faces as it tries to come up with a plan for next winter that each partner can agree on.
Not all of the members signed off on the operations plans the past two years because the group could not find a consensus on things including the number of animals that would be allowed to be taken. Much of the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting was about whether the group could craft a plan that would get signed by all involved and what should go in that plan versus the adaptive management plans.
Most of the partners said despite not having a fully agreed upon plan, the tribes, state and federal agencies worked well together to coordinate the bison removal through hazing, capture, or hunting. Most of the tribes reported few hunting violations and said FWP and the Department of Livestock had been helpful ensuring tribal hunters were following the rules and boundaries.
Department of Livestock Executive Director Mike Honeycutt, whose department is this year’s lead partner, said statutory constrictions and regulations meant the partners would all have to cooperate with one another to ensure each obligation is being met by the right partner.
Sholly, the Yellowstone superintendent, said, for instance, that once the bison leave the park boundaries, they are out of the National Park Service’s hands and the state of Montana and the tribal hunters have to regulate the bison removal from there. In a year in which most bison left the park, he said there was little the park could do beyond holding some of them inside the park so they were not subject to the hunt.
The group agreed that the partners would build a plan to work collaboratively by identifying their specific roles and requests, perhaps with a separate section for each partner’s role and time allowed for the tribes to take their pieces through their respective tribal councils. They also hope to have biweekly or weekly calls among the tribes that hunt the area to be sure they are all on the same page.
The partners agreed to work on what the plans look like, and questions about other tribes hoping to hunt the area, during the coming months and to better communicate their wishes ahead of the next season. The National Park Service is also working on an Environmental Impact Statement for its Bison Management Plan that could be released this fall, officials said.
The group is also hoping for new timelines on quarantines for bison so they can be transferred to tribes more quickly and updated plans surrounding captures, transfers, releases and harvests that they will discuss ahead of the fall meeting, which is scheduled for Oct. 31 at Chico Hot Springs.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to reflect that Stephany Seay is with Roam Free Nation. An earlier version of this story had her organization affiliation incorrect.