Between 600 and 900 Yellowstone bison to be culled this winter

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Montana — Somewhere between 600 and 900 Yellowstone bison will be culled from the population this winter.

Most of those animals will likely end up dead, either taken by hunters or shipped to slaughter. Some will stay alive, sitting in corrals and being enrolled in the park’s brucellosis quarantine program.

Yellowstone National Park biologist Chris Geremia said the park estimates the population sits at about 4,900 bison now, based on two counts this summer. Geremia said removing between 600 and 900 animals would result in a decreasing population.

How many end up getting culled depends entirely on the winter migration — how many animals actually move north out of the park in search of forage. Geremia said people should expect a big migration at some point this year.

“No matter what the weather brings there will probably be a fairly substantial migration into the Gardiner basin,” Geremia said.

The winter plan was finalized during a recent meeting of the hodgepodge of state, federal and tribal government agencies involved in managing bison under the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

The group, which meets three times a year, typically finalizes the winter culling plans this time of year as hunts managed by seven tribal governments and the state of Montana get going. Already two bison have been taken by hunters, according to the Buffalo Field Campaign, an advocacy group that closely monitors the annual hunt.

The range of between 600 and 900 bison is the same goal managers set in three of the past four winters. It has come with varying results.

More than 1,100 were removed in winter 2018, while fewer than 500 were removed this past winter.

This winter’s plan includes putting as many as 110 bison into brucellosis quarantine, a process of isolation and repeated testing for the disease. The program is meant to produce disease-free bison that can be sent to the Fort Peck. Certifying the animals as free of brucellosis — a disease feared by the cattle industry — clears barriers to transferring live bison from Yellowstone to other places.

Fort Peck received two shipments of bison from the Yellowstone region this year and more may soon be on their way there. Ryan Clarke, of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said there are 14 cow-calf pairs at APHIS corrals near Corwin Springs that will be tested again this month and could be sent north soon after.

The two shipments earlier this year and the likelihood another will clear space for more bison to enter quarantine. If 110 were to be put in quarantine, park managers would likely have to capture at least double that amount and test each animal for exposure to brucellosis. Only those that test negative could go into quarantine, and biologists estimate about half of Yellowstone’s bison have been exposed to the disease.

APHIS and Yellowstone would split the quarantine bison, with some going to the park corrals near Gardiner and others going to the APHIS corrals near Corwin Springs. But there’s only so much room at the two facilities, prompting some officials to wonder how the program can expand in the future.

“There’s a capacity issue there,” said Cam Sholly, the superintendent of Yellowstone.

Montana finds first wild elk chronic wasting disease case

Montana officials have found the state’s first suspected case of chronic wasting disease in wild elk.

A cow elk killed by a landowner northeast of Red Lodge in south-central Montana earlier this month tested positive for exposure to the disease, making it a suspected case of the always-fatal neurological condition, according to Bob Gibson, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman.

Tissue from the animal is now off for more detailed testing to confirm the presence of the disease, with results expected within a couple weeks.

Gibson said suspected cases almost never turn up false, and that it’s highly likely the tests will confirm the elk had the disease.

It would be the first wild elk found with the disease.

Nick Gevock, the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said it illustrates that the disease is widespread. He added that the find is concerning because elk tend to congregate in large groups, a trait that makes them more susceptible to spreading CWD.

“This is bad,” Gevock said. “This is really bad.”

CWD attacks the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose, and it’s had significant impacts on wildlife populations across the country. It’s spread primarily through contact between animals.

There have been no reported cases of the disease being transmitted to people, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise against eating meat from animals that test positive for the condition.

Montana first dealt with CWD 20 years ago, when elk on a game farm near Philipsburg were found to have the condition. The farm’s herd was depopulated, according to FWP.

The disease was first found in the wild in Carbon County in 2017, when a mule deer killed southeast of Bridger tested positive. Since then, it’s turned up all over Montana, including along the Canadian border and in the state’s northwestern corner.

It’s not known exactly how the disease came to Montana, but most of the states and provinces had the disease before Montana’s first positive. The deer and elk in Carbon County are known to migrate back and forth across the Wyoming border, where herds have tested positive.

A moose in northwest Montana tested positive for the condition earlier this fall. With the suspected case in the elk, signs of the disease have now been found in all the species affected by it.

Other test results released this week confirmed the disease in three more deer in south-central Montana — a mule deer in the Pryor Mountains, a whitetail northwest of Worden and another whitetail northeast of Silesia.

Gibson said the elk was killed about five or six miles northeast of Red Lodge, where it was making a living in pastures and farm fields. The animal wasn’t showing signs of disease, but it lived in an area where the disease had been found in deer. The landowner who shot it brought it in for sampling.

FWP has tried to track the disease with special check stations and by accepting samples from hunters. The state has restricted the movement of parts of elk, moose and deer killed in three management zones where the disease has been found.

The agency has also liberalized hunting seasons in areas with the disease, trying to thin out the herds to stop the spread.

Gibson said that approach may not apply to the elk around Red Lodge, which he said already have a liberal hunting season and aren’t terribly numerous.

“Where the elk was isn’t a real heavy concentration of elk,” Gibson said. “There’s not hundreds and hundreds of them.”

Gevock said it’s important that hunters are engaged in the management of the disease, especially as it spreads and the state gets a clearer picture of where it is.

“It’s rapidly showing up in deer in more and more places,” Gevock said. “Clearly it’s been here for a while and it’s been spreading, and that’s unfortunate.”

Yellowstone says it’s catching fewer lake trout, more cutthroat

Yellowstone National Park officials say they’re making a significant dent in the lake trout population in Yellowstone Lake, clearing space for the park’s native cutthroat trout.

Yellowstone and contract crews culled 282,960 fish this year, according to a park news release.

The total is smaller than last year and the year before that, signaling a decline in the overall number of lake trout. That’s good news for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, which suffered a major decline after the detection of the nonnative lake trout 25 years ago.

But the fight against lake trout isn’t over. A panel of experts told the park in May that it would need at least another five years of suppression work to hit its goal of a population under 100,000.

“There is a considerable amount of work yet to do to build on this progress,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said in the release. “This will continue to be one of our conservation priorities.”

Lake trout were first detected in Yellowstone Lake in 1994. The population grew across the waterbody in the southern part of the park and started taking bites out of the cutthroat population. The release said Yellowstone cutthroat are “the park’s most ecologically important fish and the most highly regarded by visiting anglers.”

Work to kill lake trout began the same year the species was detected. The release said Yellowstone has spent more than $20 million on recovering cutthroat there over the past 20 years.

So far, more than 3.4 million fish have been removed, according to the park.

This year’s lake trout catch is 29 percent lower than the total from 2017, when more than 396,000 fish were netted. Crews are also finding a decline in the number of fish per net — coming in at 2.9 this year compared to 4.4 in 2017.

Population models suggest there are 73 percent fewer lake trout 6 years old and older in the lake now than at the population’s peak in 2011, according to the release.

The park is also working on new ways to hobble lake trout growth, like suffocating their eggs and preventing reproduction. The technique is producing promising results so far, according to the release, and the park may expand it in the future.

As they’re seeing the decline in lake trout, park biologists are also finding more and more cutthroat. Fisheries staffers found a lot of cutthroat in the Thorofare region this past July — something they wouldn’t have found 10 years ago, according to the release.

Todd Koel, who leads Yellowstone’s Native Fish Conservation Program, said in the release that there are a lot of benefits from all this work.

“The park will never completely eradicate lake trout, but the return on investment is the ecological restoration of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, sustainable angling, and a chance to glimpse a river otter, osprey or bear catching a cutthroat,” Koel said.

Man burned at Yellowstone National Park after falling into hot water at Old Faithful

A man was severely burned after falling into thermal water near the cone of Old Faithful geyser late Sunday night.

Yellowstone National Park officials said in a news release that Cade Edmond Siemers, a 48-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in India, tripped into a hot spring while on an off-boardwalk stroll without a flashlight just before midnight. The release said Siemers suffered “severe burns to a significant portion of his body.”

Siemers, who was staying at the Old Faithful Inn, got himself back to his hotel room and called for help. Rangers and paramedics responded and “detected evidence of alcohol use,” the release said.

He was taken by ambulance to West Yellowstone Airport and flown to Idaho Falls, where he was admitted to the Burn Center at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.

On Monday, rangers investigated the thermal area where the man was walking. They found the man’s shoe, hat and a beer can near the geyser. They also saw footprints going to and from the geyser and blood on the boardwalk, the release said.

Rangers are still assessing any damage to the geyser cone, and they’ll send the results of their investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecutorial review.

Visitors are required to stay on boardwalks near hydrothermal areas in Yellowstone. The ground in those areas is fragile and thin and there is scalding water below the surface.

The park release said the man’s burns are the first serious injury in a thermal area in two years. In June 2017, a man fell in a hot spring in the Lower Geyser Basin. In June 2016, a man died after slipping into a hot spring in Norris Geyser Basin. In August 2000, one person died and two were severely burned after falling into a hot spring in the Lower Geyser Basin.

Winning the war: Yellowstone seeing progress on lake trout removals

YELLOWSTONE LAKE — The motor clicked rhythmically as it pulled four miles of net from the lowest depths of the lake here, where the net was set a few days prior in hopes of killing lake trout. A four-person crew worked quickly, untangling fish as they came up with the net. Once untangled, the fish were passed to the person holding a knife. He punctured their swim bladders and threw them in a plastic tub, where the casualties piled up and dried out in the hot July sun.

When a Yellowstone cutthroat came through — there are often a few, and they’re often huge — the crew tried to save it. If it still had life left, they released it to the lake, hoping the pelicans hanging around the boat won’t get to it in time. When the cutthroat didn’t have life left, it landed in the tub.

The crew, from Wisconsin-based Hickey Brothers Research, doesn’t like seeing big cutthroat die. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. It’s just part of the equation behind this big operation, the $2 million a year effort to cull as many lake trout as possible from Yellowstone National Park’s namesake waterbody.

It’s been 25 years since lake trout were confirmed to be here, and fisheries officials say they’re coming out on top. More than 3.1 million have been killed in total, including about 150,000 so far this year.

Todd Koel, Yellowstone’s supervisory fisheries biologist, said that’s a bit behind the total at the same time last year, which is a good sign.

“We’re winning this war,” Koel said.

Winning, yes, but the war isn’t close to over. Koel said they plan to keep the same level of netting effort or more for the next few years. That means about 6,000 miles of gillnets each season, which runs from spring to fall. They’re also working on new methods for killing the fish before they even hatch.

How the fish got here is still not known. The nonnatives were stocked in a few other lakes around the park, but there aren’t any definitive answers as to why park officials confirmed the existence of lakers here in 1994. By then, Koel said, the fish had probably been here for years, and there were probably thousands of them.

Lake trout are known to eat other fish, so the big battle began quickly because of what was already in the lake.

“It’s the most abundant genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat population anywhere in the western U.S.,” Koel said.

At first, the lake trout population grew, a phenomenon that coincided with a crash in the cutthroat population. That trend continued until 2012, when it started swinging the other direction.

The people setting the nets have noticed, too. Tom Short, captain of a private boat run by Hickey Brothers Research, a park contractor, is in his seventh year on the lake. It’s not as easy to find lake trout now.

“When I first got here, you could set gillnets any-ol’-where in the lake and you’re going to catch fish,” Short said. “Anymore, they’re just on the best habitat.”

How the battle is fought is changing, too. Instead of relying only on gillnetting, park officials are exploring ways of disrupting spawning by covering eggs to deprive them of oxygen. They’ve found 14 spawning sites in the lake, and they’re trying this out in a couple different ways on a few of them.

One involves the tubs of carcasses. After his crew was done pulling the net last month, Short motored to a spot south of Frank Island. Once the boat was at the dumpsite, he instructed the crew to empty the tubs into the water. The idea is that the carcasses, with the swim bladder punctured, will sink to the bottom and cover up a spawning site, making it impossible for lake trout to reproduce there.

Farther south, Koel pointed out a site near Promontory Point where they’re trying the same idea but with specialized pellets.

These efforts won’t erase the need for gillnetting. But Koel is hopeful they could help them reduce the amount of netting necessary each year. First, he said, they want to reach a point where there’s about 100,000 lake trout here, a level they think could be more sustainable to keep cutthroat alive.

Even if they get there, the war won’t be over.

“There’s no way to get rid of these lake trout,” Koel said. “We’re always going to have to do something to suppress the population.”

Residents push for bison hunt restrictions on border of Yellowstone

A group of Gardiner, Montana, residents offered wildlife managers a few ideas Wednesday with hopes of improving the safety and aesthetics of the annual Yellowstone bison hunt just outside the park’s borders.

Members of the Bear Creek Council offered six recommendations at a meeting of the various tribal, state and federal agencies involved in the Interagency Bison Management Plan. The group’s ideas focused on two heavily used hunt areas near Gardiner, which is just norther of Yellowstone — one west of the Yellowstone River known as Beattie Gulch and the other along the road running from Gardiner to Jardine.

A few of the recommendations centered on educating hunters and locals about the hunt, ideas that are largely uncontroversial. But others were aimed at expanding an existing clean zone near Beattie Gulch and adding a new one in the area northeast of Gardiner.

Rick Lamplugh, a member of the Bear Creek Council, said adding a zone northeast of town where shooting and gutting of animals was blocked could help deal with what residents have complained about for years — gunfire near homes and bison remains left to rot on the side of the road long after hunting season.

“It would eliminate a whole bunch of issues and problems,” Lamplugh said.

But some tribal officials pushed back, not wanting to see any additional restrictions placed on hunters exercising their treaty rights to go after Yellowstone bison. Tom McDonald, a wildlife manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said he thinks there are other ways to deal with safety problems that could be tried before further limiting where hunters can hunt.

“I just don’t think we’re there,” McDonald said.

Wednesday’s meeting was far from the first time the government officials who manage Yellowstone bison lost hours talking about the hunt near Gardiner, which arrives each winter when bison decide to migrate north out of the park in search of food. Residents have complained regularly about the hunt.

Officials agreed Wednesday to spend time reviewing the hodgepodge of regulations that govern hunting in the Gardiner Basin and studying the impacts additional restrictions might have. How additional restrictions would be implemented remains an open question, given the complexity of the hunt there.

There’s no common set of regulations that governs hunting there. Hunters chasing bison are licensed either through one of seven Native American tribes from around the West or through the state of Montana, and each individual hunter is subject only to the regulations of the agency that licensed them.

Hunt managers have made voluntary agreements aimed at improving the hunt in recent years, beginning with a clean zone on the west side of a county road where hunters can’t shoot an animal. A few years ago, some tribes agreed to limit the number of hunters in Beattie Gulch and to coordinate daily hunting activity.

The requests from the Bear Creek Council came after a fairly light hunting season. A little more than 100 bison were taken by hunters this past winter, the low total thanks to a slow migration.

Bear Creek Council organized a trip to Beattie Gulch this spring for bison managers to point out what’s left when hunting season is over. They walked people past decomposing rib cages, other leftover bones and at least one bison fetus.

They worry those remains could serve as an attractant for bears and wolves. The group’s recommended clean zone expansion would add 100 yards to the 200-yard buffer at Beattie Gulch and create a 150-yard buffer on stretches of Jardine and Travertine roads.

McDonald, however, said he didn’t think what was visible during the trip to Beattie Gulch last spring warranted any further steps to protect the public from predators.

Bret Haskett, a wildlife official for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, said pushing hunters farther from the road could make it tougher for them to fully clean up the bison’s remains, too. And he thinks the tribes have tried to work with the people of Gardiner in the past.

Lamplugh said they expected pushback from the tribes on the clean zone idea, but that they’re not going to stop pushing for it.

“We’re not going to roll over,” he said.

Yellowstone sees third-busiest May

Yellowstone National Park recorded its third-busiest May on record, marking the beginning of what’s likely to be another busy summer season.

Park statisticians recorded a total of 434,385 visits during the month, a slight decrease from 2018, which was the busiest May on record with more than 446,000 visits.

It brings total visits for the year to 576,776, which is up 1 percent from the first five months of 2018. It’s 11 percent higher than 2015, the first year annual visitation topped 4 million.

Annual park visitation has topped 4 million each year since, and the start to this year suggests 2019 won’t be any different. Only one year has had higher visitation through the first five months of the year — 2016, when a record 4.2 million visits were counted.

Summertime is the busiest part of the year for Yellowstone. Each of the past three Junes has seen more than 800,000 visits. July is typically the busiest month, with totals beyond 900,000 in the past three years.

Park officials said in a news release announcing the numbers that people need to plan their visits ahead of time, and expect delays and limited parking at popular spots. All roads have opened, but that can change with inclement weather.

Yellowstone roads begin opening Friday

Another harbinger of summer’s approach arrives this week: the opening of roads in Yellowstone National Park.

The park announced this week that three of its most-used road stretches are scheduled to open to cars on Friday — from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful, and from Norris to Canyon Village. The road from Mammoth to Cooke City is already open.

The opening of the roads will be subject to weather. Also this weekend, entrance fees will be waived Saturday.

Roads farther inside the park’s interior have later opening dates.

The roads to Lake Village won’t open until next month. Both the road from the East Entrance and from Canyon Village to Lake Village are scheduled to open on May 3.

Visitors hoping to drive to Yellowstone Lake from either Old Faithful or the park’s south entrance won’t be able to do so until the middle of May. Those roads are scheduled to open May 10.

The final road to open is the path from Tower Fall to Canyon Village, over Dunraven Pass. That road is scheduled to open May 24, as is the Beartooth Highway.

Construction was scheduled to begin this week on part of the road from Norris to Mammoth. Road work has been occurring there for the past few years. The park’s website said visitors should expect up to 30-minute delays between Roaring Mountain and Apollinaris Spring.

Road work will also take place from Fishing Bridge to Indian Pond beginning in May.

Yellowstone is coming off its fourth consecutive year with more than 4 million visits. Already, park statisticians have recorded more than 94,000 visits this year.

At least 457 Yellowstone bison killed

At least 457 bison were killed this winter, a total that falls shy of a removal goal as most hunting seasons and capture-for-slaughter operations end.

Of those, 347 were shipped to slaughter after being caught in Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek Capture Facility and 106 were killed by hunters, according to a report from the park. The number taken by tribal hunters will likely increase because final harvest totals for several tribes haven’t been reported yet.

The report was compiled late last week as park officials shuttered the trap for the year. Park officials don’t capture bison beyond the end of March because of the approach of calving season for the animals, park spokeswoman Linda Veress said.

If 457 is the final number, it would be the lowest total since 2016, when managers culled fewer than 600. The past two years were among the highest in a decade, both topping 1,100.

It would also be short of bison managers’ goal of culling between 600 and 900, agreed to last fall to either slightly reduce the population of roughly 4,500 or keep it stable.

Culling bison depends heavily on the animals’ willingness to migrate north out of the park, something they didn’t really do until late this winter.

Many bison hunters got skunked early on while the animals remained inside the park even as snow grew deep and temperatures dropped. Large numbers of bison weren’t observed north of the park border until mid-March, according to the report.

The report’s tally of bison killed by hunters puts their take at 106, with another three bison killed by park staff after being wounded and wandering back into the park. But the report doesn’t have a complete accounting of which hunters took the bison, listing the lion’s share of the total as “unattributed harvests.”

Of the 85 hunters licensed through the state of Montana, only one was successful, said Mark Deleray, regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes took two bison.

Deleray said hunters from the Nez Perce Tribe harvested a total of 53 and hunters from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation took 11.

The migration that benefited hunters also gave park officials a chance to open the gates of the trap. A total of 348 were captured. One died in the corrals. The other 347 were sent to slaughter, and the meat will go to Native American tribes.

More than 300 Yellowstone bison removed so far

More than 300 bison have been culled from the Yellowstone National Park population so far this year, according to a report from park officials.

As of March 22, 305 bison had been removed between hunting and capture-for-slaughter operations, a total that may climb this week as hunts continue.

So far, hunters licensed through seven tribal nations have taken 96 bison, according to the park’s report.

The park’s Stephens Creek Capture Facility has trapped and consigned 208 bison to slaughter. One bison died in the facility.

That total is still short of bison managers’ goal of removing between 600 and 900 bison this winter. Managers try to control the population’s number with hunting and slaughter each year when the animals migrate out of the park.

Last summer, biologists estimated there were about 4,500 bison in the population. The removal goal is meant to keep that number stable or slightly decrease it.

This winter has been slow. Bison largely stayed inside the park’s interior — where they can’t be hunted or trapped — for the first few months of winter.

Migration northward began en masse in late February. Over the first few weeks of March, there were consistently more than 200 bison north of Mammoth Hot Springs, according to the report.

Park officials are still holding roughly 80 bison for a quarantine program.