Are We Nearing The Day When Yellowstone National Park Allows A Bison Hunt Inside Its Boundaries?

Montana's governor has suggested that a bison hunt be held inside Yellowstone National Park to reduce their numbers and the threat of brucellosis. NPT file photo.

How far removed are we from the day when bison are hunted inside Yellowstone National Park to better manage their numbers? Montana's governor thinks that's a reasonable solution to prevent the spread of brucellosis from park bison to Montana cattle.

While news reports Tuesday had Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk telling Gov. Brian Schweitzer a bison hunt in the park was not a feasible solution to the issue, other national parks use hunting to manage their ungulate species, which begs the question of how long the Park Service can stay away from that solution at Yellowstone?

This winter marked the first time that Theodore Roosevelt National Park resorted to a managed cull to reduce the park's elk herds, Rocky Mountain National Park has used sharpshooters to reduce its elk population for a number of years, and Valley Forge National Historical Park is turning to sharpshooters to reduce burgeoning populations of whitetail deer. So it really wouldn't be setting a precedent to have the Park Service oversee a bison hunt in Yellowstone to bring down its bison numbers.

But how would that play with the public? Yellowstone is the world's first national park, and bison are highly photogenic, iconic animals that are profiled on both the Interior Department and Park Service logos. How appropriate would it be to gun them down in, for example, the Hayden Valley, or in the Lamar River Valley?

Driving this issue is that some bison carry brucellosis, a disease that can cause livestock to abort their fetuses. While there never has been a documented case in the wild of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle, Montana officials are overly cautious, as losing their state's current "brucellosis free" tag could lead to expensive testing of cattle herds before they're shipped to market.

That such a hunt is even suggested by Montana's governor shows how tenuous the combined state and federal efforts to manage brucellosis the past 11 years has been. While the partners behind the Interagency Bison Management Plan were to have been working toward a solution to dealing with Yellowstone bison and brucellosis, efforts have not exactly been successful.

Hazing operations often are a frequent occurrence in winter when bison want to migrate north out of Yellowstone and into the Paradise Valley and their traditional winter habitat, and in the spring when they don't return quickly enough to the park from habitat just west of the park. Beyond that, this winter more than 500 bison have been corralled and fed by the park rather than allowed to roam free beyond Yellowstone's borders.

On Tuesday park officials said that their Stephens Creek holding area had nearly 550 bison -- more than one-seventh of the park's estimated 3,500, normally free-roaming, bison -- on 10 acres, and 25 others this week were sent to "the Brogan Bison Facility in Corwin Springs, Montana, where they will be held for release back into the park in the spring."

While Yellowstone officials this winter had planned to send any bison that tested positive for brucellosis to slaughter, Gov. Schweitzer blocked that plan, saying he didn't want to risk spreading the disease. All this has left the agencies behind the Interagency Bison Management Plan still searching for a solution for managing Yellowstone's bison, one that, so far, has not led to a hunt inside the park.


It's not about brucellosis. If it were about brucellosis, we'd hear complaints about elk. If it were about brucellosis, there are all sorts of solutions we could implement right now.

Bison are symbols of wildness. That's why they're on the NPS and Interior logos. That's a powerful negative symbol for some people who think of themselves as carving civilization out of the wilderness.

Bison behavior reinforces that symbolism. They eat the grass that cattle could eat. They knock down fences and trample things that pioneers have built. As any tourist can verify, bison also do whatever they darned well please. They'll sit in the middle of a road and block traffic if that's what they want to do.

That's very threatening to a certain mentality.

I'm not adverse to a Native American hunt in Yellowstone under the rights of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. As Kurt notes, there are precedents for culls and hunts in the Lower 48. There are even more precedents, which he didn't mention, in Alaska.

But that doesn't address the real issue: the symbolic meaning of bison in the West.

I don't think "culling" of bison at Yellowstone is comparable to culling of elk at Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt is trying to reduce the population of elk in the park, while Yellowstone is trying to prevent bison from migrating. It can't be done. You can't "train" bison to not follow the migration routes they've followed for generations.

Yellowstone should withdraw from the IBMP, and if Montana is so concerned about bison entering the state, let Montana Game Fish and Parks stand at the border and shoot all the bison leaving the park. Let Montana do the culling and the shipping to slaughter. See how long that lasts.

Kill them inside the park or outside the park~what a choice! That does not solve the problem of them crossing outside of the park's boundaries in the winter looking for food. It will not stop the abuse of hazing. These wild migratory animals need a migratory corridor. The agencies involved need to look at the new information concerning brucellosis and make a logical decision that protects this herd.

Symbolic meaning should not be what drives our conservation ethics. There is a wonderful piece in a recent Audubon Magazine called "Saddle Sores" about the impact non-native feral horses are having on the ecosystems in the western US. They are devastating, and yet those who hold up horses as symbolic are standing in the way of reasonable efforts to reduce the impact these horses are having. So the symbolic nature of bison should also not stand in the way of long-term good solutions to big problems.

Bob has a very interesting idea: Allow hunts by Native Americans.

Just think of the possibilities! A re-creation of scenes from "Dances With Wolves" in Hayden Valley on a late summer afternoon. Go find some hardy Sioux warriors and outfit them with feathers and spears and bows and arrows. Advertise it widely and think of how many visitors would swarm to the scene. Gateway Chambers of Commerce would go wild with enthusiasm. All those extra entrance fees could provide a lot of road repairs or cleaning restrooms.

It would be a terrific outlet for American and European fascination with our wild west. There would be frenetic action just like the movies. There would be the potential for bloodshed and death, just like watching NASCAR or cage fighting.

But best of all, it would be some terrific Living History!

This issue needs to be reframed: instead of trying to control bison migration and population, we need to end the grazing of private livestock on our public lands ~ OUR National Forests and BLM lands.

Beef produced by grazing on public lands is less than 5% of all the beef produced in this country. We'd never miss it. And we would benefit by consuming a little less red meat anyway. The bonus is that we'd pretty much resolve other issues, e.g., wolves, bears, coyotes and other predators preying on livestock grazing on public lands. I think livestock producers should be able to protect their livestock on private land, but we'd need to help implement non-lethal methods such as the use of fladry, etc.

Jon Marvel, of Western Watersheds Project, is making history by changing the face of grazing on our public lands. I strongly encourage you to support WWP.

Seriously, cows have more rights than native wildlife

If you are a minority in this country you are diposable. Cattlemen are the last minority in this country that are still acceptable to attack and vilify and "get rid of, we'd never miss them".

The establishing act for Yellowstone directs the superintendent to "provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit." One of the major reasons for establishing the park was to halt the wholesale slaughter of wildlife then being conducted by poachers. Proposing a bison hunt within Yellowstone's borders demonstrates a cynical disregard for that history. Further, the proposal fails to account for the fact that, even if MTDOL slaughtered every single bison in the park, cattle would not be any safer from brucellosis. The disease is rampant in elk, and the states, who are responsible for game management, have shown little interest in figuring out how to address that source of the disease.

[= 14px; line-height: 18px]"If you are a minority in this country you are diposable. Cattlemen are the last minority in this country that are still acceptable to attack and vilify and "get rid of, we'd never miss them".[/]
I really don't know what this means. Ranchers use of PUBLIC LANDS will always be open for scrutiny!

Calling the ungulate reduction at Theodore Roosevelt, Rocky Mountain, or Valley Forge "hunts" is inaccurate. A hunt is a sporting challenge, where an individual stalks an animal according to rules designed to make it a fair contest. There's almost always a strict limit on the number of animals that can be killed, the dates and times of the hunt, and weapons that can be used. If a hunter succeeds in killing an animal, s/he then gets to keep the meat. At all three of these parks -- where hunting is prohibited by law -- volunteers are recruited, or sharpshooters are employed, to kill as many animals as possible with rules deliberately designed to favor the shooter because the goal is to kill, not to be fair. This is necessary because of the imbalance of too many ungulates in these parks. At TRNP, due to politics, there are some elaborate mechanisms in place where the meat is donated to the state and then, in some cases, made available to the volunteers. But at all the other parks, the volunteers do not get to keep the meat and it is usually donated to food banks.

This may be killing with guns, it can be highly effective and involve the public -- but it is hardly sport. It isn't hunting.

So at some point Yellowstone may need to do something similar, but it would require a change in law to allow a "hunt." I can't see that ever happening in the mother park.

The solution to this problem is simple: let the bison follow their ancient migration route and get all the cattle out of the way. If all the cows are gone there is no problem.

In being out in the field covering the various hunts already going on in Montana with bison, there is one interesting legal point. The tribes that have asserted their treaty rights to hunt outside of Yellowstone at least in some cases believe they may also have a legal right to hunt inside of the park. They deny that the Lacey Act abrogates their treaty rights.

I spoke with a Nez Perce elder hunting on Horse Butte, and he believed that while this was all true, what his tribe was ultimately waiting for to assert their right to hunt in Yellowstone, was any permission whatsoever by the park to anyone else to hunt in the park. That would make the treaty right ironclad and would indeed open the floodgates to the treaty tribes to hunt in the park (and not just bison potentially).

That may be one strong legal reason (whatever we say about the ethical or ecological reasons) why the park might be hesitant to open up hunting inside the park. Tribal hunts are managed not by the federal government but by the tribes. The Umatilla, for instance, have offered two tags to every member of their tribe for this year's bison hunt. Imagine if that could extend to Yellowstone; imagine if the Park Service were powerless to stop it.

Of course, there are strong ecological reasons why hunting makes little sense without a great deal more habitat. Unfortunately, too often, wildlife are merely managed for numbers that don't necessarily reflect what is actually required for the species - considerations that often go beyond simple raw numbers. Yellowstone would not be upholding the Lacey Act to permit hunting of bison in the park, given the particular uniqueness of Yellowstone's herd.

Thanks for clarifying the meaning of the word "hunt," Bob. It's a darn shame that so many people don't know what hunting actually is.

Lee, I hope you know that the kind of Native American hunt I was talking about was the one that jsmacdonald describes a little later on. There have been legal decisions in the Department of the Interior over the years that ruled that treaty hunting rights don't go away when lands become a national park. The NPS has rejected those, and has won a few court cases on that point.

I don't think the NPS would be powerless to regulate the hunt, as jsmacdonald fears, but we don't know because that point has not been tested in court. Personally I'd worry more about the state wrestling the authority instead; national preserves that allow hunting do so under state laws.

One might point out that all agencies of the federal government have a trust obligation to Native American tribes. When the law is ambiguous, shouldn't the trustee interpret the law in favor of the beneficiary? That would mean that the NPS should be an advocate for Native hunting rights under the 1868 treaty.

What about allowing hunting similar to what is done in Grand Teton Park occasionally to reduce the elk population?