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2016 Yellowstone Bison Cull: What You Need To Know

Feb 01, 2016 05:43 PM EST
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Yellowstone National Park officials plan to kill 18 percent of the of the region's American bison, also known as buffalo, in an attempt to reduce the number that migrate to grazing grounds at lower elevations in Montana during the winter. The park reported between 600 and 900 of its bison will be hunted or shipped to meat processing facilities for slaughter, making it the biggest cull since 2008.

"It's a numbers game: how many can we accommodate?" Robert Garrott, Montana State University wildlife researcher, said in a statement. "The source population every year will produce six to 10 percent (more bison) that will need a new home...Despite the fact that bison are an iconic symbol of the U.S. and North America once had 30 to 60 million of them, our society has said there is no place we're willing to accept them."

It's true, sustainable ecosystems rely on a sort of balance that doesn't bode well in the face of overpopulation, and this year the park saw a near-record population of bison. But killing such a large number has raised a bit of controversy. 

The driving force behind the large-scale bison cull is to reduce potential conflicts between the park and Montana landowners, as bison often travel outside of the park for food during the winter. Unfortunately, the arrival of bison instills fear in landowners that the bison will transmit a highly-infectious disease known as brucellosis to their cattle - even though there have been no such recorded instances to date. 

Yet, capture and slaughter operations are scheduled to begin on or after Feb. 15, park spokeswoman Sandra Snell-Dobert told The Associated Press.

"The park would gladly reduce the frequency and magnitude of these operations if migrating bison had access to more habitats outside the park or there was a way to transfer live bison elsewhere," Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk commented, adding he's hopeful that slaughters will eventually be phased out and replaced by hunting. However, that's not feasible for this year, with some 4,900 bison recorded in the park.

History of Yellowstone Bison Culls

Capture and slaughter of Yellowstone bison has become a regular occurrence since 2000, following the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), which is an agreement between federal agencies and Montana officials that calls for a target population of around 3,000 animals. In 2008, a record 1,726 bison were removed from the park - most of which were slaughtered.

Unlike most bison in the U.S., Yellowstone's herds are considered genetically pure, meaning they play a vital role in species conservation. The park's bison is also a prime example of a conservation success story, as populations numbered only a few dozen in in the early 1900s.

"Yet that conservation success in recent years has become overshadowed by the slaughters used to control bison numbers," Montana State University wildlife researcher Robert Garrott added in a statement.

Conservationists File Lawsuit

Now activists have filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing the National Park Service is improperly denying access to this year's controversial bison cull.

"Because the culling activities take place on public land, are conducted by public officials and are paid for with public funds, [they] are matters of significant public interest," according to the lawsuit, which was filed against the National Park Service by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, two law professors at the University of Denver, and a private attorney in Wyoming on behalf of journalist Christopher Ketcham and wild-bison advocate Stephany Seay.

Years ago the public and press were regularly allowed inside the Stephens Creek facility during annual culls. Instead, this year the public will only be allowed into the facility during three "organized tours." 

"It's about public safety, but also about trying to reduce stress on the animal," Snell-Dobert said in a statement, adding that a large exclusion zone is necessary so that bison will feel comfortable enough to wander toward capture pens as they graze.

But the lawsuit states the public has a First Amendment right to document and report on bison culling operations and is asking that the court grant access to the Stephens Creek facility and elsewhere "to view and/or record all herding, trapping, sorting and shipping activities from a distance that allows observation with the naked eye."

In addition to challenging access to this year's cull, an overhaul of the 2000 agreement was initiated last year and is expected to be completed by late 2017. 

Related Articles

Genetically Pure Bison Still Exist; Provide Stronghold For Conservation

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