When Yellowstone National Park was hewn out of present-day Wyoming, Montana and Idaho 117 years ago, no one consulted the park's wildlife.
That oversight leads to annual winter slaughters along Yellowstone's northern border as elk and bison trudge into southern Montana to forage and find themselves in the cross hairs of hunters' rifles.The hunters come to Gardiner, Mont., either to take part in the state's late elk season or as part of Montana's 4-year-old plan to keep brucellosis, which causes cows to abort, out of the state by killing any bison that wander out of Yellowstone.
In Gardiner, which is overrun by the animals, some residents feed them, some make money off the hunters and others simply watch.
"I wouldn't describe either the elk hunt or the buffalo hunt as a fair chase," said Richard Parks, a Gardiner resident. "The buffalo hunt is . . . a buffalo execution, and everybody realizes that."
By the end of this past winter's hunting seasons, Yellowstone officials estimated that roughly 2,400 elk were taken along with more than 500 bison. The animals' instinct to move north to winter ranges ignored the park boundary that might have meant the difference between life and death.
"Park boundaries are drawn politically," Stu Coleman pointed out recently while discussing the winter migrations. "That's why they're so nice and straight. If in 1872 they (those who conceived the park) had thought ecologically, they probably would have stepped back, studied the situation, and drawn the boundaries ecologically.
"Well, you know, hindsight is 20-20," continued Yellowstone's resource management specialist. "It's probably no more evident, that the northern boundary is politically drawn instead of ecologically drawn, (here) than anywhere else in the nation."
Parks, who runs a tackle shop situated on the banks of the Yellowstone River, says there are two readily apparent solutions to coping with the migrations.
"One way is to stand there and watch them starve to death. Or shoot them," he said. "None of us particularly like that thought. Nobody wants to watch an animal starve to death."
The ensuing national attention focused on the bloody hunts prompted Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan to dispatch former National Park Service Director William Penn Mott to Yellowstone to review the situation.
Mott called for Park Service and U.S. Forest Service officials to develop an interagency plan for managing wildlife in and around Yellowstone. And just last week the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee agreed to pursue a plan to acquire roughly 18,000 acres of private lands north of the park for additional winter range.