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After its largest cull in nearly a decade, Yellowstone National Park biologists documented a decline of the number of bison that roam in and out of the park.

Park spokesman Jonathan Shafer said in an email that biologists’ surveys in early August found roughly 4,800 bison live in the park, which is down from the 5,500 bison the park counted in 2016.

The count came months after more than 1,200 of the furry mammals were killed earlier this year, either through hunting or ship-to-slaughter operations.

Bison are removed from the population because of a management plan that calls for a population of 3,000. Population estimates have hovered around the 5,000 mark for a few years.

The population report is coming later this year than in previous years because counts weren’t completed until August. The final version is still being reviewed by top officials in the park. Shafer said the full report would be released in a few days.

The number the park counted this year became public when Montana’s state veterinarian Marty Zaluski offered it to the Montana Environmental Quality Council, a panel of legislators and citizens that met in Helena on Thursday.

“They are down from last year,” Zaluski said.

State, federal and tribal government agencies are involved in the management of bison. They are working now to line out how they will try to reduce the population this winter, which will again likely include both hunting and slaughter.

Hunters licensed through five tribal governments and the state of Montana took a total of 468 bison last year. Another 748 were slaughtered and distributed to Native American tribes through the Intertribal Buffalo Council.

Yellowstone is holding onto another group of bison for a potential quarantine — a way to certify bison as brucellosis free so they can be moved elsewhere.

In 2016, Yellowstone proposed establishing a quarantine at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, but legal and political barriers stalled that plan. The park is now working on upgrades to its bison trap so it can potentially quarantine bison there.

Controlling the number of bison in Yellowstone is largely driven by fears of the disease brucellosis, which can cause animals to abort. The livestock industry fears its potential spread to cattle. No case of bison transmitting the disease to cattle has been documented in the wild, though elk have transmitted the disease.

The Environmental Quality Council voted 10-6 on Thursday to ask Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to look into what it would take to eliminate the brucellosis risk from elk.

Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, proposed the study, which he said would put the focus on the right animal.

“We’ve gone out of our way to come up with ways of managing bison,” he said. “Let’s put the bull’s-eye where it belongs.”

Some Republicans opposed the move, including Kerry White, R-Bozeman. He said he thinks the move will be focused on eliminating livestock so wildlife can go into more places without posing a risk of brucellosis transmission.

“That’s moving in the direction of removing livestock from the landscape,” White said.

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Michael Wright can be reached at or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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