On Thursday, the Environmental Quality Council of the Montana Legislature sent a letter to Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk urging him to allow tribal bison hunting in the park, even though it would require an act of Congress.
“While this letter is not written at the request or on behalf of the tribes, the EQC urges you to honor any future requests from Indian tribes to hunt bison within Yellowstone National Park,” the letter read.
The letter was prompted by committee discussion on Wednesday following testimony about the tribal bison hunt that occurs every winter in Montana outside the park.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Nez Perce, the Umatilla and the Shoshone-Bannock tribes have treaty rights to hunt bison in Montana without a state hunting license. But they are limited to hunting in small "bison tolerance zones" north of Gardiner or West Yellowstone.
All the tribal representatives asked that Montana allow bison on more of the landscape because it would ease some of the hunt problems caused by confinement.
“We’d recommend that Montana manage buffalo as a wild free-ranging species; the support and restoration of buffalo on a larger landscape within suitable portions of their historic habitat; the support of the Yellowstone buffalo herd growing to meet the ecological carrying capacity of the greater Yellowstone region. This will require providing for improved habitat, connectivity and use within and outside Yellowstone National Park,” said Nez Perce spokesman Quincy Ellwood.
Most of the problems happen in the bottleneck of the Gardiner Basin. Tribal leaders spoke of cooperative efforts over the past decade to make the tribal hunt a safe and legal one, including having tribal wardens in the area and training their members on hunt requirements. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks also cooperates with the tribes in management of the hunt. To make the hunt more ethical, rather than shooting bison as soon as they leave the park near Beattie Gulch, the tribes have also agreed not to hunt in the Gardiner basin on certain days, so bison will migrate farther into the valley.
“In 2008, we had a major ship-to-slaughter and hunt of 1,000-plus buffalo. It really took a dramatic hit on the memory of the herd coming across the Yellowstone River, through Jardine and up into Corwin Springs. A lot of that herd was impacted, and thus the memory is gone,” Ellwood said . “It’s going to take some time, along with numbers and tolerance, to create that memory again to utilize the year-round expansion. With a little bit more time, I feel that there’s going to be good success.”
Some challenges still exist, including the question of how to deal with potentially hundreds of bison gut piles and concerns over hunters shooting in the same area where others are field-dressing dead bison. But at annual meetings, the tribes discuss solutions to deal with such problems.
Some difficulty arises due to the fact that bison have only been allowed into small areas of Montana before being herded back into the park in May due to fears of the disease brucellosis. Some bison carry the disease, but it is only passed to cattle if cows come in direct contact with an aborted elk, bison or cattle fetus. Only recently has the state decided to allow bison bulls – which can’t spread the disease - to stay outside the park year-round, which may mean more bison will be available to tribal hunters.
Another complicating factor is that tribes never know when bison will emerge from the park. Part of the reason bison come out is to find food when deep snow buries the grass. Bison often won’t migrate out at all if snowpack is low.
That can frustrate hunters who have traveled hundreds of miles. Some ended up shooting a few elk this year, which is allowed by treaty. But it angered some state hunters.
Ignoring the tribes' request to allow bison to roam farther into Montana, committee member Scott Aspenleider zeroed in on a comment from Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, that the tribes should hunt inside the park when bison don’t come out.
“I would propose that the committee send a letter of support for these tribes and their treaty hunting rights in Yellowstone National Park," Aspenleider said.
A few committee members pointed out that the tribes weren’t asking to hunt in the park. Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, said such a request would be “an overreach of EQC.” But others, including Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, liked the idea because it would get rid of bison.
“I’ve been a critic of the park for years and years and years, because I don’t think they know how to manage a damn thing,” Brenden said. “Do I think we’re going to get anything out of it? No. But at least it’s a statement of what we believe in.”
Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, said it was better to hunt on park land than to infringe on private-property rights.
CSKT attorney John Harrison said the tribes aren’t pursuing hunting inside the park. The only thing the tribes have asked is to be allowed to enter the park if a wounded animal ran back into the park, and the park is considering the proposal, Harrison said.
Still, the proposal passed on mostly a party-line vote of 9-7.
On Thursday morning, Phillips made a final objection.
“When EQC does such a shallow dive in such a complicated issue, and then we write a letter, it serves to diminish the usefulness of the council. It’s hard to tell our good work from our bad work when we do things like this,” Phillips said.