MISSOULA — Federal, tribal and state officials tentatively agreed Wednesday to cull between 600 and 900 bison from the Yellowstone population this winter, and there is room in the park’s brucellosis quarantine program for just under 100 of those animals.
Culled bison will either get shot by hunters as herds leave Yellowstone National Park to find food or they will be rounded up. Most of the captured animals will be sent to slaughter, but about 80 can be entered into the park’s quarantine program, which is in the midst of an expansion.
Up to 200 more bison could be captured or hunted in late winter if initial target numbers are met and conditions warrant more removals, officials from agencies involved in bison management decided at a meeting here Wednesday. They debated and wordsmithed for hours before agreeing to set the 200 animal cap.
Officials agreed upon the provisional culling numbers Wednesday, but the operations plan for managing bison through this winter has yet to be signed. Scott Bischke, the meeting’s facilitator, said the deadline for partners to sign the plan is December 31. It could be tweaked by that time, he said.
Officials recommended removals be focused near the northern boundary of the park where animals in Yellowstone’s central and northern herds intermix. Any extra harvests are meant to address population gains over the past two years.
The park’s most recent counts show that Yellowstone’s bison numbers are up, sitting at around 5,450 animals. The counts are about on par with 2016, a year when populations were particularly high, according to Yellowstone National Park biologist Chris Geremia.
Last year, no bison were trapped at the park’s corrals at the Stephens Creek Capture Facility outside of Gardiner because the animals’ annual migration lagged. Migration out of the park is influenced by multiple factors, but wildlife managers said cycling between low and high temperatures likely delayed it last winter.
Interagency officials recommended culling between 500 and 700 animals last winter, but managers fell short of that goal by about 200 animals, said Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
Park experts anticipate that removing 600 to 900 bison from the population over the winter will cause the population to stabilize or decline slightly at about 4,300 to 4,700 animals, according to a status report from the park. After calving, staff anticipate that number will increase to between 5,200 and 5,700 animals.
Partners who set the culling recommendations come from a variety of federal, tribal and state government agencies. They manage bison under the Interagency Bison Management Plan. First established in 2000, the plan aims to conserve the world’s last free-roaming bison herd and prevent the animals from transmitting brucellosis to livestock.
Bison aren’t tolerated much outside of the park’s boundaries in Montana because of the risks that the disease brucellosis poses to cattle. To keep populations steady in the park, some members of the park’s herds get removed every year through hunting, slaughter and a quarantine program.
There has never been a documented transmission of brucellosis from bison to livestock in the wild. Elk have spread the disease to livestock.
Wednesday’s culling recommendations were announced as Yellowstone National Park works on expanding its Bison Conservation and Transfer Program — a concerted effort by the park, tribes, nonprofits and other partners to divert disease-free bison from slaughter.
Animals that are enrolled in the program enter a quarantine process where they are held in pens and tested repeatedly over a multi-year period. Those that continue to test negative get transferred to a quarantine facility on the Fort Peck Reservation, where a final phase of assurance testing occurs. Then the animals can be shipped to select tribes’ cultural herds.
An expansion of quarantine facilities will increase the program’s capacity significantly, diverting more bison away from slaughter, park staff say. The InterTribal Buffalo Council is a major partner in the project, and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Yellowstone Forever raised a combined $500,000 to expand quarantine facilities this year. Construction is already underway.
Striking the right balance between expanding the quarantine program and preserving Tribal bison hunting opportunities was a major discussion point at Wednesday’s meeting.
Quincy Ellenwood, representing the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, raised concerns that expanding the quarantine program might put more red tape on hunting opportunities for tribes and he wished there was more consultation with tribes in the approval process.
Ervin Carlson, president of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, said using quarantine as an alternative to slaughter preserves the genetics of Yellowstone bison, which is critical for cultural herds across the country.
“As the (bison) population gets a little bit bigger every year, I can’t help but think about how much the population of cattle increased,” Ellenwood said. “I understand that you are looking out for a way of life, but that way of life radically changed my way of life …. Sixty million (bison) once roamed freely in North America.”