BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Yellowstone National Park transferred 20 bison to a Montana Indian tribe for slaughter on Wednesday, marking the first such action this winter under a plan to drastically reduce the size of the largest genetically pure bison population in the U.S.
The transfer was first disclosed by the Buffalo Field Campaign, a wildlife advocacy group, and confirmed by park officials.
Five more bison that had been captured were to be turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday for use in an experimental animal contraception program, said park spokesman Al Nash.
Yellowstone administrators plan to slaughter up to 600 bison this winter if harsh weather conditions inside the 2.2-million-acre park spur a large migration of the animals to lower elevations in Montana. It's part of a multiyear plan to reduce the population from an estimated 4,600 animals to about 3,000, under an agreement between federal and state officials signed in 2000.
Tens of millions of bison once roamed the North American Plains before overhunting drove them to near extinction by the early 1900s. Yellowstone is one of the few places where they survive in the wild.
James Holt, a member of Idaho's Nez Perce tribe and board member for the Buffalo Field Campaign, said the park's population target was an arbitrary number that threatens to infringe on treaty hunting rights held by his and other tribes. Members of those tribes travel hundreds of miles every winter for the chance to harvest bison.
Holt said many tribes have a sacred, spiritual connection with the animals because American Indians historically depended on them for food and clothing.