More than a thousand wild American buffalo, or bison, have been killed this year in the annual cull of animals from Yellowstone Park—hundreds of them needlessly, after a deal failed to spare some by shipping them to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
Fort Peck has had a bison herd from Yellowstone that dates back to 2012. The tribe also has a quarantine facility designed to hold 300 to 600 buffalo. But because the facility is just 320 acres, program head Robert Magnan has been told it can’t feed that many animals, an assertion he refutes.
“Yes we can,” he said. “We’re feeding them supplemental hay. They’re not grazing on the grass. It’s like a big feed lot.”
The proposal was part of an Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), an initiative involving five agencies and three tribal groups: the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes. Their goals include maintaining a wild population of buffalo, reducing risk that buffalo might transfer brucellosis to cattle, and managing buffalo that leave Yellowstone and wander onto private land, which they do during winter in search of food.
Another IBMP program is to work with the Fort Peck Reservation in a quarantine program that would test animals over time so they could eventually be sent to other public, private or tribal lands, thus reducing the need to kill animals leaving the park. Fort Peck was only scheduled to receive 25 bison from Yellowstone this past winter. They were all bulls, and one has since died. Magnan said the holdup fell somewhere between Yellowstone, the Department of Livestock and the governor of Montana’s office, but precisely what the problem was, he didn’t know.
One thing that is agreed upon: Yellowstone National Park now has more bison than it can support. The American buffalo population within the park nearly disappeared at one point, dropping to two dozen by 1902. The park has worked to bring this number back to earlier levels, and populations have increased by 10 percent to 17 percent each year. The population is now about 5,500 animals, well over the goal of 3,000. Further expansion could eventually cause overgrazing and mass starvation, so population control is clearly needed.
Hunting within Yellowstone is not allowed. On the flip side, ranchers near the park are opposed to buffalo moving onto their property during winter months, when weather pushes animals from the park in search of food. They fear infection of their livestock by brucellosis, which causes cows to miscarry—even though there is zero evidence that this has ever been transmitted by bison. Other wildlife moves outside the park in winter, including elk, which may also carry brucellosis. However, ranchers only voice concerns that about bison brucellosis transmission, ignoring the more real possibility of contamination by elk. That’s where the Department of Livestock comes into play in this mix between state, park and Indian reservations.
The Montana legislature bans moving buffalo to other areas due to the brucellosis concern. One of the few alternatives is to allow some hunting outside park boundaries. Hunting is administered by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
“The State has its own licensed hunt, and several Native American tribes have asserted treaty rights to hunt in the same area,” said Andrea Jones, I&E Manager for the Department.
Five tribes are involved, each with its own regulations, she said.
“The state has a drawing for permits, and we draw 85 permits for an either-sex hunt,” Jones said. “These hunters can hunt on Forest Service lands or private property with permission of the owners. Native American hunters can only hunt on open and unclaimed lands.”
The Nez Perce, Salish/Kootenai, Shoshone/Bannock, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and most recently the Yakima Nation are all eligible to participate. This year Montana hunters took 65 bison, Nez Perce hunters harvested 78, Salish/Kootenai harvested 181, Shoshone/Bannock took 22, Umatilla took another 81, and the Yakima added 13, for a total of 440, according to Jones.
Another 748 animals were captured and shipped to slaughterhouses where the tribes could pick them up, for a total of 1,188 killed, said Yellowstone spokesperson Morgan Warthin. The goal was to remove 1,200–1,300 in total. This does not sit well with tribes.
"We're asking that the governor reconsider his thinking,” said Magnan. "I figure it will take a couple more years, going back to the legislature and re-campaigning. I've been fighting this for eight years. I'm not going to give up."
The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council remains frustrated by the lack of progress in negotiating with Montana for the release of bison to tribal lands, and may discuss the matter at its planned April 6 meeting.
“We have been steadily working on the transfer of buffalo from YNP to Ft. Peck for quarantine, but so far have been unsuccessful,” the council said in its newsletter earlier this year. “This lack of progress on behalf of the Park on this issue and the corresponding fights with APHIS and the State of Montana will most certainly carry onto the MT Legislative season in 2017. It is getting to the point where ITBC has to really take a strong look at the relationship we have with YNP and whether it is being proactive for meeting the tribal wants or is becoming an impediment and causing more conflict than is necessary.”