New Details Emerge Regarding Bison Plan This Winter

New details have emerged regarding the hunting, slaughter, and/or removal of bison under the Interagency Bison Management Plan this year.

After various reps called for 1,000 bison to be culled in November 2015, IBMP partners walked back that estimate and agreed to not agree on a definite count. However, according to Yellowstone National Park spokespersons Amy Bartlett and Sandy Snell-Dobert, IBMP agencies are hoping to remove around 600 to 900 bison this winter. The intent is to manage bison via hunting as well as capturing them near the park boundary and sending them along to Native American tribes who traditionally hunted bison for their meat and hides. From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

The 2000 Interagency Bison Management Plan set a population goal of 3,000 animals, a goal that hasn’t been met. The population is now close to 5,000.

Each winter for the last few years, the agencies have negotiated the number of bison they plan to remove from the population through hunting or sending them away for slaughter or research. Often, they have fallen short of the goal. In 2015, 737 bison were removed, well short of the year’s goal of 900.

In November, the partner agencies agreed to scrap the specific number and instead focus solely on ensuring bison numbers decrease.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor Sam Sheppard said the partners disagreed on what the target number should be, with some calling for as many as 1,000 and some calling for as few as 600.

“What we could all live with,” Sheppard said, “was this concept of agreeing to manage for a decreasing population.”

One interesting thing to note: this plan does not include Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s call to let bison roam in select parts of Montana north and west of the Park. According to the Chronicle, IBMP agencies are expected to meet in April to look over Bullock’s plan. Bullock’s plan drew criticism from the Montana Farmers Union, but there’s no indication IBMP agencies explicitly disagree with the governor’s intentions. From a Yellowstone press release:

“Many people are uncomfortable with the practice of culling bison, including the National Park Service,” said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk. “The park would gladly reduce the frequency and magnitude of these operations if migrating bison had access to more habitat outside the park or there was a way to transfer live bison elsewhere.”

Currently, it is against state and federal laws to move any wild bison exposed to brucellosis anywhere except to approved meat processing or research facilities. The park is currently studying the feasibility of developing quarantine facilities for bison, which would allow animals that repeatedly test negative for brucellosis to be sent alive to other public, private, or tribal lands for conservation, hunting, or food production.

Nonetheless, this year’s operations plan is expected to differ in minor (but important) ways from plans past. This year, the Stephens Creek bison trap won’t begin operations until after February 15, a move sought by tribal hunters hoping to extend their season; trapping is expected to end March 31. In addition, hunting will be limited in the Gardiner basin west of Yellowstone River to every other week—perhaps a nod to Bullock’s proposed bison plan.

However, U.S. Forest Service ranger (in the Gardiner district) Walt Allen told the Chronicle curtailing the hunt was more to prevent bison being concentrated in one district. According to Allen, getting bison spread out would help prevent traffic jams and ensure fewer gut piles are left to putrefy near residences. He called the hunting limitations “a positive baby step.”

It remains to be seen how long the IBMP endures in its current state. The plan was born out of a 1995 lawsuit brought against the National Park Service by the state of Montana, out of concern for property and fear that migrating bison would spread brucellosis to cattle. In the interim, however, it’s become more and more apparent that the IBMP is based off old standards and old conceptions of the danger posed by bison with regards to brucellosis transmission. This year could be a turning point in the IBMP’s history, especially if Bullock’s call to expand permitted bison range goes through.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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