Although not without incident, the tribal bison hunt outside Yellowstone National Park is running more smoothly. But that could change as more tribes consider joining the hunt.

Representatives of six tribes and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks gathered for their annual meeting this week to review last year’s bison hunt and to consider what changes might be needed to keep hunters safe as two more tribes ask to be included.

In 2006, the state gave two tribes – the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Nez Perce Tribe – the go-ahead to hunt bison on public land outside Yellowstone as a tool to manage the bison population. Then the Shoshone-Bannock and the Umatilla started making the trek and the Yakima Nation joined last year.

In February, the Blackfeet Nation joined the hunt for the first time, but hadn’t been informed about safety rules that four other tribes had hammered out last fall in a memorandum of understanding. As a result, some Blackfeet hunters unknowingly disrupted a system developed to bring order to a hunt that some have criticized as chaotic.

Some tribal hunting is allowed near West Yellowstone, but the majority of bison are shot on the 7-acre bottleneck called Beattie Gulch on Forest Service land west of Gardiner. Bison exit the park at this pinch point but usually don’t get far before being shot by hunters lined up outside.

In the past, the situation could get dangerous as groups of desperate hunters would fire at the same animals from all directions. Hunters field-dressing their kills reported hearing bullets whiz by their heads.

It got so bad a few years ago that Custer National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson considered implementing a safety closure of Beattie Gulch. But she was pleased with what happened this winter.

All the game wardens reported Wednesday that the hunt went far better than others they’d experienced, with few citations issued and only six wounded bison that ran back into the park.

“The MOU was really great mitigation; it was a better tool to deal with that,” Erickson said.

The agreement required the various tribal wardens to work closely with each other. No more than 25 hunters with guns – five from each of the five tribes participating last year – could hunt in Beattie Gulch each day.

Umatilla representative Jeremy Wolf said it wasn’t easy getting the tribes to agree. In fact, the Shoshone-Bannock tribe refused to sign the MOU.

“It doesn’t happen very often – you don’t get sovereigns at the same table to sign onto something,” Wolf said. “It’s very difficult. We have history. But when we’re able to lay down our differences and look toward the future, I think good things have happened.”

While tribes found some unity, they pointed out that the state of Montana hasn’t signed the MOU either.

That was a problem in one incident this winter when a state hunter claimed a bison shot by a Umatilla hunter and no FWP wardens were available to deal with the situation.

Bison that remain in Yellowstone Park during the harsh winter months cannot be hunted. (Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current)
Bison that remain in Yellowstone Park during the harsh winter months cannot be hunted. (Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current)

But when FWP Operations Chief Mike Volesky asked the group to review a draft MOU written by the state, tribal representatives said they didn’t want to start over. The governor should sign their MOU and other issues could be worked out over time, Wolf said.

And after all the work they put into developing the rules last summer and getting their tribes’ approval, tribal representatives accused the state of not doing its part to educate newly admitted tribes. Volesky said that hasn’t been the state’s role.

“The Blackfeet didn’t have the opportunity to be part of the MOU that dictated how things would happen in Beattie Gulch. That was unfortunate timing, and so there was probably still conflict going on that we hoped to avoid. We’ll cop to bad timing on that. But it’s not fully in the state’s control,” Volesky said.

If a process can’t be worked out, new problems could arise. The Crow and the Northern Arapaho have recently started the process to verify that they have treaty rights to hunt and historically hunted around the park.

Once approved, their members will join the other tribal and state hunters vying to fill their bison tags.

This year, those hunters were fairly successful, killing a total of 368 bison.

Add that to the 130 sent to quarantine and the 663 bison captured and sent to slaughter for a total of 1,161 bison removed from the population.

Approximately 4,400 bison remain in the park, although that count is unofficial, said YNP Chief Ranger Tim Reid. But that total is pretty close to the park’s long-term goal of 4,200 bison.

“That’s the social carrying capacity. The park can support more bison than what we have – the ecological carrying capacity when the number of elk in the ecosystem is 6,200,” Reid said, citing a 2009 research paper. “The 3,000 number was framed in the 1990s as a zero-sum equation when bison couldn’t be outside the park. It was a long time ago. It’s time for ground-truthing and the debunking of urban legend.”