A Thousand Bison Sentenced to Die This Winter

The annual culling of Yellowstone’s bison population is a little-known secret to park visitors.

(Photo: Mara K Tashjian/Getty Images)

Dec 26, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

With frigid temperatures and a shrinking food supply, winter can be tough on Yellowstone National Park’s wildlife. And for the area’s 4,900 bison, it’s not just nature’s elements they’re fighting against.

Upwards of 1,000 buffalo could meet their demise this winter through either hunting or shipment to slaughterhouses as park officials look to keep the herds contained and avoid a mass migration of the beasts into Montana.

It’s a balance the Park Service deals with annually, but this year’s planned culling is one of the largest since the management program was created 14 years ago, up from the 650 killed last winter. According to the National Park Service website, 300 to 400 bison will be removed by hunting, while 500 to 600 could be shipped to meat processing or research facilities starting in January.

“The plan is to capture and ship at least 50 to 100 bison per week from mid-January through mid-February without regard for age, sex, or disease status,” the Park Service website states.

But why are mass killings of Yellowstone’s iconic animal permitted in an area where they are federally protected? The animals are flourishing within the park’s confines, but when their numbers get too large for an area, they can devastate habitat through overgrazing and push out other wildlife in the process.

And while hunting within the park is forbidden, the migratory animals often head outside the park confines north into Montana. There, Native American tribal populations have been granted rights to hunt the animals, and public hunters are given a limited number of tags for hunting as well.

That has created corridors of heavy hunting activity just outside the park’s boundaries, where hunters wait for a chance at the bison.

“This has been so tragic, and it’s way more than unsightly gut piles,” Gardiner, Mont., resident Bonnie Lynn told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Lynn said the open Forest Service land near her property becomes a bloody mess every winter, as bison move along Beattie Gulch to lower elevations—easy targets for hunters in waiting. “This year, we anticipate it will be way more than 185 [bison] killed on five acres in front of our driveway,” she said. “These animals should have a broader landscape and a safe and ethical hunt. I can understand the Native Americans’ desire to hunt, but this is not respectful of the animal.”

For National Parks Conservation Association program manager Bart Melton, the Park Service’s annual bison management program feels a little too much like Groundhog Day, and not progress.

“We have been here before, and we will likely be here again,” Melton told National Parks Traveler.

But some changes to the way park officials handle bison populations could be on their way. One option, put out by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, looked at allowing bison onto almost 422,000 acres of National Forest land with no cattle in the upper Gallatin Basin so the population could grow without severely damaging the area’s habitat.

It’s an option supported by environmentalists and bison lovers but opposed by ranchers fearful that the large animals could decimate livestock feeding grounds.

“Coming from a ranching family, I can see it from both sides. I can understand some of the concerns that ranchers have,” Kootenai wildlife manager Tom McDonald told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “But what we really need to do is just allow bison to get out and express themselves on the landscape, and over time, through our diligence, people can become accustomed to them on the landscape.”