Schweitzer pushes bison culls, park chief balks

By Matthew Brown and Matt Gouras
Helena, Montana (AP) March 2011

The governor told the new chief of Yellowstone National Park recently that bison herds should be thinned inside the park to prevent them from spilling into parts of Montana where they could spread an animal disease to livestock.

In their first meeting since Daniel Wenk became park superintendent, he and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer agreed that a new approach to bison management was needed.

But Wenk resisted the culling proposal, saying it was not a workable solution in the park that straddles Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

More than 500 park bison have been captured this winter and face possible slaughter under a federal-state program to protect surrounding cattle ranches from the disease brucellosis. The effort has been sharply criticized by wildlife advocates and some members of Congress.

Bison slaughter shipments were put on hold by Schweitzer last month. But with more bison continuing to be captured as the animals exit the park – including 45 on March 6th – the corrals where the animals are being held along the Montana border have hit capacity.

Park officials moved some of the newly captured animals to a second holding area – a government-leased ranch known as the Brogan Bison Facility that is several miles north of the park.

The 25 animals were first given blood tests that came up negative for exposure to brucellosis. They will be held for release back into the park in the spring, officials said.

The park now has about 3,500 bison – including those already captured – and Yellowstone officials have said it can sustain up to 4,500 of the animals.

But Schweitzer said it was irresponsible for the park to have such a large bison population knowing that during harsh winters many will flood out of the park and into Montana.

Schweitzer said the state is working on buffer zones allowing bison in small areas.

Many hundreds of the animals can leave Yellowstone during harsh winters, when they move out of the park’s mountainous terrain in search of food at lower elevations.

More than 1,400 bison were slaughtered during the last mass migration in 2008.

“Montana doesn’t think we should be in a position of hauling brucellosis infected bison out of the hot zone,” Schweitzer said. “I don’t think there is anyone who thinks that is a sustainable plan.”

He said a managed hunt, or “adaptive culling,” inside the park would shift some of the burden of managing the size of the bison herds back to the federal government.

Wenk said the Park Service would oppose the idea and there would be numerous objections to killing the animals inside the park.

“This is almost a policy question of historic proportions for Yellowstone National Park,” he said. “If we started that process we would be under fire from a lot of quarters.”

He said both sides agree a better plan is needed.

“I do believe we have the same goals,” he said. “How we reach them is going to need discussion.”

Schweitzer didn’t buy the argument that culling the animals in the park would be too disruptive, particularly given that the wild animals already are corralled and shipped all over the state for slaughter.

The park previously culled bison until the early 1960s to help control their population, and Schweitzer pointed out other national parks have culled elk herds when they grew too large.

Hunting already is allowed outside the park. About 200 bison have been killed this year by Montana hunters and members of several American Indian tribes that hunt under longstanding treaty rights.