Groups take out Helena billboard, criticize bison hunt near Yellowstone National Park

Park superintendent: Number of bison sent to slaughter hits a low, and officials can’t control what happens outside YNP borders

By: - March 8, 2023 6:11 pm

A billboard put up in Helena that opposes the slaughter of bison from Yellowstone National Park (Photo courtesy of Alliance for the Wild Rockies).

Two environmental groups are calling on officials to stop the slaughter and hunting of bison that wander outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, taking their message to lawmakers with a billboard showing hunters killing the animals at point-blank range.

The billboard in Helena, put up by Roam Free Nation and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, criticizes Yellowstone National Park and state leaders for allowing bison to be killed without the principle of fair chase.

The bison and their population are managed through an interagency agreement that has been in place since 2002. The agreement, in effect for more than 20 years, dictates a target population of 3,000 bison.

However, the bison population has swollen to more than 6,000 bison recently, and more than 1,600 have been removed by several methods, but not all of them have been slaughtered or hunted, park officials said.

When the bison, which roam freely, move outside of the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park or outside of a few designated zones outside of the park, they can be killed either through hunting, managed by Native American tribes with treaty rights, or managed by state wildlife officials.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said this winter has been especially difficult for the bison population, which has migrated north out of the park and into Montana, seeking food. He said that many times, the bison are able to forage for food within the boundaries of the park, but icy, cold and snowy weather has forced the herds to move.

Sholly also points to a huge number of animals being diverted from slaughter recently, in an effort to lower those numbers in order to put the animals into a conservation management program.

Yellowstone National Park has recently set up a historic protocol that allows a regimented quarantine protocol for both bison bulls and cows to prove they’re free from brucellosis and other diseases, and then given to a program that gives the animals to tribes that are starting their own bison programs. Animals in that program are quarantined for as long as three years before they’re released.

Roam Free Nation and Alliance for the Wild Rockies have criticized a firing-line style hunt where bison are shot when they roam outside of the boundaries.

“The so-called ‘hunt’ is just another tool to achieve what livestock interests want – to keep wild bison out of Montana,” the organizations said jointly in a press release.

Sholly said what happens to the bison that wander out of the park or several other special zones is up to the states and tribes.

Nearly 1,000 animals have been removed from the bison population this year, but Sholly said that number includes 375 that have been removed and held to stop them from roaming outside of the park, where they can be vulnerable to hunting.  Sholly said the intent is to release them back into the park in later spring.

“I appreciate the concern and advocacy of these organizations,” Sholly told the Daily Montanan. “It’s a social and a political issue, but we’re restrained to our zone.”

The number of bison taken this season, though, remains much higher than average. In 2016, 486 bison were killed. This year, the number has risen to more than 900.

“This year, we’ve seen a substantial number of hunters exercising their treaty rights,” Sholly said.

The Interagency Bison Management Plan consists of park officials, the State of Montana and tribal nations, which vary in their opinions on how many bison should be taken in any given season.

Reporting through the interagency website estimates that 9% of the bison are predicted to die due to the harsh winter. The agencies said the bison could withstand from 12% to 25% reduction to keep the herd stable and genetically diverse.

Sholly also pushed back on the criticism of sending animals to slaughter, noting the park has spent more than $1 million recently expanding its quarantine facility that will help prepare bison for export to tribes. However, that process can take as long as three years per animal because it has to be ruled disease free repeatedly.

“Fundamentally, I have a major issue with sending bison to slaughter,” Sholly said.

From 2013 to 2019, more than 3,100 bison were sent to slaughter. Since then, the number has fallen to less than 100 per year, Sholly said.

However, Sholly said that tribal treaty rights and the State of Montana can choose what happens to bison after they leave the park, and that includes allowing them to be hunted in whatever ways are deemed legal.

“Yellowstone does not control or manage hunting outside the park,” he said. “The truth is that the population has to be managed whether people like it or not. And there is a disease aspect to it.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.