Bison File Winter

A bison feeds on a grassy hillside in Yellowstone National Park.

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PRAY — Somewhere between 600 and 900 Yellowstone bison should be culled from the population this winter via hunting and slaughter, bison managers agreed Tuesday.

State, federal and tribal officials met at Chico Hot Springs yesterday to hash out plans for the winter management of the Yellowstone bison herd, and they agreed that the population should either decrease or remain stable.

Yellowstone National Park’s most recent estimate says there are 4,816 animals in the population. Park biologists provided data that indicated the removal of 600 would keep that number relatively stable while the removal of 900 would lead to a slight decrease.

Park officials also agreed to attempt to coordinate the operation of the Stephens Creek Capture Facility — the bison trap just inside Yellowstone’s northern border — with the hunts that take place on the edge of the park.

Bison are removed from the population each year because of an interagency agreement that calls for a population of about 3,000 and limits where the animals are allowed to roam in Montana.

Hunters from five Native American tribes and some licensed through the state of Montana take aim at the animals when they migrate out of the park each winter. At the same time, Yellowstone captures migrating bison for slaughter.

This winter’s recommendation looks conservative compared to last winter, when more than 1,200 were removed from the population. Most of those were shipped to slaughter.

As a result, the park says, the overall bison population dropped by roughly 12 percent. But the drop disproportionately affected one subset of the population, which some used as ammunition Tuesday to argue for a more conservative removal goal.

Biologists talk about the population in two groups — the northern herd, which migrates out of the park near Gardiner, and the central herd, which usually comes out near West Yellowstone. During surveys this summer, park staff counted nearly 4,000 bison in the northern herd, virtually no change from 2016. But they counted fewer than 850 in the central herd — a more than 40 percent decrease from 2016.

PJ White, a Yellowstone biologist, said that means the herds are intermingling and that members of the central herd are likely migrating out on the north side of the park, where 92 percent of the removals take place.

“The continued culling and even harvest in the north will continue to remove many central herd animals,” White said.

Carl Scheeler, with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservations, whose members hunt bison in Montana, said that finding should lead to a conservative removal goal so biologists can further study the impact of a decline in the central herd.

“We took a big bite last year,” Scheeler said. “In doing so, we found a secondary impact we weren’t expecting.”

Scheeler and others argued that the data should lead to limited use of the trap, which hunters worry will capture bison they could otherwise shoot. But others pushed back, saying hunting alone won’t reach the removal goal and that they don’t want to allow the population to grow.

“We could have a mild winter and not many bison (leaving the park),” said Mike Volesky, chief of operations for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “There’s some danger of not taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Talks between Yellowstone and the tribes will continue in the coming weeks on exact protocols for the operation of the trap. Park officials said Tuesday that they’d like to consistently have between 250 and 400 bison north of Mammoth Hot Springs, which they believe will provide enough bison for hunters and trapping.

Hunting safety near Gardiner has also been a concern in recent years, and four of the five tribal governments that send hunters there have forged an agreement meant to address it.

Jeremy Wolf, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said the plan includes a limit on the number of hunters allowed there at one time, but he didn’t offer any further detail.

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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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