The Montana Environmental Quality Council (EQC) is recommending Native American tribes be allowed to hunt bison in Yellowstone National Park.
According to KRTV, the EQC voted 9-7 Wednesday afternoon to draft a letter to officials in Yellowstone, after hearing testimony in Gardiner and West Yellowstone on the hunts.
The decision would reverse over a century of precedent established under the 1894 Lacey Act, which prohibited “all hunting, or the killing or wounding, or capturing at any time of any bird or wild animal, except dangerous animals, when it is necessary to prevent them from destroying human life or inflicting an injury … within the limits of said park.”
The Act was written in response to rampant poaching of Yellowstone wildlife, especially bison, which were critically endangered, on the verge of extinction. From KRTV:
Four tribes – the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Nez Perce Tribe, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation – have asked for and received the right to hunt bison in the Yellowstone area, based on treaties they signed with the U.S. government. The tribes set their own regulations and determine how many animals they will take. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks leaders meet regularly with them to discuss the hunts and how best to manage the Yellowstone bison herds.
The hunts are limited to “open and unclaimed land.” In practice, that means National Forests and some other publicly-owned land, but it excludes Yellowstone National Park. Managers say it would require an act of Congress to allow hunting inside the park.
Rep. Theresa Manzella, a Republican from Hamilton, says opening Yellowstone to tribal hunts could reduce waste.
“When the animal is shot and then turns and goes back to the park to die, and they’re not allowed to retrieve it, that is just unnecessary waste,” she said.
But Democratic Sen. Mike Phillips of Bozeman said it was too early to make that kind of suggestion.
“Pushing the harvest in the park, that’s a great big issue that connects all of the citizens of the country,” he said. “I think it’s an overreach by EQC to send that kind of letter today.”
Some residents, especially in the Gardiner area, have raised concerns about tribal hunting. During Wednesday’s meeting, lawmakers brought up reports of hunters leaving behind gut piles, or taking elk instead of bison.
The tribal representatives who spoke acknowledged the issues and said they plan to make changes for this year’s hunts.
“Every year it’s adaptive management: what worked, what didn’t,” said John Harrison, a staff attorney for the CSKT. “Let’s do what worked again.”
Harrison says the CSKT is telling its hunters to disperse their gut piles this year. Quincy Ellenwood, chairman of the Nez Perce tribal subcommittee for natural resources, says his tribe asks their hunters to focus on bison, but that their treaty rights extend to other animals as well.
Captain Tom Wadsworth of the Shoshone-Bannock Fish and Game Department, calling bison “an American icon,” told EQC members the icon should get “the respect it deserves.”
Native American tribes across the West and in the Great Plains have hunted bison for millennia, although the practice was much diminished by the decimation of the bison population and the American Indian Wars of the 19th century.
This latest iteration of hunting, of course, is one of several management protocols the Interagency Bison Management Plan uses to cull bison from the Yellowstone herd, alongside more controversial practices such as herding the animals into the Stephen Creek trap.