Bison Hunter Shot During Regulated Hunt Sparks New Management Discussion

Bison Hunter Shot During Regulated Hunt Sparks New Management Discussion

A tribal hunter was hit by a stray bullet while cleaning a bison on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park on Jan. 17 during the seasonal regulated hunt. The incident brought renewed attention to a hunt that some consider overcrowded, and it comes as the National Park Service considers updating how it manages bison in the park.

Jackson Wak Wak of the Nez Perce Tribe was field-dressing a bison near Beattie Gulch when hit by the bullet fragment; however, the injury was not considered life-threatening. The shooter was one of 40 non-native hunters permitted in that area to hunt bison that migrate out of Yellowstone National Park through the northern boundary.

Tribal laws allow four Native American tribes to hunt bison that leave Yellowstone National Park as a part of their treaty rights to hunt their aboriginal food source. However, non-native hunters can simultaneously pursue bison outside the park through permit systems.

A press release from the Buffalo Field Campaign, a non-profit organization advocating for the protection of wild bison, expresses that limited areas to harvest bison have led to greater concentrations of hunters in one area, increasing the risk of injury and death to hunters. “I am so relieved the treaty hunter was not severely injured or killed by this avoidable circumstance–this time,” Executive Director James Holt Sr. said.

“Allegedly, the hunter shot a buffalo, and the victim was on a 90-degree angle about 400 yards away,” Sheriff Brad Bichler of Park County, Montana, said. He emphasized that the hunter was not shooting in the direction of the victim and the accident was caused by a “very extreme ricochet.”

Although an investigation into the incident is ongoing, authorities are not seeking charges against the hunter. “All three investigating agencies—Park County, the U.S. Forest Service, and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks—came to the same conclusion,” he said. “There was no intent and no malice.”

Bison Hunting Outside Yellowstone

Each winter, bison in the Yellowstone herd wander beyond the park boundary and onto a 400-square-mile zone of public land in Montana. Although hunting bison inside Yellowstone National Park is illegal, a strictly regulated hunt runs from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15 in that same 400 square miles of public land.

Both native and non-native hunters alike participate in the pursuit of these bison, and hunting this herd helps to assist a management plan that seeks to limit their dispersal into private and state land. A key point of this management plan is to prevent the transmission of brucellosis to livestock and other animals, as well as to support a healthy population of wild bison.

The National Park Service defines brucellosis as a non-native bacterial disease that induces abortions in pregnant bison, elk, and cattle. Domestic cattle transmitted the disease to the Yellowstone wildlife populations in the early 1900s.

Management of the Yellowstone Bison

Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. However, in 1902, after years of market hunting and poaching, only around two dozen bison were left in the park. More than 100 years of management efforts have brought the once nearly extinct species back with a population of more than 5,000 in Yellowstone.

Although this is one of conservation’s great success stories, the conflict between agencies and private landowners outside the park’s borders continues to pose a threat to the management of bison.

In 2000, a court-mediated settlement created the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), establishing a cooperative effort between eight groups to manage bison in and around Yellowstone National Park. These groups, which include state and federal agencies as well as Tribal Nations, play a role in making decisions about Yellowstone bison.

Currently, Yellowstone’s bison population is managed by three means: tribal hunts and state hunts outside Yellowstone’s boundary; capture and transfer to Tribes for shipment to slaughter; and capture for brucellosis testing and transfer to Tribes to start their own bison herds.

The National Park Service is currently preparing an environmental impact statement proposing three differing strategies for managing bison, one that will update almost 23-year-old management plans. There is no indication that bison hunting opportunities will be reduced, and it is possible that we could see an increase in tribal hunting opportunities or an increase in both tribal and non-native hunting opportunities. It’s expected that drafts for these plans will be released to the public this summer.

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