To stop dangerous situations that are beginning to occur during the bison hunt outside Yellowstone National Park, treaty tribes may borrow a trick from water skiers.
Four tribes that have treaty rights to hunt Yellowstone bison came together in Missoula Wednesday to find a remedy for what Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 3 Supervisor Sam Sheppard called the most unsafe hunt yet.
“My enforcement staff said it’s gotten out of hand and it’s not a question of if someone dies, but when. Those are some pretty concerning observations,” Sheppard said. “When it comes to safety, it doesn’t matter who’s doing it, each of us has a responsibility to address these things.”
Sheppard said his wardens witnessed a number of “shoot-out” situations where a large number of hunters were shooting into a pod of animals from all sides. Bullets were whizzing in every direction, and one hunter narrowly missed being shot.
He waved a DVD that he received from the Buffalo Field Campaign containing video of the shootouts.
“This is video evidence of what’s not going well,” Sheppard said. “I care more about safety than any other aspect. From the state’s perspective, safety is paramount. How are we going to conduct ourselves collectively?”
In addition to 40 Montana hunters, four tribes - the Nez Perce, the Shoshone Bannock, the Umatilla and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes – show up every year from November through March to hunt bison in Montana either north of Gardiner or north of West Yellowstone. Each tribe has its own regulations, game wardens and ways of running the hunt, which can make things complex. As sovereign nations, they are reluctant to allow anyone else to regulate them. So one suggestion was that the tribes and agencies try to mesh regulations as much as possible. They also agreed to have all the different law enforcement officers communicate on the same radio channel so they could all respond more quickly to dangerous situations.
But the real challenge is that the bison sometimes aren’t outside the park when the tribal hunters show up.
Bison tend to not move outside the park unless deep snow pushes them out to find food. In 2013-2014, a snowy winter pushed almost 1,200 bison out of the park, and wardens had their hands full as hunters shot hundreds of bison.
But the last two winters have been very mild so fewer bison have left the park and most go out near Gardiner. That’s caused tribal and state hunters to get desperate, especially in the tiny area near Beattie Gulch east of Gardiner, and they can get competitive while pursuing the few bison that do come out.
In essence, they get “buck fever,” and commonsense takes a backseat.
At one point this winter, Montana hunters and all four tribes were hunting in the Beattie Gulch area at the same time. Wardens said there were too many people with too many guns. The result was that between 30 and 50 animals were wounded or lost, Sheppard said.
“It starts well with clear direction. It’s when the shooting starts, and the masses start to go and buffalo start dropping and people start moving up into a crossfire situation, that’s where it really must stop,” Sheppard said.
A few additional factors ramped up that desperation this past winter. First, if hunters didn’t get their bison, they knew bison would be herded into the bison trap at Stephens Creek and sent to slaughter.
Second, in an effort to get bison to move farther into the Gardiner basin to spread the hunt out, the hunt was closed for four days every other week. Otherwise, hunters would have killed every bison that got a few feet out of the park.
But the four-day closure didn’t work as hoped. Park bison biologist Rick Wallen said four days was probably not long enough because the bison were still too wary of staying outside the park for long.
“The animals have been pushed so hard for so long that they’re responding quickly to hunting pressure. The hunting pressure that we’ve seen over the past three to four years in Beattie Gulch is so heavy that it’s preventing the bison from going much beyond the park boundary,” Wallen said. “It’s almost as if they’re expecting to contact hunters. We may end up having to give them more time to learn to utilize that area.”
Also some hunters didn’t obey the closure. Finally, the tribes complained that certain individuals were using those four days to haze bison back into the park during the night so the bison wouldn’t be shot. The CSKT representatives said the Buffalo Field Campaign was responsible and wanted the BFC held accountable although Carl Scheeler of the Umatilla tribe said some of the individuals might come from elsewhere.
Sheppard said he didn’t care what the BFC was doing at night; what mattered was the hunt during the day. If it required limiting the number of hunters per day, he would, Sheppard said.
Nez Perce representative Quincy Ellenwood said limiting the hunt would violate treaty rights, so he suggested that hunters use a 50-foot-tall flag to indicate when they’d shot a bison. When the flag went up, all shooting would stop until the hunter retrieved his animal.
“When water skiers go down, they have a flag that lets the rest of the boaters know there’s someone in the water. Maybe we could do something like that,” Ellenwood said. “It doesn’t take care of everything but it addresses safety issues. It doesn’t limit who’s out there, it limits when you pull the trigger.”
Scheeler suggested that law enforcement officers be in charge of posting the flag since they need to go to the kill anyway. He also suggested that a siren or air horn could be added in case hunters couldn’t see the flag.
“2016 was the worst I’ve seen it. I like the flag idea – it would probably alleviate some of the danger,” Scheeler said.
Agency and tribal representatives agreed to meet before the next Interagency Bison Management Plan meeting to work out the specifics of how the flag system should work in time for the next hunt.