As more tribes join the bison hunt north of Yellowstone National Park, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is asking them to put hunting restrictions on themselves.
On Wednesday, the wildlife representatives of five tribes met in Missoula with FWP, Department of Livestock, U.S. Forest Service and YNP managers to review this winter’s tribal bison hunt north of Gardiner and west of West Yellowstone. Although it was a fairly successful hunt, a few parts weren’t pretty.
According to May 1 FWP tallies, both state and tribal hunters killed 468 bison, while another 748 were caught in the Stevens Creek trap and sent to slaughter to feed tribal members.
The outdated Interagency Bison Management Plan, written 17 years ago, set a target population of 3,000 bison inside Yellowstone Park. But last year’s estimate put the population at about 5,500 so agency partners set out to cull 1,300 bison through the hunt and trapping.
Yellowstone Park biologist Rick Wallen said it was likely that next year’s objective will be about the same, because this winter tailed off a little early so the spring green-up started early. That means the herds didn’t experience much natural die-off, and lots of healthy calves are appearing so they should replace the number that were killed.
“Normally, 90 percent of the females get pregnant and I expect that to be right on the money this year,” Wallen said. “I would think the population would be about the same.”
However, the number of hunters may change, because right now, there are too many. Tribes and agencies all agree that safety is still a problem in and around Beatty Gulch just past the park boundary. Hunters can’t hunt inside the park, so they wait on the slender strip of flat public land near Beatty Gulch for the bison to step foot out of the park.
With just a few hunters, as often was the case 10 years ago when the hunt started, competition for the wary bison isn’t bad. But when dozens of hunters - some who have driven hundreds of miles - are impatiently waiting for their chance, the emergence of a single bison can occasionally prompt a shoot-out.
Tribal members argued that the bison trap should be a last resort because it stops the animals before they leave the park and can make hunters feel that much more desperate and thus more reckless. Plus, not enough animals get out to wander into other parts of the basin, which would allow hunters to spread out, said Umatilla Natural Resources Program Manager Carl Scheeler.
“I got more complaints this year, particularly when they had those wing walls out,” Scheeler said.
FWP Region 3 Supervisor Sam Shepard said bison availability was probably more limited by the fact that, with so many hunters, animals are shot as soon as they cross the park boundary.
Last year, the tribes made some changes to try to make it safer for those who wanted to retrieve their animal without getting shot. Communications equipment and procedures were improved, and flags were used to indicate a hunter was moving to his kill.
But both tribal and agency representatives said this year’s hunt was still dangerous.
“It’s getting to the point where someone is going to get shot out there,” said Claudeo Broncho of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. “We’re all hunting in the gauntlet.”
A few instances of bad hunter behavior that made it onto TV news added pressure this year. Everyone agreed that every group has a few bad apples and no single tribe was at fault, but it bolstered the overall feeling that changes to the hunt are needed.
This year was the first time the Yakima Tribe participated, adding a few more hunters into the mix. With time, a few other tribes may join in on a limited basis.
FWP has been getting a lot of pressure from Gardiner residents to “do something” about the hunt, and wardens sometimes fear for their own safety. FWP Chief of Operations Mike Volesky said Montana couldn’t tell the tribes what to do, so they had to come up with their own solution. Treaty rights guarantee their right to hunt bison year-round unfettered by state limitations. But he asked them to consider reducing the daily number of hunters in the 40-acre “postage stamp” near Beatty Gulch.
McCoy Oatman of the Nez Perce Tribe said he could propose that to his elders but not without being able to show that Montana is working on expanding the area for bison beyond the postage stamp. Nez Perce Wildlife Director Neil Thagard raised the issue of confinement three times, pointing out that hunting would be a lot easier if bison weren’t limited to just the Gardiner Basin and areas west of West Yellowstone.
The Montana Department of Livestock and livestock producers have fought allowing bison to come any farther into Montana at first due to fears of spreading brucellosis to cattle and later to keep bison from competing with livestock for forage.
Most recently, the state has expanded the bison tolerance area into the upper Gallatin River basin but livestock producers limited the range based upon the number of bison in the park. The fewer the bison, the farther they could roam in the new area. But Thagard wants more of that land opened up to bison.
“We have purposely created our own fishbowl effect. We have our opportunity to disperse bison into historic habitat. It would take a lot of pressure off bison, the hunters and the public,” Thagard said.
Volesky said Montana is working on it, but such an effort will take a number of years due to having to negotiate with landowners and conducting environmental assessments.
“The state is limited by the statutes we have to go by. It’s frustrating because it doesn’t happen fast enough. But we’re dancing around the tough issues and the one that’s been eating our lunch is hunter behavior,” Volesky said.
Jason Smith, Montana Director of Indian Affairs, pointed out that the tribes need to make some changes soon, because Gov. Steve Bullock is sympathetic to the tribes, but the next governor may be less so. The next governor might shut the hunt down completely. So they have a three-year window to find an answer.
Over the next few months, they decided to look into limiting the number of guns or parties in the Beatty Gulch area through some sort of drawing. Any hunter that wasn’t drawn could still hunt in other areas like West Yellowstone. They will also try to do public outreach in Gardiner to ease tensions there.
“Restricted hunting is better than no hunting at all,” said Tom McDonald, wildlife manager of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “If we want to expand habitat elsewhere, if we’re going to prove to livestock and other folks that we can manage bison, we need to look at how we deal with people.”