Bison Slaughter, Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility

Processed wild bison calves are held in a pen before they are loaded on trailers and sent to slaughter at the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility Wednesday, March 1, in Yellowstone National Park.

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More than 1,200 Yellowstone bison have been killed so far this winter, according to the latest report from park officials, and the regular capture-for-slaughter operations are likely over.

Yellowstone National Park posted a report online Wednesday morning that said 748 bison had been consigned to slaughter this year and that another 453 had been killed by hunters from Native American tribes and the state of Montana.

That brings the total death toll past 1,200. Total hunt numbers may end up growing, because they rely on hunters reporting their take, but this season’s cull is the highest number since 2008 and near the removal goal bison managers set in the fall.

“We’re in the ballpark of what we set out to do this winter,” said Rick Wallen, a Yellowstone bison biologist.

Wallen said the park’s regular capture-for-slaughter operation has ended. He said the trap would only operate if needed to help prevent bison from migrating north of their tolerance zone, a situation that is only likely after a major weather event.

Bison are removed from the Yellowstone population each year because of a management plan that calls for a population of about 3,000 animals there. Prior to this year’s cull, park biologists estimated that about 5,500 bison lived there.

Officials wanted to remove as many as 1,400 bison from the population this winter. How many bison are killed depends largely on how harsh winter conditions are — if more migrate from the higher elevations in the park into the Gardiner basin, more get killed.

Wallen said that with the number culled this year, once the pregnant bison calve, the population will be reduced by about 350 bison.

“Our goal was to try and show that if we really need to implement a management action to reduce population abundance, we can do it through hunting and capture,” he said.

The park has also set aside 35 bull bison. Wallen said they would keep those in the Stephens Creek Capture Facility to study how long bison need to be quarantined before they can be deemed free of brucellosis, a disease that can cause animals to miscarry.

Another 24 bulls are still awaiting a trip to U.S. Department of Agriculture corrals near Corwin Springs. They were originally set aside to establish a quarantine program at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, but those plans were shelved because of a legal dispute between the park and the state. The state made an agreement with the USDA to move those 24 to Corwin Springs, but when they will be moved has not been made clear.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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