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Lawmakers Want to See Tribal Bison Hunting in Yellowstone

bison in yellowstone
Travis Smola

Should Native Americans be allowed to hunt bison within Yellowstone's borders?

Yellowstone's bison herd has been something of a hot topic the last few years. In a move that should add to the debate about reducing the size of the herd, a few lawmakers are now calling for tribal hunting to be allowed within the park's borders.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports that the Environmental Quality Council decided to send a letter to Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk, asking him to honor any possible Native American requests to hunt bison within the park's borders.

Such a request has not been made in the past, but members of the council feel like something has to be done to manage the park's bison herd. "We've got to start looking outside the box for solutions," citizen council member Scott Aspenlieder told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Controlling the population of bison within the park was a hot issue last year, as 550 bison were culled during hunts near the park's borders. Officials would like to see the park's herd of 5,000 buffalo reduced by about 3,000.

Earlier this year, a U.S. District Judge turned down an injunction meant to stop capture and kill and cull efforts near the park's borders. The cull has long been opposed by animal rights activists but supported by ranchers who fear that the animals will spread the disease brucellosis to their cattle.

In fact, it's primarily concern about brucellosis that keeps park bison from being relocated to other areas. State and Federal laws also prohibit moving wild bison, unless they are going to meat processing or research facilities.

Even though the Environmental Quality Council would like to see tribal hunting in the park, it probably won't happen easily. Yellowstone spokeswoman Morgan Warthin told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that hunting isn't allowed on National Park lands unless authorized by Congress, and hunting hasn't been allowed in Yellowstone since the park's founding.

It seems some of the movement to send the letter to the park supervisor is motivated by incidents of bison being wounded outside the park and then fleeing back within the park's borders. Hunters are not allowed to pursue injured game into Yellowstone.

"That is just unnecessary waste and inhumane in my opinion," said Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton.

If a tribe did want to hunt in the park, it would raise the question of whether hunting and fishing rights were given up with Yellowstone's creation.

There is some precedent here: in 2000, a federal judge ruled that tribal rights to hunt within Glacier National Park were given up when the park was created. That case came about after Blackfeet tribal members killed some bighorn sheep within the park's boundaries.

Interestingly enough, even though members of four tribal governments have taken part in cull hunts near the park's borders in the past, it seems they aren't actually interested in hunting within the park's borders.

Staff attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle he wasn't sure why the EQC felt the need to send the letter, saying "I don't know that there's any dispute at this point."

For now, it seems the debate over Yellowstone's bison herd will continue.

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Lawmakers Want to See Tribal Bison Hunting in Yellowstone