Differences among state, federal, and tribal agencies over how to manage this season’s bison hunt just outside Yellowstone National Park were not fully resolved at a meeting in Paradise Valley on Tuesday.
Yellowstone bison biologist Chris Geremiah says that between hunting, slaughter, and winter kill, about 2,000 of the park’s bison died last season. The animals made a fast rebound during calving this past spring and now number more than 4,500 animals. That big loss last winter is why Geremiah recommends that no more than 1,100 animals be harvested this coming winter.
He also said, “We recommend, looking at the trend in the northern herd and the central herd that you don’t harvest or remove animals anywhere but in the northern area, around Gardiner, Montana.”
The group did not set a population goal for park bison but instead will concentrate on limiting the harvest to that 1,100 number. That is not ideal for Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) representative Mike Honeycutt. Along with Governor Greg Gianforte, who sent a letter to the park, said there is no need to have a Yellowstone bison herd of more than 3,000 animals. That issue was kicked down the road to another meeting in the spring of 2024. Also delayed is a disagreement between the state of Montana and the Park Service over vaccinating bison against brucellosis. The park maintains scientific studies show the only vaccines now available are ineffective. Park superintendent Cam Sholly chaffed at the suggestion that part of the Interagency Bison Management Plan should compel the park to do the testing.
Sholly said, “We will select an alternative based on a considerable amount of scientific analysis and feedback from cooperating partners in the public that will guide the record of decision. It’s not the other way around.”
Honeycutt held his ground and replied, “The AMP or the adaptive management plan of IBMP should speak to dealing with the disease of brucellosis.”
He went on to suggest the parties continue meeting and take the issue up again in the spring while maintaining the status quo. Sholly, who spoke relatively little during the meeting, did not appear to like the suggestion but did not offer an objection when the group agreed to postpone the decision.
That’s not the only complaint the state and Governor Greg Gianforte have. In a sixteen-page letter to the park, Gianforte wrote that the Park Service is not cooperating with the state, is deficient in its scientific analysis, that a brucellosis threat remains which is not fully addressed, and claimed that bison transfer brucellosis to elk. Plus, the state warns that the State of Montana’s tolerance for bison may change. The state’s assertion that the Yellowstone bison herd should be limited to 3,000 animals met with strong opposition from many of those who testified.
Shana Dremel of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition said, “We are disappointed to learn of the state's continued opposition to this process and the park's range of alternatives.” She added, “The 2006 IBMP target of 3,000 animals was meant to discourage bison migration and dispersal beyond the park boundary and was not meant to support treaty rights.” That’s a reference to tribal hunting last winter when heavy snowfall led to a record number of bison migrating out of the park in search of food. State and tribal hunters took more than 1,500 bison, most in the Gardiner Basin area.
But the governor has the support of the livestock industry. Ellie Brighton of the Montana Stockgrowers Association said, “We continue to support a population of YNP bison at a level identified in the record of decision at 3,000 head.”
Citizen Glen Moynihan said, “I believe that the livestock industry remains as the public enemy number one of bison.”
During the lunch break, Park Superintendent Sholly and the Department of Livestock’s Honeycutt kept on talking in an effort to head off a showdown that could land each of their agencies in a court battle. The group members agreed that continuing such talks should take place through the winter until the members meet again in the spring.