As U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Considers Listing Bison as Endangered, Record Hunt Disrupts Herd Dynamics
1424 bison have already been removed from the ecosystem
James Holt, Executive Director
Mike Mease, Campaign Coordinator
Patrick Kincaid, J.D., Tribal Liaison
Jackson Doyel, Wildlife Biologist
Gardiner, MT - With record numbers of wild bison outside the Park this season, due to the relative inaccessibility of forage under deep snows and hard crusts in much of Yellowstone’s higher elevations, the Park Service and the Tribes now appear to be doing the Montana Department of Livestock’s bidding. In spite of previous agreements by all managing partners to maintain a “stable-to-slightly-decreasing population” of wild Yellowstone bison, near-record removals of bison are occurring, and none of the Partners appears willing to follow through on previous public commitments.
Nez Perce scientist James Holt recently visited the hunt areas around Gardiner, Montana to see for himself what’s transpiring on the ground. “Herd dynamics are horrible,” Holt reported. “The Central Herd has yet to recover from the last great slaughter,” he added, “and this year is looking to be on par with any other big slaughter year.”
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
Earlier this year, speaking to a conservation conference at Chico Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly elicited applause when he asserted that removals of a thousand bison or more in any given year was “no longer acceptable,” with Park Service biologists reporting that there is enough room in the Park itself for 11,000 wild buffalo.
The total removals this winter have already exceeded 1,000, with no sign of relenting, thanks to the Park Service leaving the Montana Departments of Livestock and Fish, Wildlife and Parks in charge of bison outside Park boundaries.
“It’s irresponsible for the Park Service to delegate responsibility over wild bison to the livestock industry once they wander across Park boundaries,” says Patrick Kincaid, a Tribal treaty lawyer working with Buffalo Field Campaign. Kincaid pointed to a recent law review article from the University of Wyoming, which states that the National Park Service “enjoys its own unique authority to enter into cooperative agreements with tribal governments 'for the purpose of protecting natural resources… through collaborative efforts on land inside and outside’” Yellowstone National Park [emph. added].
Jackson Doyel, a wildlife biologist with Buffalo Field Campaign, explained why this year’s hunting is wreaking havoc with herd dynamics. “The majority of bison migrating from the Park this year are adult females and their young,” Doyel said. Almost all bison cows are impregnated during the Fall rut. “Looking at the total number of buffalo removed in the Park Service report, the ratio of female to male is roughly 10 to 7,” Doyel pointed out.
“Improper management has created significant imbalance in herd dynamics,” Doyel concludes. “The males already outnumber females by a large degree due to past agency removals,” Doyel added, “making these winter kill numbers weigh even more heavily on reproduction.”
“After this disastrous season,” Kincaid said, “it’s time for the Park Service to take its delegated authority away from livestock interests and return it to those Tribes whose very existence is intertwined with their sacred buffalo relatives.”
Breaking Their Commitments to Buffalo and the Public
At the Winter Operations Meeting (Download Meeting Summary, PDF) of the Managing Partners for this season, a public meeting held in West Yellowstone last November, the Partners engaged in a lengthy discussion regarding the need to “cap” this year’s removals from the existing population of 6000. The discussion focused on the “Managing Bison Abundance” section of the most recent (2022) iteration of the interagency management plan. According to that Plan, “[t]he IBMP members have decided to manage for a stable to slightly decreasing population…”
While some officials have since asserted that there was no agreement on any removal cap at the November meeting, the minutes reported out by the Park Service clearly show that a range for removing bison from the general population was, in fact, agreed to by all the Partners. There was no discussion, however, of what would happen when that cap was reached.
The Park Service reported (Download, PDF) the following statements from the Partners’ discussion:
- The Nez Perce Tribe (NPT) said it could agree to cap removals at 10-11% of the population (about 650- 700 bison);
- Later in the discussion, “NPT suggested that 12% might work as a cap.”
- 12% (6000) = 720
- NPT would not agree to an “up to 25%” removal target suggested by MDOL, because that would mean 1,575 bison at risk of removal;
- It is then reported that Montana Department of Livestock (MDOL) agreed that it “could live with a decrease in the population of between 11-25% (660-1500 bison);
- Finally, Superintendent Sholly wrapped up the discussion by noting that, “to achieve a ‘stable’ population, the reduction target would be 14%; reducing only 11% would likely result in an ‘increasing’ population,” which MDOL could not agree to.
- Again, the language under discussion from the Plan already agreed to by the Partners calls for a “stable to slightly decreasing population” of Yellowstone bison.
Accordingly, it is clear from the minutes of the meeting that the Partners, including MDOL, agreed to a removal cap of between 12%—14%, or a cumulative reduction of between 720 and 840 bison over the winter from the existing population of 6000. The expectation is that new bison born in the Spring would compensate for the removals. Accordingly, that range would meet the agreed upon Plan provision for maintaining a stable population, with slight decreases from the current population of 6000 not seen as threatening that stability.
One of the primary concerns expressed by Quincy Ellenwood, the Natural Resource Chairman & Treasurer for the Nez Perce Tribe, at the November meeting had to do with the fact that female adult bison are now pregnant. Speaking with heightened emotion, Ellenwood insisted: “We don’t want to be hunting in December/January. All the fetuses are there. They have a right to live the way they live, the way God has created them.”
It is now mid-February. Those bison cows are now seven (7) months along in carrying the next generation of calves meant to replenish the herd in the Spring. But due to over-kill by all the Partners, under the direction of the state, calving this Spring will no longer be enough to stabilize the population as intended. That factor could weigh heavily in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s determination, expected in the summer, pf whether Yellowstone bison need to be listed as a threatened and/or endangered species.
According to Park figures released on February 17 (Download the PDF):
- 672 bison had been harvested by state and tribal hunters;
- Another 107 have been killed in the days since the report issued;
- 24 bison have been injured in the hunt, and shot by FWP/NPS;
- 88 bison have been sent to slaughter;
- 192 bison have been removed for future transfers;
- 2 bison died in captivity at the trap facility;
- Another 316 bison are being held for either slaughter or release in the Spring.
So currently, 1424 bison have already been removed from the ecosystem, counting recent hunt numbers since the report, and it’s only February. That 24% removal from the population to date, with hunting ongoing, which is right in line with Montana’s wishes, even though none of the Partners were willing to agree to the Department of Livestock’s suggestion of removing up to 25%. Even though Nez Perce clearly objected to that level as excessive. And in spite of the Park’s assertion that maintaining a stable population, as previously agreed to, would require a cap of 14%.
According to BFC’s Campaign Coordinator, Mike Mease, “With mass numbers of buffalo killed this year, we cant’ forget about the number of Winter kills (naturally caused) that will also be a large number, due to extreme weather, and how many pregnant mothers carrying next year’s generation will not make it to term.”
BFC asked the Park Service in early February what mechanisms were in place to end removals in accordance with the cap agreed to in November. We were told that the Public Relations office would look into that issue, but they have still not answered us.
Mease added that “As long as we follow the State of Montana's ‘no tolerance’ for these sacred beings on federal lands, we’ll never have a stable population of Buffalo, and the viability of the central herd will remain at grave risk.”
At last count, the central herd of Yellowstone Bison was only 1200 of the 6000 bison population, a risk to genetic diversity that prompted the ongoing “threats analysis” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.
“It is time we call for an end to this year’s harvest and call for an end to the Winter Operations Plan in its entirety,” Holt insisted. “The Interagency Bison Management Plan has failed us and failed the Buffalo for far too long,” Holt said.
“Who will be the agency with the courage to stand up against this out of date plan?” Mease concluded.