This winter has been especially rough for Yellowstone National Park bison management.

Bison may be the park’s most complex wildlife management challenge, so there is always controversy, but new wrinkles have appeared.

Yellowstone Park’s annual capture and ship to slaughter operation began on Feb. 16 with 96 bison corralled inside the park at the Stephens Creek capture and quarantine facility near Gardiner, Mont. The management goal was to remove 600-900 animals from a park population that numbers about 4,800.

Last week, 73 bison were illegally released overnight from the Stephens Creek facility. It was the second such clandestine release reported this winter; on Jan. 16, 52 bison escaped when someone cut fencing.

Also last week, an environmental law firm based in Bozeman, Mont., asked a federal judge to stop the capture of bison at Yellowstone’s northern border so the animals can migrate farther into Montana. The Associated Press reported that Cottonwood Environmental Law Center contends that the capture activities are a safety hazard with bison hunters using the same area.

The lawsuit’s complaint is affirmed by reports of tribal hunters forming a firing line to shoot bison just outside the park boundary near Gardiner. There are reports that wounded bison have run back into the park, where they cannot be hunted. This sounds like a bad Western movie, not a safe, humane, well-planned way to reduce the bison population. It doesn’t sound like the kind of hunt that tribes would want as they exercise their historic treaty rights.

Earlier in February, the Blackfeet Tribe of northwestern Montana conducted its first Yellowstone bison hunt, joining five other tribes, including Montana’s Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, tribes from Idaho, Oregon and Washington, along with Montana state licensed hunters. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Blackfeet Tribe sold 80 bison hunt permits to members and announced a hunt that would run from Feb. 5 to 11. A variety of problems were reported.

The bison hunt also has been a headache for the Park County Sheriff’s Department.

“There are a lot of state and tribal hunters congested in a small area,” Sheriff Scott Hamilton said. “People block the roads with their vehicles. And some locals are upset with the way bison are taken. There are a lot of shots, not all of them clean shots. It’s difficult for people to watch that.”

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has posted a FAQ online that raises almost as many questions about tribal treaty hunting rights as it answers. According to FWP:

• Tribal bison hunters can hunt other animals they have traditionally harvested, such as elk.

• There are no mutual, formal agreements in place to limit tribal harvest of bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose or other species that raise specific conservation concerns. FWP is advocating no additional harvest of certain species beyond the Montana management plan, but tribes are not required to comply.

• Montana has no mechanism to mandate that tribes limit harvest of elk.

• Tribal wardens cannot directly issue citations to Montana state hunters, but may check their licenses and call a Montana state game warden to consider issuing citations.

When green-up arrives and the bison killing stops, all the tribes and agencies involved should get together and find solutions to the confusion, congestion, safety and security issues that cropped up this winter. Cooperative solutions are needed. The area in which the state of Montana tolerates bison could be expanded to provide space for bison and hunters to disperse. The tribes could improve coordination and supervision of their hunts for safety and a better hunting experience. Measures should be taken to assure that bison hunters take clean shots. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox should ensure that all state and local law enforcement authorities have clear, correct information about the legal requirements and protections of tribal and nontribal hunters as well as nonhunters.

Better get a big table for that meeting. Everyone, especially leaders of the tribes now hunting and the Crow Tribe that has announced its intention to hunt, needs to talk and reach a mutual agreement to avoid another debacle next winter.

-- The Billings (Mont.) Gazette