Park Service, Montana offer alternatives for Yellowstone bison slaughter program

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BILLINGS, Montana — State and federal officials on Friday offered an array of options to overhaul a 15-year-old agreement that's led to the slaughter of thousands of bison at Yellowstone National Park, with possibilities ranging from letting the population spill freely into Montana to even more aggressive culling efforts.

The release of the six draft bison management alternatives comes almost a year after the U.S. Department of Interior and the state of Montana announced they would reconsider the 2000 agreement.

It also coincides with the end of yet another slaughter season, in which at least 507 migrating bison were killed to guard against transmissions of disease to livestock. The animals were transferred to American Indian tribes that use the carcasses for food and cultural purposes.

Park spokesman Al Nash said with the onset of spring conditions, there are few bison remaining north of the park where this winter's capture operations and much of the hunting occurred.

There were about 4,900 bison counted in the park last summer, the most recent tally available.

One proposal under consideration would minimize human intervention and let the herds grow to an estimated 7,500 animals, the maximum number the park could sustain. Another would step up population control efforts and drive down their numbers below 3,000.

Bison were driven to near-extinction in the late 1800s. Yellowstone's animals are prized for their genetic purity.

The slaughter program has long been a subject of controversy, drawing calls from wildlife advocates and members of Congress to stop the practice and allow more bison to roam into Montana.

A coalition of 14 advocacy groups led by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition on Friday sent a letter to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk asking for more room for the animals in Montana. They also urged the end to the "arbitrary population targets" met by shipping animals to slaughter.

But livestock interests oppose drastic changes as long as the park's herds are infected with brucellosis, a disease that causes pregnant animals to abort their young. Park officials have considered but rejected using a remotely delivered brucellosis vaccine on bison.

Retaining the status quo was among the options released Friday.

A 90-day public comment period on the draft proposals will open Monday.

In addition to the slaughter, state-licensed and tribal hunters have killed at least 185 Yellowstone bison this winter. Eleven were killed inadvertently in the park's holding pens or removed for experiments, bringing the total number killed or removed to more than 700.

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