Yellowstone National Park has enacted a closure around its bison capture facility near Gardiner in preparation for rounding up animals for shipment to slaughter, but few animals have migrated out of the park this winter.
"The bison haven't had to leave," said Tim Reid, park bison program manager. That's because the snowpack arrived late in the season and has a low water density, he said.
Roughly 300 bison are in the Mammoth and Gardiner area near the park's northern border, he said, but there's been no big push by the animals to leave the park where they could be shot by hunters or rounded up for shipment to slaughter.
How many bison leave the park is "all dependent on the winter and what the energy economics are," Reid said.
The National Park Service agreed last fall to try and remove 600 to 900 animals this winter from a park herd that numbers around 4,500. Typically that roundup begins in February, but with the calendar now into March the time frame to conduct capture operations is narrow, Reid said, since capturing ends later this month.
Public and tribal hunters, who also kill bison when they move out of the park, have had a lean hunting season because few of the animals moved out of the park. The second public hunt overseen by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks ended on Feb. 15.
Only two bison were harvested by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes hunters, and that was in October, according to Tom McDonald, Natural Resources Division manager for the tribes. Last year the tribes' hunters shot 47 bison.
Almost 1,200 bison were removed last winter, about 700 of which were captured and sent to slaughter. Another 375 were killed mostly by tribal hunters (49 were killed by state hunters) and 99 were captured and are being held in quarantine for possible transfer if they are found free of the disease brucellosis. The prior winter, more than 1,200 bison were removed.
The goal is to have a stable bison population somewhere between 3,500 to the low 4,000-range, Reid said, a "sweet spot" that would avoid the large culls that have occurred in the past.
With a temporary area closure around the Stephens Creek administrative area the park is now poised to capture animals again, but Reid said it’s more of an art than a science.
"It's even odds we won’t capture a bison," he said.
Located in the northern section of the park near Gardiner, the Stephens Creek administrative area includes corral operations, equipment storage, a native plant nursery, a firing range, and, during the winter, the facility that is used to capture, sort, test, and temporarily hold bison. The administrative area is closed to the public year-round. During bison operations, the park enacts an additional temporary area closure around the facility for safety.
The meat from animals captured and sent to slaughter is distributed to participating tribal partners, including the CSKT.
"It's based on groups of a dozen or more to make it worthwhile," McDonald said.
This winter is a stark contrast to last year's heavy hunting and capture operations. In addition, last winter bison advocates broke into the capture facility and twice released penned animals from YNP corrals. In all, more than 100 bison escaped.
Even when the bison population is reduced to the park's targeted range, Reid said animals will still migrate out of the park if there's a harsh winter.
"There will always be outmigration," he said.