Bison wandering out of Yellowstone National Park en route to historic wintering grounds this November will likely face an old adversary: civilian hunters.
While government sharpshooters have been dropping the shaggy beasts for years as directed by the monumental Interagency Bison Management Plan, meat and headhunters have been banned from the practice since 1991, when public opposition moved the state Legislature to end the hunt.
But in an environmental assessment (EA) released last Monday, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ (FWP) “preferred alternative” calls for 25 bison-hunting permits to be issued this fall—though the final number could range from one to 225—with the season running from November 15 through February 15.
When last implemented in the 1980s, bison hunting drew international outrage and calls to boycott both the park and gateway communities. Since then, Yellowstone bison populations have grown to more than 4,000 animals, an increase of about 1,000. Every year, bison leave the high Yellowstone Plateau for lower elevations where foraging is easier. In most cases, the trek takes the bison outside the invisible but protected boundaries of America’s first national park, and into zones deemed bison-free by the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL). This state agency then “hazes” the undulates back into the park or, under certain conditions, sends them to slaughter.
Although every other species of Montana wildlife is managed by FWP, a high level of brucellosis infection in the park’s herd troubles livestock interests, since cattle can lose their firstborn if exposed to the bacteria. The cattle industry has pushed for bison entering Montana to be defined not as wildlife, but as a nebulous “species in need of disease management,” which is therefore regulated by the DOL.
Were a bison-to-cattle brucellosis transmission to happen—it never has, since spatial and temporal barriers are soundly established to prevent it—Montana could lose its “brucellosis-free” certification, and many of the state’s beef customers in the process.
But establishing a hunt could also hurt Montana’s image. Historically, critics complained that bison don’t move when approached by humans, especially in deep snow, and that former bison hunts failed to meet the “fair chase” criteria. In past hunts, government agents would escort hunters to specific animals, activists videotaped the kills, and the practice drew immediate outrage from around the world.
FWP Wildlife Manager Kurt Alt says the current hunting proposal would differ from past hunts by not aiming to serve as population control—that job remains the responsibility of the current management plan—and that the tolerant animals would soon learn to be wary of humans. But a spokesman for the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) disagrees.
“There’s no indication that buffalo are going to exhibit behavior where they’ll be afraid of humans upon sight, smell, or being approached,” says Josh Osher, a BFC organizer who along with other volunteers monitors bison leaving the park year-round, from before dawn to after sunset. “When we witness DOL agents and others approach the buffalo, usually on snowmobile or ATV at rapid speed, the buffalo stay put until the agents are within a few feet, when they start to hoot and holler. Then, as the buffalo turn to run, they need to continue to pursue them because the buffalo only move 10 or 15 feet. They’re not particularly scared, they’re just trying to get away from this nuisance.”
These strategies, and the bison’s responses, are well documented. But fear of losing the state’s brucellosis-free status has kept bison priorities well below those of cattle, prevented a Montana-based reintroduction plan from gaining traction, and served as the impetus for the current haze, capture or kill scenarios. Alt says that getting hunters invested in the species is the only way to break out of this rut, and the only way to preserve the species of American bison outside of a national park.
“If you can get the sportsmen interests to show up—and the world is run by people who show up—you can generate public support and interest and you can move forward with programs,” says the 27-year FWP veteran. “[Sportsmen] have funded so much of the conservation and restoration effort, they’ve provided the political will and they’ve provided the ownership that’s generated the money to implement all that. We need them at the table.”
But Osher believes that a Montana hunt is premature.
“The concept of having a hunt of a species of animal that not only is not a resident of the state of Montana, but is certainly not a recovered wildlife species here, is flawed,” he says. “[When] wild buffalo are recovered in Montana, then you can develop a management plan that may or may not include hunting.”
This is impossible, says Alt. Montana already has the available terrain to reintroduce bison elsewhere, but polarization caused by the brucellosis issue prevents the necessary momentum to make it happen.
“It’s become this huge livestock versus wildlife issue only because a whole bunch of us haven’t figured out a way to look at what’s really at stake, and what’s really at stake is a species called bison,” he says. To change this, Alt is working on a plan that will, over the next three to five years, test and remove 50 of Yellowstone’s “clean” and certifiably disease-free bison calves as part of the state’s first attempt to establish a brucellosis-free herd elsewhere. Although 13 wild bison herds exist in North America, most other herds contain percentages of cattle genes and are “unclean,” or technically hybrid undulates.
“What will we do?” asks Alt. “There’s lots of options, but we need the Montana sportsmen public to generate the level of ownership in bison that has never been generated [so] we can look at possibly restoring bison in places where it’s appropriate.”
The recently released EA does not address the logistics, costs or benefits of this attempt to reintroduce wild herds to carefully selected locations in Montana. Instead it defines these and other issues as outside the scope of the document, which is focused on hunting in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, pushing FWP’s “preferred alternative” and mentioning only once in its 80-plus pages that “MFWP would support establishment of additional wild bison herds.”
This indicates an inadequate document, says the BFC’s Osher, who calls the EA “biased” and “disingenuous.”
“Every issue that involves killing Yellowstone buffalo has required and deserves an environmental impact statement,” he says. Instead, “[t]here is no consideration of the future of buffalo in this document.”
Interested parties can view and comment on the proposal before July 9 by logging on to www.fwp.state.mt.us, or by calling the Region 3 headquarters at (406) 994-4042.