Wyo. bison herd to face the hunt
September 14, 2007
JACKSON, Wyo. ” In the three decades since 18 bison stumbled onto a federal elk feeding ground outside this mountain town, the well-fed herd has ballooned to 1,200 animals ” one of the largest groups of bison in the United States.
But the National Elk Refuge was not created for bison ” 6-foot-tall, one-ton brutes also known as buffalo. Since their arrival, the bison have pushed much-smaller elk off the refuge’s artificial feed lines, trampled its 25,000 acres of grasslands and brought in diseases that have serious economic consequences when passed to livestock.
In response, refuge officials and state wildlife officials will hold annual hunts aimed at cutting down the herd by at least 700 animals over the next few years. The first wave of hunters, entitled to one bison each, will set their sights on the herd beginning Saturday.
Meanwhile, the artificial feeding will continue each winter, angering animal rights groups and environmentalists who say the government is “baiting” bison to unnecessary slaughter.
Refuge managers agreed that feeding the same bison they want hunters to shoot was not ideal. They said the conservative politics of northwest Wyoming ” home to Vice President Dick Cheney and a strong hunting culture that is a driving economic force ” gave them little choice.
“Are animals going to die? Yeah. That’s kind of the point,” said Eric Cole, the refuge’s wildlife biologist. “It’s a political compromise. … The worst case scenario is the hunt doesn’t happen and we have 1,200 bison. That’s a lot of mouths for a limited land base.”
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Through a separate hunt, federal and state officials also want to reduce the refuge’s elk population, from almost 8,000 to about 5,000 animals.
Yet it’s the plan to kill bison that has garnered the most objection. That’s because of their somewhat docile nature ” hunting them has been compared to hunting a sofa ” and their iconic status as a last vestige of the once-wild American West.
“It’s senseless and it’s inhumane,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, an attorney with the Fund for Animals. “These animals are semi-tame and they’re shooting them in the same place that they’re feeding them.”
Lovvorn’s group earlier this year lost a nine-year legal fight to stop the hunt.
Steve Kallin, the current manager of the refuge, said the bison hunt would have been much smaller if the Fund for Animals had never filed a lawsuit. When a hunt was first proposed in 1998, there were about 500 bison on the refuge ” a number Kallin said could have been sustained by hunting 70 animals a year.
Most states, and much of Wyoming, forbid or discourage feed grounds because they allow the easy transmission of wildlife and livestock diseases. However, feed grounds are a tradition in northwest Wyoming, a region of towering mountains and fertile valleys where punishing winters routinely kill off large numbers of wildlife.
Aside from the elk refuge, there are 22 state-run feed grounds in the area.
Local hunters and federal wildlife officials say the first were started a century ago, by ranchers hoping to keep elk from eating the hay they had set aside for livestock during winter.
When the National Elk Refuge was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1912, the feeding of its elk began the same year. As elk hunting gained popularity, bringing streams of wealthy outsiders to Jackson every fall, the feed grounds helped ensure an ample supply of the animals.
The refuge’s feed lines have since expanded into a $250,000 annual program, doling up to 80 semitrailer loads of alfalfa pellets each winter, according to federal documents and former refuge manager Barry Reiswig.
In recent years, a separate feed line was established for bison to keep them from out-muscling elk. Bison eat up to 20 pounds of alfalfa a day, versus about 8 pounds for elk.
Reiswig, who retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service in June, said he “never did like” the feeding program but was forced to accept it as a political reality.
“For us to march in and say, ‘We’re going to phase out this feeding program,’ that was not an option,” Reiswig said. “Realistically, in a Western state, given this administration, that’s just not the way this game is played.”
A federal study released this year found eliminating artificial feeding would yield the best environmental results for the refuge. Yet after factoring in local opposition, the study concluded the bison hunt offered a better strategy for the refuge’s recently adopted 15-year management plan.
Jackson hunting guide Grant Gertsch worried that eliminating the feed grounds would prompt a “big die-off” of elk and lead to a major economic blow for the region. He acknowledged feeding elk and bison has created its own problems. Managing their swollen numbers through hunting, he added, is the only viable way to gain relief.
“We’ve definitely screwed up Mother Nature’s process,” he said.