Visitors to Yellowstone National Park are treated to the chance to see one of the nation’s best and best protected bison herds. But Yellowstone bison face challenges even diligent park staff can’t save them from. These include wolves and harsh winters. But enough Yellowstone bison survive the winters to spark some debate on managing the herd.
According to the Billings Gazette last winter was especially severe. About 4,800 Bison (Bison bison) survived after the winter of 2022-2023. That number was recorded in August 2023. This was down from about 6,000 at the peak summer population recorded in August 2022. As a result authorities will permit the hunting or transfer of no more than 1,100 bison this year. This number is selected to keep the Yellowstone bison herd at healthy numbers.
Bison management is a cooperative effort involving numerous agencies. Government agencies from neighboring states and the federal government have a say. Native American peoples have a special relationship with the bison and they are deeply involved in bison management efforts. A number of tribes have their own herds which they manage on tribal lands. There is often disagreement. The National Park Service aims to keep the herd number at 3,500 or more to maintain genetic diversity. Montana feels the number could be 3,000, the paper said.
In addition, because bison have made a spectacular comeback, other stakeholders are involved in the management of bison herds. Cattle ranchers need to be reassured that brucellosis, a serious cattle disease, will not be spread to cows from bison. Since recovery efforts in the 19th and 20th century involved various types of crossbreeding efforts are made to keep the bloodlines pure.
The Yellowstone bison survive various threats and some do wander out of the park, there are health concerns, and wandering buffalo do cause problems. So the herd is culled annually.
The culling can take place in three ways. Hunting by Native American tribes and other hunters, processing by the tribes, and transfers through the Bison Conservation Transfer Program. The program was initiated by the NPS and the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. Under the program healthy bison are transferred to various tribal herds. The program works with more than one dozen plains area tribes interested in bison conservation. Native American tribes are fully involved in the decisions taken. Fort Peck was founded in 1871 and is home to members of the Assiniboine tribe. Members of a number of Sioux bands live there too, including some descendants of Hunkpapa who fled to Canada with Siting Bull.
One of the tribes sponsoring hunts is the Crow Nation. The Crow offer hunts for trophy quality bison for a set fee. The hunts are of a limited number of tribal buffalo on tribal land. The tribe is also seeking to join six other tribes in permitted hunts outside the park in winter,