A Yellowstone National Park biologist says to expect a lot of bison to be removed from the herd this winter.
Yellowstone Biologist Chris Geremia says there is deep snow with a hard crust in the northern part of the park right now. He added, “The harder the snow gets, the more energy it takes to access grass.”
That means hundreds of bison are moving into the Gardiner area in search of food. He said, “We’re just going to have to see how the rest of this winter plays out but I would anticipate a steady increase in the numbers of animals coming down here until the middle of March.”
Geremia illustrated the dilemma faced by the animals when he said, “If you were in three to four feet of snow and you were trying to walk and every step you took you kind of put your foot on top of the snow and it went crashing down into the bottom. That’s an exhausting life to live.”
Geremia was non-committable about just how many bison might be culled this year. He said, “This year we, the National Park Service, did not set a removal target. But, we are going to manage the migration.”
Managing that bison migration is as much about managing people as it is about managing the animals. Geremia explained, “Every part of this program takes intense coordination with the State of Montana, the part of the USDA that manages diseases, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service, the tribes that we’re working with, and the park.”
To keep bison from posing a problem outside the park, state hunters and tribal hunters harvest the animals. Then about 250 brucellosis-free bison are captured and are intensely tested for two years before being transferred to tribal nations to establish more bison populations. Once given to the Assiniboine and Sioux at the Fort Peck reservation, the bison are kept confined and tested for another year before the animals are released. In order to get those 250 disease-free bison for the tribes, about 500 must be captured. The bison not sent to tribal nations are sent to slaughter. The meat and hides go to Indian tribes.
Geremia said, “It really is a day-to-day balancing act and we are doing everything possible to not leave anybody behind, to listen to all of the different stakeholders for bison and we ask that everybody recognize that life’s always changing, the environment’s always changing. Things like climate change and winters like we’re seeing this winter, well, we’re going to see a lot of buffalo down here and we’re doing the best we can do to manage that.”
He added, “We’re trying to find a way to show that buffalo can be part of a large ecosystem and we can work with people outside of the park, I’m a Gardiner resident myself, to find a way to manage the extra conflicts they create.”
Geremia said the northern part of Yellowstone can support up to 6,000 bison while the central part of the park could support up to 5,000. That’s almost double the number of bison currently living in Yellowstone. He added that the 4,500 bison in the northern herd this winter is the most counted there since the park was created more than 150 years ago.