Fourteen bison from Yellowstone National Park fell through the ice on Hebgen Lake after being hazed by government agents on snowmobiles Thursday morning.
Two drowned in the icy water, 10 were pulled out and two walked out on their own.
"It was horrible," said Dan Brister of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group that advocates for bison and monitors hunting and hazing operations.
"I saw 12 buffalo in that little hole swimming around, pawing at the edges, trying to pull themselves up, but the physics wouldn't allow it," he said.
The activity at the lake was part of a busy and controversial day for Yellowstone's bison and those trying to control their movements outside the park's boundary.
On the north side of the park, Yellowstone officials shipped 24 bison captured Wednesday to slaughter and rounded up 105 more. By the end of the day Thursday, nearly 300 bison were being held by park officials.
All of them eventually will be sent to slaughter, including up to 40 of them today, said Al Nash, a Yellowstone spokesman. None of them will be tested for brucellosis, the contagious animal disease that is the reason for the controversial management plan for bison that leave Yellowstone each winter in search of food at lower elevations.
On a separate front Thursday, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department announced that it is temporarily suspending the bison hunt outside Yellowstone's northern boundary so about 20 bison can be hazed back into the park.
The bison were on private property near cattle and horses, according to Mel Frost, a spokeswoman for FWP. She said they hoped to reopen the area to hunting by Saturday.
The incident at Hebgen Lake began as snowmobile-riding agents from the Department of Livestock (DOL), FWP and Yellowstone attempted to haze bison near the mouth of Red Canyon Creek, on the northern edge of Hebgen Lake, Frost said.
About 48 bison walked onto the frozen lake at a spot where the lake narrows. Frost said it's not unusual for bison to walk on the lake in the winter.
But the ice gave way, and 14 bison fell into about 6 feet of water about 40 yards from shore. Two were able to walk out.
The agents, soon joined by members of the U.S. Forest Service, used a chain saw and a pry bar to carve a channel into the ice. They looped a chain or a rope around 10 bison and pulled them to shore. Two cow bison drowned before they could be pulled out. Brister, from Buffalo Field Campaign, said some of the bison were in the water for more than two hours.
The bison that escaped walked away from the lake back to the area where agents were trying to shoo them from and appeared unharmed, Frost said. The carcasses of the two dead bison were pulled from the lake. If the meat is salvageable, it may be donated to a food bank or American Indian tribes.
The incident resulted from an unfortunate combination of events, Frost said.
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Hazing operations in that area were called off for the rest of the day. It's unclear whether they will resume today.
"DOL has the lead in hazing. ... It'll be up to them to decide," Frost said. "We need to give them a chance to recover."
DOL officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Bison and wildlife managers kept busy on the north side of Yellowstone, too.
Around 10 a.m. Thursday, 12 bull bison and 12 females were shipped to slaughter. They were part of about 200 that were rounded up a day earlier.
Agents then went after about 100 more bison, most of which were outside the park boundary on private property, Nash said.
By day's end, the Stephens Creek bison holding facility contained about 290 Yellowstone bison.
Typically, 200 bison is considered maximum capacity at Stephens Creek, but park officials said they have adequate food, water and room for more if it's only for a short time.
Between 24 and 40 of those bison were scheduled to be taken to a slaughter facility today.
The rest will be taken to slaughter when arrangements can be made. The meat, head and hides will be donated to social service agencies and Indian tribes.
More bison may be captured soon. Park officials estimate 350 to 400 bison were in the northern reaches of Yellowstone in recent weeks. That could mean 100 or so are still in the area.
State and federal officials say the hazing, capture and slaughter of bison is part of a management plan approved for bison in 2000. The plan is designed to reduce the risk of transmitting brucellosis, a disease that can cause abortions, from bison to nearby livestock.
Bison advocates say the activity this week - including the capture and slaughter and the incident at Hebgen Lake - show severe shortcomings in the plan. Instead of hazing and capturing bison, they have pushed for showing more tolerance of bison that leave the park.
"This is just a case in point that this isn't working," said Amy McNamara of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.