Bison Roam in Yellowstone National Park

The bison hunt in the Gardiner Basin is problematic due to cramped confines. The State of Montana does not allow bison to roam far outside of Yellowstone National Park, but a few new policies may change that.

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Gardiner resident Bonnie Lynn is bracing herself for another gut-wrenching bison hunt north of Yellowstone National Park.

The snows inside the park haven’t mounted high enough to prompt the bison to seek the lower ground near Gardiner and West Yellowstone. But once it does, Lynn, her neighbors and the tourists who rent her guest cabin along Beattie Gulch near the park border will be in the thick of the shooting and the bison entrails left behind by successful hunters.

Lynn had the peace and quiet of her get-away for several years but lost it two years ago when the bison hunt was reauthorized. Since hunters have to wait for the bison to leave the park, they wait for their chance in the open Forest Service land near Beattie Gulch and the bison don’t get much farther.

Lynn said the killing has affected her business and her peace of mind.

“This has been so tragic, and it’s way more than unsightly gut piles,” Lynn said. “This year, we anticipate it will be way more than 185 (bison) killed on 5 acres in front of our driveway. These animals should have a broader landscape and a safe and ethical hunt. I can understand the Native Americans’ desire to hunt, but this is not respectful of the animal.”

Some people have recently suggested ways to take the pressure off Beattie Gulch – move hunting farther inside or farther outside the park -- but both have legal hurdles.

But it’s possible that two imminent changes – one to bison management near West Yellowstone and the other to management of Yellowstone bison overall -- may lead to better possibilities in the future.


Four tribes – the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, and the Nez Perce, Umatilla and Shoshone-Bannock in Idaho -- have treaty rights to hunt Yellowstone bison. Montana hunters also get a limited number of tags.

With only two places to hunt - near Gardiner and West Yellowstone - hunters would like to stalk bison on a broader landscape.

“Coming from a ranching family, I can see it from both sides. I can understand some of the concerns that ranchers have,” said Kootenai wildlife manager Tom McDonald. “But what we really need to do is just allow bison to get out and express themselves on the landscape, and over time through our diligence, people can become accustomed to them on the landscape.”

But so far, ranchers’ concerns have constrained wandering bison to bulges of land near the park, creating problems with gut piles, over-grazing and ultimately population control.

As of this summer, about 4,900 bison lived inside the park. The northern herd, which migrates out near Gardiner during the winter, has 3,500, and the rest belong to the central herd, which trundles out near West Yellowstone.

That’s more than ranchers and the Montana Department of Livestock want.

So during recent Interagency Bison Management Plan meetings, DOL representatives pushed for the removal of as many as 1,000 bison through hunting or capture-and-slaughter this winter.

Last winter, about 650 animals were removed, half by hunters.

The IBMP partners reached a tentative compromise of 900 for this year.

But as of three weeks ago, the tribes were still trying to work that number down, worried that the cull would select against animals with migratory tendencies. Plus, a larger herd means more animals leave the park, providing more hunting opportunity.

State veterinarian Marty Zaluski opposed any drop in the number and dismissed hunting as a primary tool. He suggested the tribes would get more opportunity if tribes could hunt bison inside the park.

Although a few were interested, it would require an act of Congress, said Dave Hallac, Yellowstone Center for Resources director.

“These suggestions have come up informally several times over the past few years,” Hallac said. “Part of the reason for establishing the park was to protect animals from hunting. So hunting is not compatible with the existing laws.”

Park County Commissioner Marty Malone said he thinks those laws might not be as strong for parts of the park that poke farther into Montana.

Malone cites a 2005 paper by Lee Whittlesey that describes how the 7,600-acre area called the Cinnabar Triangle near Gardiner was added to the park after 1925 by executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt. The park was established in 1872.

“(The park) determined early on that elk needed forage – they weren’t worried about bison,” Malone said. “My theory is that it’s no different than Forest Service ground. As I read it, it was an executive order to purchase the property so it would just take an executive order to allow hunting. It would take the pressure off those homeowners.”

Hallac said he didn’t think it worked that way. But if that land were opened to hunting, it would just push bison back farther in to the park.

“The bison don’t like being shot at, and they run back in the park. Sometimes they run miles, and you would have to move the boundary again,” Hallac said. “I think people need to take a harder look at the problem we are trying to solve. The only reason we have to manage bison is because they aren’t treated as wildlife.”

Some of the bison that run back into the park now end up in the bison trap at Stevens Creek just inside the park and are shipped to slaughter.

McDonald said the CSKT tribal council voted to support the slaughter effort this year. But they also encourage transporting the animals across the park to augment the dwindling central herd.

Others suggest trucking bison to Cutler Meadows to spread the hunt to the north end of the Gardiner Basin.

The park has resisted such shipments so far because it would intervene in natural processes.

“If you’re going to intervene – round up bison at Stevens Creek – why don’t you haul them over and restore them into the upper Gallatin, much of which is inside the park?” said Gallatin Wildlife Association President Glenn Hockett. “And then there’s the opportunities outside the park.”


Those opportunities, both inside and outside the park, may expand in the near future.

After a year’s delay, more area around Hebgen Lake may open up to bison year-round.

The DOL and FWP conducted an environmental study of allowing bison onto almost 422,000 acres of National Forest land with no cattle in the upper Gallatin Basin.

The majority of almost 120,000 public comments submitted in September 2013 supported the proposal.

It stalled in May after the Board of Livestock refused to vote on the study, saying it would wait for a new Yellowstone bison management plan, which is only in initial development.

In response, Gov. Steve Bullock ordered FWP to develop a compromise option, Alternative G, which would base the size of the area bison could use on the population inside the park.

The comment period closed on Thursday, and the governor will probably decide within a few months.

Livestock producers regularly demand that park adhere to the old IBMP population objective of between 3,000 and 3,500 bison.

So Alternative G allows bison to roam the largest area of almost 256,000 acres of national forest if the population is below 3,500 but allows no change to current conditions when the population exceeds 4,500.

Bison advocates protest that the compromise forces the park to slaughter bison.

“It’s worse than no action. Alternative B, the proposed action, was already a compromise,” Hockett said.

CSKT hunters use the area west of the park more than the Gardiner basin, so they’d like to see more bison there. But McDonald said even Alternative G would be a win.

“I’m one of the ones who thinks the population should be larger. But (Former FWP supervisor) Pat Flowers told me from the get-go that you make progress by baby steps,” McDonald said.

Bart Melton of the National Parks Conservation Association said the NPCA questioned the conditions connecting acreage to population size.

“The reality is that only Yellowstone’s central herd would use those lands. So we’re saying attach the habitat only to the population of the central herd. There’s only 1,400 bison in that central herd and that’s pretty far below 3,500,” Melton said. “The larger question of the population as a whole – let’s address that in the new bison conservation plan.”


Anticipation of the new plan is already growing.

In March, Hallac proposed a new bison plan to account for all the changes that have occurred since 2000 when the first plan was developed, including greater tolerance and better information about brucellosis.

FWP Region 3 supervisor Sam Sheppard said the formal notice of intent would be published soon. Scoping meetings will follow before an environmental study is compiled.

Many have high hopes for the new plan but are worried at the loss of IBMP leadership.

Flowers retired this year, YNP supervisor Dan Wenk is temporarily working for a year for the National Park Foundation, and Hallac will be leaving Dec. 15 to be the superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Hallac said his staff has been involved all along so his departure would not delay the IBMP progress.

Many already know what they’d like to see.

Some hope the bison population objective will be modified, some want greater emphasis on brucellosis vaccination and eradication, while others, such as the NPCA, foresee greater freedom for bison as wildlife in Montana.

“The science tells us that separation between bison and cattle has worked. So let’s capitalize on that and use the habitat in Montana where there is zero chance of conflict occurring. Allow bison to be managed more like other wildlife species in Montana,” Melton said.

Hockett wants to promote the “Swiss-cheese” model where bison are allowed to roam as wildlife but are hazed to keep them out of holes or areas where livestock producers don’t want them. But he knows the DOL will resist that.

“We already have elk on the greater Yellowstone landscape that pose a larger brucellosis risk. To say bison are the brucellosis boogeyman, I think that argument has gone away,” Hockett said.

McDonald said the tribes have suggested manipulating habitat inside the park to redistribute the bison between the herds and leave the park at different times.

“That’s one of the things we push. Habitat has been manipulated for bison for thousands of years. Native peoples have used fire as a tool to direct where animals would be, specifically for harvesting,” McDonald said.

But Sheppard said any big change in the IBMP is still a few years out, so Lynn and her neighbors will have to endure a few more grisly winters.

“We’re looking to take what we’ve learned and use that as a new starting point for a conversation,” Sheppard said. “We haven’t gotten to scoping yet, but I’m anticipating a significant number of comments.”

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at or at 406-582-2638.

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