Yellowstone plans to thin bison herd by 900 animals

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Yellowstone National Park plans to reduce its famed bison herd by at least 900 ahead of this winter, culling stray animals outside the park in Montana by hunting and a program to round up and deliver wayward stock to Native American tribes for slaughter.

The annual culling, if it goes as planned, would mark one of the largest thinnings of the Yellowstone herd during the past decade.

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American bison at a Yellowstone geyser basin in winter, Bison bison, Thermal pools provide warmth and growths of algae, food for bison in winter, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA, (Photo by Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - 2011/07/14: USA, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, Hayden Valley With Bison Herd With Babies In Fog. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
CANADA - FEBRUARY 17: American bison (Bison bison), Bovidae, Yellowstone National Park, Canada. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
GENESEE, CO-April 23, 2013: Snow continues to fall in Genesee Park on a buffalo stand in a field of fresh snow, April 23, 2013. Year ago Denver created the bison park as a tourist attraction along Interstate 70. The bison were originally sourced from Yellowstone National Park, and are considered one of the country's wildest herds. (Photo By RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Yellowstone National Park Wyoming April 2013
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, MT - MARCH 5: A herd of bison feed near Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by Erik Petersen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WY - SEPTEMBER 24, 2014: A bison grazes on grasses in the Hayden Valley section of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, MT - MARCH 5: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, MT - MARCH 5: A bison searches for food near Blacktail Plateau in Yellowstone National Park on Tuesday. (Photo by Erik Petersen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images) (Photo by Erik Petersen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, MT - MARCH 5:A bison looks back as it crosses the road near Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by Erik Petersen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
American Bison (also known as Buffalo) and their calves, forage for food at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming on June 1, 2011. In the early 1800's, an estimated 65 million bison roamed throughout the continent of North America but hunting and poaching had a devastating effect on their population and by 1890, fewer than 1,000 remained. Today there are an estimated 4000 bison in Yellowstone National Park. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - 2011/07/14: USA, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, Hayden Valley With Fog, Bison. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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The park's bison numbers have swelled to some 5,500 animals, well above the target population of roughly 3,000.

Animals that roam out of the park into adjacent state lands in Montana will be subject to harvest by licensed sportsmen and Native American tribes exercising historic hunting rights. But the majority will be captured live, then turned over to tribes to be slaughtered for meat.

Montana's chief veterinarian, Dr. Marty Zaluski, said park officials agreed on the goal of at least 900 at a meeting on Thursday.

The longstanding but controversial program is designed to lessen the risk of straying Yellowstone bison infecting cattle in Montana with brucellosis, a bacterial disease carried by many bison, also known as buffalo.

A similar plan was in place last winter, but fewer bison than expected migrated into Montana. The low migration, combined with high reproductive and survival rates, has pushed the population to its current high, bison managers said.

Bison are a leading attraction for the millions of tourists who annually visit the park, which spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Opponents of the culling argue that the nation's largest remaining band of wild, pure-bred bison, which once thundered across the continent by the tens of millions, should not be rounded up and killed.

"The country's last wild buffalo are persistently persecuted for crimes they've never committed," the Buffalo Field Campaign said in a statement on its website.

Bison and elk in Yellowstone have developed antibodies against brucellosis, and a case of bison transmitting the disease to cattle has never been documented, even where cows and bison coexist, according to the field campaign.

"The war against wild buffalo has nothing to do with brucellosis and everything to do with the grass and who gets to eat it," it said.

Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association disagreed.

"When you have a higher (bison) population level, there is greater likelihood that more animals will leave the park and potentially interact with cattle, exposing them to brucellosis," he said.


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