YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — You’ve probably noticed that you’re shoveling a lot less snow this winter. The bison in Yellowstone National Park are also getting a break from last winter’s brutal snowfall.
A visit to the northern part of the park or a look at pictures from today versus a year ago is all you need to see the difference.
A year ago, more than 1,000 bison gathered in the Gardiner basin by February. They were driven out of higher elevations in the park by deep snow that made it nearly impossible for them to find the food they depend upon. Now, the Gardiner plains are nearly empty. All you’ll find in the basin right now are a few elk gathered on scattered hillsides.
“It’s a total difference,” said Bonnie Lynn, who owns a home she rents out in the Gardiner Basin.
This season the bison are mostly found nearly 30 road miles away. Many are gathered in small to medium-sized groups between Roosevelt Junction and the Slough Creek area where the low snow depth is making it much easier for them to get to food than at the same time a year ago. That’s also affecting bison hunting this season.
“Hunters in the Gardiner area really have not had much opportunity just because of this light, mild winter that we've had, which has not triggered any significant migration outside of the park,” said Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
A total of 85 bison may be harvested by state hunters: 40 in the Gardiner area and 40 near West Yellowstone plus 5 in the Gardiner back country, in the Absaoroka-Beartooth zone.
So far this season, just 15 bison have been taken in a hunt that ends Feb. 15. Thirteen were killed in the West Yellowstone hunting zone, while two were taken in the backcountry east of Gardiner, a particularly remote and rugged place to hunt. Last year tribal hunters took more than 1,000 bison, many right across the street from Bonnie Lynn’s vacation rental home.
She said, “We had last year over 1,200 gut piles in front of our driveway.”
Lynn, a longtime opponent of the bison hunt, said she doesn’t oppose a tribal hunt. She insisted the hunt would be better if it were more spread out. She said she is concerned about how the hunt is concentrated in a tiny 40-acre area near her rental home. She created a video about the hunt, which can be seen on the Yellowstone Voices website.
Many of the scenes were shot from cameras on Lynn's Gardiner rental home. She said the conditions for the hunt are not safe, it's not good for the bison, and it hurts her winter rental business.
“I had a woman that I had stay at my cabin that worked in the park and she said, 'I'm out of here.' She was so upset. So, I can't have guests there,” said Lynn.
She said other renters have had similar experiences: “I can't have people pay money to get on a plane to come here, to pay rent, to see this and their children? No.”
While this season’s weather means the tribal harvest, which is not really underway yet, will be much smaller, it could grow a lot again by next year. Under current rules, strongly endorsed by the state of Montana, it’s all dependent on the weather.