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.