The 2022-2023 winter held one of the most extensive bison hunts in recent years, leaving masses of carcass waste outside Yellowstone National Park‘s northern border. And as Billings Gazette‘s Brett French details in his extensive op-ed, local officials had to clean up.
Last week, state and federal officials worked in tandem to clean up swaths of carrion waste. By March 3, at least 900 park bison had been killed by tribal and state hunters as part of ongoing programs that allow for herds to be hunted once they exit the national park.
Three Industrial-Sized Dumpsters and a 14-Foot Trailer
It took three industrial-sized dumpsters (ranging from 20 to 30 yards in length) and a 14-foot trailer to house what’s left. Rotting bison entrails, hides, and bones were all cleaned from the Gardiner Basin landscape. Once removed, they were sent to the Gallatin Co. landfill near Logan, Montana.
As French cites, it took the cooperation of Montana Department of Livestock, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to clean it all up.
“The main reason to do a cleanup this year is just the heavy concentration of carcasses on the landscape,” offers Gardiner District ranger Mike Thom. “When I say carcasses, I’m meaning gut piles, spines, ribs and hides.”
Hunting is illegal within Yellowstone National Park. But Indigenous American Tribes hold access to bison herds once they leave park boundaries. Through this winter, 8 tribes have harvested bison, including the Nez Pierce and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.
Such hunts are a step in the right direction that restore the rights of Indigenous Americans to harvest bison and other natural resources they’ve lived in tandem with for eons. But the waste has become so grandiose that Tribes, state, and federal officials had to do something about it.
2022-2023 Bison Hunt Triggers Reevaluation From Conservationists
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly did not want bison removal (by any method) to exceed 25% of the ecosystem’s population. This would be 1,500. But 1,675 bison were removed over the winter.
Yellowstone holds its own troubled history with bison slaughter, using it as a method of population control. But Sholly says “no more bison will be shipped to slaughter” following these numbers. Regardless, some conservationists are sounding the alarm.
“Today, the goal continues to be slaughter as an acceptable management tool, with every sovereign entity participating in the demise of the only continuously wild herd of buffalo in the contiguous United States,” writes James Holt executive director of the conservation group Buffalo Field Campaign and a member of the Nez Perce Tribe.
“This is an abject failure by every Decision-Maker,” he criticizes of NPS, Montana State and Tribe officials.
The disposal of so much organic waste in a local landfill is also raising flags. “Deceased animals and animal carcasses are not regulated as bio-hazardous waste in Montana,” the Gallatin County solid waste director wrote in a statement.
Bonnie Lynn, who took the aftermath-laden photo above, is executive director of Yellowstone Voices and lives across from a popular bison hunt arena. Her group advocates for “ethical bison management,” and holds the same critiques listed above. District Ranger Thom holds a different approach, however.
‘Bears could be coming out of hibernation shortly. Wolves may come down, you never know.’
“We all know people come to the area to check out the scenery, so let’s help improve that,” Thom adds of the cleanup. His initial goal? “Improve the visuals and aesthetics of the area.”
In addition, “Ancillary purposes are to mitigate the risk of human wildlife conflict as the spring approaches. Bears could be coming out of hibernation shortly. Wolves may come down, you never know,” he adds.
In the end, “Each tribe is offering support in different ways and exploring how they can help the situation,” Thom notes. But these problems are not new.
2008’s bison hunt saw more than 1,600 shot or sent to slaughter by the National Park Service. More recently, around 1,200 bison have been killed each winter. And this has changed Yellowstone’s tune on local bison harvests.
“There needs to continue to be discussions about what that hunt looks like in the future,” Superintendent Sholly concludes.
So far, park officials have been good on their word. 107 bison have been shipped to slaughter in the last three years, a stark decrease.