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Montana residents say legal bison hunts near Yellowstone unsafe

Bison graze along a state highway near West Yellowstone, Mont. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

Bison graze along a state highway near West Yellowstone, Mont. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

BEATTIE GULCH, Mont. — The scavenger-cleaned bison carcass scattered across the grassland provided the perfect punctuation point for Nathan Varley.

Varley was lobbying a group of officials May 1 to modify how the winter bison hunt is conducted in the Gardiner Basin, just north of Yellowstone National Park. The hunter-killed bison bones, fur and offal emphasized his argument: hunts are being conducted close to nearby residences.

“Our contention is that some of the hunting that does take place hasn’t been safe,” he said.

Residents variously referred to the area as the killing field or the kill zone, noting that as soon as bison cross the park boundary they are fair game for hunters. The issue isn’t new, as hunts have been conducted in the area since 2005.

Varley is a member of the Bear Creek Council, a conservation group based in Gardiner at the North Entrance to Yellowstone. He also grew up in Gardiner, the son of the park’s one-time chief scientist. After leaving and then returning to the region, Varley now runs a wildlife tourism business. He’s concerned not only about wildlife, but how the public perceives the state of Montana’s treatment of animals like bison.

“We are hyper-vigilant of things that may influence tourism,” he told The Billings Gazette. “Some (tourists) are appalled and dismayed by what they see.”

Once bison leave the park in the Gardiner Basin they can be legally killed during two winter seasons by state hunters, as well as by tribal hunters with treaty rights. Some tribal hunts extend into April. The problem has been that the areas where hunters have the easiest access to bison is relatively small and not far from residences.

“Three-hundred and fifty eight gut piles in one winter. Picture it,” said Bonnie Lynn, who lives across from Beattie Gulch, one of two prime bison hunting areas north of Gardiner.

The gut piles attract scavengers, everything from eagles and ravens to bobcats, coyotes, wolves and bears. Together they can pick clean the backbones, rib cages and gut piles in a matter of days. Some of the scavengers are killed by predator hunters, others have died from lead poisoning caused by consuming bullets.

“We are concerned about collateral damage,” Varley said.

Varley, other residents and partners of the Bear Creek Council were lobbying members of the Inter-Agency Bison Management Program (BMP), which includes state, federal and tribal officials. About 60 people toured the two hunting areas as residents spoke.

The requests were varied: Could the Forest Service land near the old Yellowstone Trail Road that leads to Beattie Gulch be closed to push the bison hunt farther away from residences? Could all bison carcasses be removed from the fields?

Last winter one resident estimated that out of the 300 animals killed more than 8,000 pounds of gut piles were left on the landscape.

“The Bear Creek Council is not against hunting,” Varley said, a message all of the other residents echoed. “But we are here to say the way hunting currently is conducted is not safe.”

Dan Stahler, who owns a home just off Eagle Creek Road, has lived close to the other main bison hunting area for five years. A hunter himself, Stahler said he has turned in many violators he’s seen trespassing, shooting from roads and hazing bison.

“I’ve been a witness to a lot of the negative activities,” he said.

He suggested the hunting area at Eagle Creek be pushed farther east, away from the houses, to increase safety for residents.

Ilona Popper, who lives farther up the road near the small community of Jardine, said during hunting season the icy road she commutes on becomes dangerous as hunters park in one lane of traffic to load or butcher their kill.

“It’s not being conducted as a safe hunt,” she said. “Something has to change.”

Officials from the IBMP were willing to listen to the many tales of residents, but didn’t want to offer hope for changes before consulting with the rest of the group.

“I’m glad to see people talking about it and what the residents deal with,” said Mike Volesky, chief of operations for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “But there’s not an easy solution or we would have done it already.”

Last year FWP proposed closing Beattie Gulch to state hunters, a suggestion that never made it past muster because it wouldn’t affect tribal hunters, who are more numerous.

“Maybe by getting people together and hearing other people’s concerns, we could reconsider some things,” Volesky said. “But it’s tough when you have a number of tribes, a number of sovereigns who see things differently.”

Tribes with treaty rights to hunt in Montana are not governed by state game laws, although they often work in concert with FWP.

Carl Scheeler, wildlife program manager for the Umatilla Tribe, agreed that the tour provided a great opportunity for the IBMP to hear the concerns of the local community. He suggested a bounty paid for carcasses could monetize what is now considered waste, encouraging some locals or hunters to pick up the dead bison parts now left lying in the field.

The question then arises: where would the carcass parts be taken, and what would be done with them? They could be incinerated or maybe turned into compost, all issues that would have to be worked out between the IBMP partners.

“We need to keep all options open right now,” he said. “We clearly care about it.”

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