Yellowstone National Park's bison population has dropped significantly since last summer, in large part due to the capture of more than 900 animals, most of which were shipped to slaughterhouses. Park officials say the latest count shows roughly 3,500 bison, which is down from a high of 4,900 counted late last summer but still above the goal of 3,000.
Yellowstone's bison culling program is designed not around the park's carrying capacity for bison, but rather to protect Montana's brucellosis-free status. Sadly, most of the 939 bison captured under guidelines established by the Interagency Bison Management Plan were not tested for brucellosis, so it's hard to say how many of those animals posed a threat to Montana's cattle industry.
Brucellosis is a disease that can cause cattle to abort their unborn fetuses. Interestingly, the disease was introduced to wild bison and elk from cattle.
Efforts to keep the bison from heading north into Montana this winter generated quite a bit of negative publicity for the park and Montana. Two bison drowned during a hazing operation intended to drive a band of the animals back into the park, and the fact that hundreds of bison were shipped off to slaughter was not well-received.
Opponents of the management plan continue to criticize the way officials are dealing with the issue. Josh Osher, a representative of the Buffalo Field Campaign, told The Associated Press that the goal of culling Yellowstone's bison herd to 3,000 animals is based on politics, not science.
Of course, if the park achieves its population goal, how will officials deal with bison that still head north of Yellowstone's border in search of forage?
Earlier this winter the Greater Yellowstone Coalition proposed a solution to the annual problem, although it remains to be seen whether officials will take the group up on it.