Bison slaughter is expected to continue for the next few winters according to Yellowstone National Park superintendent Dan Wenk.
Indeed, a proposed overhaul of the Interagency Bison Management Plan would likely not be complete by winter of 2017-18.
Although Wenk has said he’d prefer slaughter phased out in favor of hunting, he says the slaughters are expected to continue as members of the IBMP formulate the plan’s next steps. Wenk added the current population of 4,900 bison necessitates slaughter going ahead no matter what.
“Under current population numbers, we will have to capture and ship bison to slaughter,” Wenk told the Associated Press. “That’s just the world we’re living in today. It might not be the world we’re living in three years from now.”
The end of 2015, leading into 2016, saw some important changes in the IBMP’s administration and circumstances. We previously reported on what bison management would look like in winter 2015-16, which included a provision to shorten the trapping season. Most prominently, Montana Governor Steve Bullock came out in favor of expanding bison territory into parts of Montana north and west of the Park, although that policy has not gone into effect yet. In 2011, Bullock’s predecessor Brian Schweitzer previously allowed bison to roam around the Gardiner region during the winter, as bison migrated to lower elevations for food.
Another important wrinkle in the IBMP saga: people are (somewhat begrudgingly) coming around to the fact that bison pose much less risk of transmitting brucellosis to cattle than previously thought. Nonetheless, brucellosis standards continue to dictate (in part) bison management in the Park.
Bison slaughter, since its inception, has always courted controversy, and Wenk’s announcement will no doubt stoke it. But he’s not alone in his assessment. From AP via the Daily Journal:
Yellowstone’s bison herds numbered just a few dozen animals in the early 1900s. They recovered dramatically over the past century, and today the park has some of the only genetically pure bison left in the world.
Yet that conservation success in recent years has become overshadowed by the slaughters used to control bison numbers, Montana State University wildlife researcher Robert Garrott said. Sporting groups, wildlife advocates, members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office have criticized state and park officials for not coming up with alternatives, but Garrott said they have few viable options.
“It’s a numbers game: How many can we accommodate?” Garrott said. “The source population every year will produce 6 to 10 percent (more bison) that will need a new home. … Despite the fact that bison are an iconic symbol of the United States and North America once had 30 to 60 million of them, our society has said there is no place we’re willing to accept them.”
From here, assuming state and federal agencies don’t turn back to the old policies, there are several ways Yellowstone bison management could go in the future. As it stands, since approximately half the herd carries brucellosis, they can’t be transported outside the Park—except to designated slaughter facilities.
However, a change in law may mean “surplus” Yellowstone bison could be relocated to other parts of the U.S. (particularly the American West). IBMP managers have tried several times to vaccinate Yellowstone bison against brucellosis, with little or no broad success.
Overall, Superintendent Wenk is optimistic, telling AP: “Progress is being made on behalf of the bison … It’s not a short-term process.”