A group of Gardiner residents are pushing for new restrictions to the annual bison hunt near Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance. But at a recent interagency meeting, tribal representatives say some of these changes would violate their treaty rights.
Residents for years have expressed concerns about safety and aesthetics of the hunt, calling Gardiner ground-zero. They and tribal, recreation and agriculture groups met with agency representatives this Wednesday to discuss the possibility of expanding no-hunting zones around Gardiner.
Bear Creek Council member Nathan Varley — one of the most heavily-used bison hunting areas several miles outside of Gardiner.
“It’s a very popular recreation area. There’s also quite a number of residences, private lands and businesses along the road, and they’re literally across the road from the hunt area,” says Varley.
The Council recommends wildlife managers add 100 yards to the 200-yard hunting buffer at Beattie Gulch and a 150-yard buffer along parts of the Jardine and Travertine roads northeast of the town. It also suggested a carcass removal program.
Varley says residents are worried about stray bullets during the hunt and about carcass piles attracting bears and wolves long after. He says they’re also concerned that seeing bison remains could hurt tourism, which is the economic heartbeat of Gardiner.
“We do have a community there and we have to be responsive to that," says Mary Erickson, supervisor of the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
She says there are a lot of logistical challenges to removing carcasses and asked who would be expected to pay for it. But Erickson says she’s not dismissing the idea.
“If we have a quite year and not that many bison come out, you don’t have that many carcasses, but if we had a huge winter and a lot of bison come out, you will still have the killing fields in Beattie Gulch and 400 carcasses is not ok. So I do want to have a plan,” says Erickson.
A late winter this year resulted in fewer bison leaving Yellowstone. Around 100 bison were killed by hunters compared to over 300 in 2018.
When Erickson recommends a sub-committee of bear biologists look at whether there’s some kind of trigger or threshold where the number of bison carcasses becomes problematic, someone in the audience laughs and says, “One.”
But several tribal members say Gardiner itself is an attractant to grizzly bears. Dumpsters, pet food and fruit trees can draw bears to people’s homes and businesses.
Red-Wing Two Moons works for the Nez Perce Fish and Wildlife Commission.
“My Indian name is Waptiis Lep Lepiit Hiisum Tuks. I’m from the Niimiipu Nez Perce Tribe.”
He says he used to resist the Yellowstone bison hunt because it goes against his tribe’s tradition of hunting in the summer, long after bison have given birth. But his family talked him into it with the caveat that he would only hunt bulls, not pregnant cows.
“It’s a lot of hard work. It’s cold. People get fatigued,” says Red-Wing Two Moons.
He says he and his family take the meat, bones, fur and some of the organs with them. He says he didn’t like Bear Creek Council’s recommendation that hunters be required to remove the gut piles as well, which can weigh 200-300 pounds.
“It would be harder to move the guts because all that grass, all their food’s falling out. So I know for my family, it would be extremely hard to move.”
Red-Wing Two Moons says increasing the no-hunting zones in Gardiner would violate tribal treaty rights.
“They’re trying to take away what little we have, and we’re trying to push back because it’s already a 150 yards shooting zone, and that took away a lot — what we used to be able to hunt. Now we’re just in a little section where we’re butting heads with other tribal and state hunters because we’re shoulder to shoulder in a small zone,” says Red-Wing Two Moons.
The interagency bison management team agreed to study potential impacts of expanding the no-hunt zones, and they agreed with Bear Creek Council’s recommendation to increase hunter and resident education about the annual hunt.
Sabina Strauss with Bear Creek Council says she’s encouraged the interagency team is going to look at some of the recommendations, but she’s frustrated with the slow process.
“The bison is a national mammal, and it’s still not a wild, free-ranging bison. I think the public needs to know that because it’s their bison, and we need everyone to fight for the bison to be free,” says Strauss.
One of the inter-agency team’s mandates is to “maintain a wild, free-ranging population of bison”, but what this means and whether it’s being met is controversial. In addition to the hunts, hundreds of bison that leave the Park each year are captured for slaughter in an attempt to cap the bison population.
It’s connected to the interagency’s other mandate to “address the risk of brucellosis”. The bacterial disease can cause pregnant bison, elk and cattle to abort their fetuses, and it spreads when an animal comes into contact with afterbirth tissues and fluids.
There hasn’t been a case of bison transmitting brucellosis directly to cattle, partly due to efforts to maintain separation between the two species in the spring when they’re most at risk.
The Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) team was created in the 1990s after the state of Montana sued Yellowstone National Park for allowing wild bison to leave Park boundaries.
Hunting and culling goals for 2020 will be set at IBMP’s December meeting.