Tuesday marked the beginning of the bison hunt in Region 3, and at least one animal had been culled before nightfall.
Bobby Sutton, a smokejumper from Sheridan, harvested his bison in the gentle terrain off of Old Reservoir Road, ten miles outside of West Yellowstone.
"I have a lot of respect for the animals. I've lived in the area for a long time and will go out in late March just to watch them eat. They are really amazing critters," Sutton said.
A first time bison hunter, Sutton shot his bull, which he estimated to weigh between 1,700 and 1,800 pounds, with his .30-06 rifle.
Meat spoils quickly without immediate care, and field dressing a nearly one ton animal alone is, at best, difficult, so Sutton brought along a crew of nine to divide the labor.
Even with help, it took Sutton and his crew nearly four hours to get the bison out of the field, loaded on the truck and ready to go home.
"I'll definitely share the meat with everyone who helped," Sutton said.
Hunting is woven into Montana's cultural fabric, yet the bison hunt evokes a unique range of controversy and emotion as compared to other hunts in the state.
"There has been significant public scrutiny of proposed bison hunting and bison management since the 1980's," Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) public information officer Andrea Jones said.
And part of this scrutiny has to do with the migratory instincts of the iconic beast.
Every year at about this time the wild bison of Yellowstone National Park begin to migrate.
"Their harvest is dependent upon members of the herd leaving Yellowstone National Park and entering Montana in the winter months. FWP is one of several government agencies and tribal governments that make up the signatories of the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). As part of the IBMP, FWP uses hunting as a tool to manage the abundance and distribution of bison," Jones said.
In search of food and warmer temperatures, literally driven by biology, their migration leads them from the elevated confines of the park, where they are protected by law, and into the lower climes of hunting districts 385 and 395.
It also leads them into contact with cattle.
The Montana Department of Livestock argues that bison carry brucellosis, which it contends may be passed from bison to cattle.
Infected cattle are less productive and require costly vaccinations, which ultimately cut into a rancher's bottom line.
As reported in FWP's 2011 hunting regulations, brucellosis in Yellowstone National Park bison is one of the primary reasons that attempts are being made to control bison in Montana.
Not everyone, however, is sold on the bison's culpability.
The Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) is an activist group working to protect one of the last wild bison herds in North America, and it takes issue with the notion of bison as agents of disease.
"We think that it's an excuse. It's a political tactic used by the cattle industry to maintain control over land use. In fact, there has never been a documented case of wild bison transmitting brucellosis in the state of Montana," BFC spokeswoman Stephany Seay said.
For his part, Sutton shares some of the skepticism that bison spread brucellosis and wishes hunters and the BFC could stand together to promote the welfare of the bison.
"The Department of Livestock slaughter of bison a few years back was a gross mismanagement of a resource, and I support the (BFC) campaign. I think we have a lot of common ground in conservation. Hunting gives these animals value, and we would like to see an area where bison can roam freely outside the park freely. We would like to see a set number of bison that can be in that area and manage that number with hunting," Sutton said.
According to Seay, access to year-round habitat is at the root of the issue, and until that is guaranteed, she sees any talk of a bison hunt as premature.
"The habitat is all around them, they are just forbidden access to it. They are the only species that the state manages in such a nefarious way. Without year-round access to their native Montana range, the hunt is extremely premature," Seay said.
As for now though, the hunt is on.
And, with nothing to do but follow their instincts, Yellowstone bison are headed this way as the annual hunt remains a contentious topic in Montana.
For bison hunt information during hunt periods call (406) 994‑5700 ext. 5.