Bison File

TOP: A herd of bison look up from grazing at Tower Junction on Jan. 5, 2019, in Yellowstone National Park. ABOVE: A herd of bison stampede toward Highway 212.

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Bison have largely stayed in Yellowstone National Park, meaning they’ve mostly avoided being captured by park officials or killed by hunters so far this winter.

There aren’t many bison, if any at all, outside of the park, said Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Most of the animals are staying within the park’s borders on the slopes above Gardiner. Around 210 animals were counted in the Gardiner Basin at this time in February last year.

Buffalo Field Campaign, a conservation group that wants to end the annual slaughter of bison, regularly tracks the herds’ movements in and around the park. The group reported on Feb. 5 that most of the bison were still staying within Yellowstone.

The animals migrate to lower elevations outside of the park annually in search of food. That’s when they’re able to be trapped at the park’s Stephens Creek Capture Facility and potentially killed by hunters if they cross over the park border.

The efforts are meant to help control population numbers inside Yellowstone National Park under a management plan designed to prevent the disease brucellosis from spreading from bison to livestock. There has not been a documented case of bison transmitting the disease to livestock in the wild.

In December, wildlife managers who are part of the Interagency Bison Management Plan recommended culling between 500 and 700 bison this winter. Officials estimated the park’s bison population at around 4,730 animals in October.

An additional 200 male bison could be captured or hunted later in the winter if the initial target numbers are met.

A few hunters have found success already this year. Hunters licensed through the state have had better success bagging Yellowstone bison this winter than last winter, and Montana’s bison hunt wraps up on Monday.

Jacobsen said reports thus far show state hunters have killed six bison to the north and 10 bison to the west of Yellowstone National Park.

The rates for state hunter success are the highest they’ve been since the winter of 2017 through 2018, when approximately 50 state tags were punched, according to interagency data.

Hunters from the state and tribes killed under 300 bison total last winter, according to data published last April. State hunters killed just four bison out of the total.

In the winter of 2018 through 2019, state hunters killed just one out of approximately 100 bison hunted total.

Preliminary reports show hunters from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have killed six bison to the west of the park this winter, Jacobsen said. He noted that FWP hasn’t yet solicited reports from other tribes, so the information on tribal hunting may not be accurate.

This winter, the state distributed 40 bison tags for a bison hunting district near West Yellowstone on the park’s western border. Another 40 tags were issued for a hunting district in the Gardiner Basin on the park’s northern border.

Five backcountry permits were doled out for a portion of the northern district in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Four of the six successful kills to the north of the park filled the backcountry tags.

As of Friday, Yellowstone officials had not begun rounding up bison at corrals near Gardiner.

Ashton Hooker, a park spokesperson, said there is no set date for when the work to trap bison will start, but it usually occurs in mid-February. Bison normally begin their annual migration into the Gardiner Basin around that time, she wrote.

Trapped bison are normally sent to slaughter or enrolled in a quarantine program, which allows them to join cultural herds on Native American lands. This year, no bison will be enrolled in quarantine because the park’s facilities are at capacity.

Montana legislators on Thursday heard testimony on a pair of bills that could decrease the number of disease-free bison sent to slaughter. House Bill 312, introduced by Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr., D-Browning, could clear barriers that prevent many bison from being quarantined in corrals at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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