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Carrying on: Yellowstone's bison winter season continues as usual despite efforts to change it

Yellowstone National Park, Bison File

A herd of bison graze in Yellowstone National Park on March 25, 2021. (Rachel Leathe/Chronicle)

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GARDINER — Nathan St. Goddard hauled a pronghorn to the back of his pickup here last month. He had made the long trek from Browning to Gardiner for a shot at a wild bison near the border of Yellowstone National Park.

He’s a member of the Blackfeet Nation — one of seven tribes that exercise treaty rights to hunt outside Yellowstone. It was his second or third year hunting for bison near Yellowstone. In past years, St. Goddard made jerky with the meat from his bison harvest and sent it to family for Christmas. He hoped to do the same in 2021, but he was also happy to get a pronghorn, which was legal under his tribe’s regulations.

St. Goddard was one of many tribal hunters in the area that day. They cruised a road by the Yellowstone River, but no bison appeared. Down the road from St. Goddard, bald eagles and crows swirled around bison carcasses. Gut piles were strewn about the sagebrush.

The carcasses are concentrated at Beattie Gulch, a small section of federal land that Gardiner residents call the “killing field.” It’s where tribal and state-licensed hunters gather to shoot bison funneling out of Yellowstone National Park, where hunting is not allowed.

Many Gardiner residents think the hunt in Beattie Gulch is unsafe and unethical, but it continues each year as wildlife managers work to control bison numbers.

Wild bison aren’t tolerated in most of Montana because of the threat of brucellosis, a disease that can cause abortion in livestock or birth of weak offspring. Around half of Yellowstone bison have been exposed to brucellosis, but it’s never been transmitted from bison to livestock in the wild.

Despite efforts to change the way Yellowstone bison are managed — some expanded tolerance zones in Montana and a new quarantine program diverting bison from slaughter — not much has changed since 2000, according to some Gardiner residents. Many are hopeful attitudes will shift, but there is still stiff opposition from Montana’s livestock industry.

Yellowstone National Park, Bison File

A small herd of bison graze in Yellowstone National Park on March 25, 2021.

The migration

Bison migrate outside of Yellowstone’s borders when food becomes scarce in the winter. Some are typically trapped inside the park and set aside for brucellosis quarantine or shipped to slaughter, though none were trapped this winter. The bison that walk out of the park can become the target of hunters either near West Yellowstone or at the park’s northern boundary outside of Gardiner.

Many animals moving north pass through a natural bottleneck at Beattie Gulch, on the west side of the Yellowstone River, where they become easy targets for hunters stationed around the gulch’s mouth.

At least seven tribes exercise rights to hunt bison in Montana, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Blackfeet Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

Hunting seasons vary from tribe to tribe. While the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ bison season finished at the end of January this winter, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ season goes year-round. Most tribes’ seasons ended by March 31 this year.

The annual migration’s timing also varies and often doesn’t align with the state’s early bison hunting season, which ran from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15 this winter.

This year’s migration likely lagged because of cycling between low and high temperatures, according to Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Many of the animals stuck to the slopes around Gardiner in the park until late February.

Tom McDonald, the wildlife division manager for the CSKT, said the bison migration’s timing has slowly shifted over time. It’s likely starting later due to climate change, wildfire impacts on the park’s habitat and changing dynamics between the park’s herds, he said.

Bison activity outside the park this year increased at the end of February. A large herd gathered near the Roosevelt Arch at the boundary of the park near Gardiner. A handful of bison were seen beyond Yellowstone’s northern border. Some were taken by tribal hunters.

Later in March, large groups of bison filled Gardiner Basin, and tribal hunter harvests increased. Though a few more animals were harvested, activity slowed around the end of March, Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen estimated that 169 bison had been killed by tribal hunters by Friday. He said some 39 had been taken west of the park, and another 130 were harvested north of the park this season.

Tallies of harvests by hunters from the Blackfeet Nation, Nez Perce Tribe and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation are still being finalized, according to Jacobsen. No data on bison harvest has been reported by the Crow Nation or Northern Arapaho Tribe, he said.

Observers with the Buffalo Field Campaign, a nonprofit that seeks to stop harassment and slaughter of Yellowstone bison, wrote that 77 bison had been taken around Gardiner for treaty hunts during the winter season.

Yellowstone National Park, Bison File

A small herd of bison graze in Yellowstone National Park on March 25, 2021.

Seeking Tolerance

Gardiner resident Sabina Strauss has a clear view of the bison hunt from her home in the hills above State Highway 89. It’s distressing waking up to the sound of gunshots and watching large groups of animals drop dead, she said.

Several years ago, a group of bison surprised Strauss by visiting her property. After they left, she sent the animals’ manure to friends. Members of Buffalo Field Campaign used it for their West Yellowstone gardens.

“It was fun to do an event that was happy and positive because there’s always so much negative connotation with the bison hunt and brucellosis issues,” Strauss said.

Letting bison roam on a larger landscape could help to alleviate some of those negative connotations, she said. But tolerance of bison on private land requires a change of perspective.

Nathan Varley has long advocated for wild and free-roaming bison. He has 40 years of experience conducting wildlife tours in Yellowstone National Park. He’s also the chair of Bear Creek Council — the Gardiner chapter of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

“Unfortunately, the way it’s happening now, when bison die, they die as a whole herd, not as individuals,” Varley said.

Ideally, more tolerance zones for bison — designated space for the animals to roam — would open up. This might prevent the animals from being killed as soon as they leave the park, he said.

Varley believes that at some point bison could stop migrating into Gardiner in response to pressure from hunters. The animals are already adapting by staying on windswept slopes in the park longer than they had in past years, he said.

The Beattie Gulch hunt has long been controversial, but so has bison management as a whole.

Bison Slaughter, Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility

In this 2017 file photo, National Park Service workers move bison into a hydraulic chute at the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility in Yellowstone National Park.

The Plan

Many Indigenous people relied on bison for food, shelter, tools, clothes and other needs before European settlers colonized North America. Commercial hunting in the late 19th century drove the species to near extinction.

By 1884, the population of animals that once numbered 60 million across the continent dropped to around 300 in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Only 25 bison were left in Yellowstone.

Recovery efforts were underway by the early 1900s and bison numbers in the park steadily grew. The population reached 3,000 in 1990, and herds began migrating out of the park in larger numbers.

In 1995, Montana officials sued the National Park Service for allowing bison to roam into the state, citing concerns over potential transmission of brucellosis to cattle. Five years later, the Interagency Bison Management Plan was established to guide management of the animals.

The document establishes responsibility for various state, federal and tribal agencies. Partners want to conserve the world’s last free-roaming, genetically-pure bison herd and prevent transmission of brucellosis from bison to livestock. The agencies meet three times a year to discuss operations.

Montana’s livestock industry fears free-roaming bison could cost the state its Brucellosis Class Free status. The loss could force testing of livestock exported from anywhere in the state, which could cost the industry millions.

Bison are allowed in some parts of Montana outside the park, but because the animals aren’t tolerated on a larger landscape wildlife managers agree to cull a certain number of animals each year to keep populations steady in the park.

Culled bison are either killed by hunters as they migrate out of Yellowstone or trapped at the Stephens Creek Capture Facility near Gardiner. Most animals at the facility are shipped to slaughter and the meat and hides are distributed to various tribes.

Officials agreed to cull between 500 and 700 bison this winter to get numbers closer to their goal. The Stephens Creek trapping facility didn’t run this year, meaning hunting was the only way bison were culled this season.

Some bison can be enrolled in Yellowstone’s Bison Conservation Transfer Program. Animals in the program are held in pens at Corwin Springs and rigorously tested for brucellosis over a one- to three-year period.

Once an animal is certified brucellosis free, it can be shipped to a quarantine facility on the Fort Peck Reservation. There, trapped bison complete a final phase of testing before being transferred to other tribes’ cultural herds.

Tim Reid, Yellowstone’s bison program manager, said the park’s quarantine facilities are full this year. There are plans in the works to expand quarantine capacity in the park, but for now the park’s capacity is maxed.

Yellowstone Forever — the park’s official nonprofit partner — and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition are each trying to raise $250,000 to build new quarantine pens. The park will pay another $500,000, the Billings Gazette first reported.

According to Yellowstone Forever, “75% of bison eligible to be placed in the quarantine program are sent to slaughter due to lack of space.” The group thinks the expansion of quarantine facilities will reduce the ratio of slaughtered animals to 35%.

Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility, Gardiner Bison Trap

The Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility near Gardiner is shown in this file photo.

Limiting Slaughter

Legislation to save more brucellosis-free bison from slaughter emerged in the 2021 Montana Legislature but stalled. Meanwhile, a bill that would make bison relocation more difficult continues to advance toward the governor’s desk.

The quarantine facility at the Fort Peck Reservation could hold more animals — it’s still operating at around 20% capacity because bison can’t be transported to to tribal land until they are certified as disease free.

Lifting some bison transfer requirements was proposed in House Bills 311 and 312, sponsored by Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr., D-Browning. The bills could have directed more bison to quarantine on tribal land and away from slaughter.

But lobbyists representing the livestock industry argued at a hearing on the bills that Yellowstone bison should be kept in corrals closer to the park. That lowers the risk of brucellosis transmission, they said. Fort Peck is in northeastern Montana.

Both of Weatherwax’s bills were tabled on Feb. 23 by the House Agriculture Committee.

Montana senators are instead considering a bill that could make bison relocation more difficult. House Bill 302, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, would give county commissioners authority to veto decisions to relocate wild bison in any county, even when bison have been certified as brucellosis-free.

Lobbyists from the livestock industry and some county commissioners said at a recent hearing that the bill will help protect livestock from exposure to brucellosis.

Ervin Carlson, director of the Blackfeet Buffalo Program and president of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, said he worries counties might interfere in the transport of wild buffalo to tribal land.

“If a county tried to prevent a buffalo transfer to a tribe, it would be inviting costly litigation both for the county and the state,” he said.

The bill passed the House earlier in March and was approved in a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Yellowstone National Park, Bison File

A herd of bison graze in Yellowstone National Park on March 25, 2021.

Building bridges

At a camp off Highway 89 near Gardiner, Katie Sorensen is trying to build bridges.

She spends her days processing bison parts. Pots filled with bison meat bubbled at the camp on March 9. Party balloons made from animal bladders were strung around it.

Sorensen, a brain tanner by trade, finds uses for parts that are often discarded, like pelvises and spines. She learned everything she knows about processing bison from tribal hunters.

Her work is all part of the Buffalo Bridge Project — a primitive skills community that offers support to tribal hunters. Group members provide game-processing expertise and extra hands, lending assistance when needed.

Sorensen emphasized that she continues to learn from tribal members and that they don’t necessarily need help. It’s important to her that the Buffalo Bridge Project remain politically neutral on most bison management issues. The goal is to bring people together.

Varley, who has long advocated for free-roaming bison, said Buffalo Bridge has values that should go along with a bison hunt. When his friend drew a Montana SuperTag several years ago, she used the tag to go on a backcountry bison hunt, he said.

Varley’s friend ended up shooting a 13-year-old bull and calling on friends to help carry it out. Packing the animal out took a full day of back-breaking hiking. More than a dozen people assisted, and the work was completed two hours after dark.

To Varley, it was an example of what a bison hunt could be — a community effort that’s something people can celebrate. He hopes attitudes can shift in that direction and away from political division.

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