Officials from Yellowstone National Park announced last month that they recommend the removal of 900 bison from the area, primarily through hunting. According to the park’s summer bison population estimate, the cull will account for nearly 19 percent of the area’s 4,900 bison. Other methods of removal include agreements with local Native American tribes to ship the animals off to slaughter, or transport them for research purposes to the Stephens Creek facility.
According to the Associated Press, the proposed cull would be the largest since the winter of 2007-2008, when 1,600 bison were removed from the park. Although large-scale management actions are not preferred by wildlife experts, they are necessary to keep the bison population in check. Living in the sanctuary of Yellowstone provides bison with high survival rates. With little predation by wolves, bison can grow to fill available habitat at an alarming rate. This puts pressure on other species like elk for food competition, and can also foster the spread of disease to livestock outside of the park.
“We’re trying to avoid these massive, big harvests, but we haven’t been able to meet our objective yet,” bison program manager Rick Wallen said. “If we had a relatively mild winter, we probably wouldn’t see a significant migration to the boundary until later on, and that would make it a challenge to hunt the animals.”
The bison population in Yellowstone is split between the Northern herd, which contains 3,500 animals, and the Central herd, which is comprised of 1,400 individuals. The species historically occupied more than 7,000 square miles near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, but that range is now reduced to the park boundaries and some areas in Montana. The species almost disappeared entirely from the park before 1900 with only a mere handful holding out in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley. In 1902, a small herd of 21 bison were transported from Montana and Texas and settled in northern Yellowstone, which soon became known as the Northern herd.
Hunters on average harvest 250 bison per year from outside the park’s boundaries, although park and tribal officials want to increase that number. However, park authorities are under pressure from outside groups to limit bison hunting. According to the National Park Service, allowing hunting within the park itself would be vastly unpopular and create conflicts with non-hunting park visitors. As it is, hunters are limited to what animals stray out of the park every winter during their infrequent migrations.