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A tribal hunter was accidentally shot Tuesday in connection with the bison hunt on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, government officials confirmed Thursday.

According to bison advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign, a Nez Perce tribal member sustained a non-life-threatening injury when he was shot by another hunter while field dressing a bison he’d harvested. The shooter was one of 40 non-Native hunters permitted to pursue bison that leave the park’s northern boundary as part of a larger management strategy that seeks to limit their dispersal into private and state land, Buffalo Field Campaign said.

The hunter was not severely injured by the shooting, Buffalo Field Campaign spokesperson Tom Woodbury said, but he described the situation as indicative of a poorly planned, dangerous and outdated management approach.

Per the Interagency Bison Management Plan, an adaptive management approach coordinated by federal, state and tribal officials, bison that migrate outside of the park’s northern boundary can be harvested by tribal hunters as well as non-Native hunters who draw one of 40 licenses issued annually for that area. Critics of the approach say the hunters’ proximity to one another creates a situation ripe for incidents like the one that happened this week.

“Wildlife officials were on record as early as 2017 warning that ‘the fear for injury or death to hunters is real’ due to restrictions placed on hunting and migration by Montana’s Department of Livestock,” Buffalo Field Campaign Executive Director James Holt said in a release. “It is now incumbent on all the federal agencies in the region to review and update their management plans to protect and restore buffalo, without regard to the wishes of Montana’s livestock industry.”

Woodbury said his group is calling for wildlife and land managers to allow bison to roam outside of park boundaries without being subject to trapping or culling operations. Tribal members should be able to exercise their treaty rights to hunt bison outside of the geographically constricted “canned hunt” currently available to them, he said.

“Wildlife officials were on record as early as 2017 warning that ‘the fear for injury or death to hunters is real’ due to restrictions placed on hunting and migration by Montana’s Department of Livestock.”

Buffalo Field Campaign Executive Director James Holt

The Park County Sheriff’s Office is leading the investigation into the incident, which is being conducted in partnership with the Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and tribal law enforcement, FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon told Montana Free Press.

Lemon said the individual who’d been shot didn’t receive immediate medical treatment.

Park County Sheriff Brad Bichler told MTFP Friday morning that there doesn’t appear to be any criminal intent involved. The location of the tribal hunter, the state hunter and the bison the state hunter shot led him to believe it was a “freak accident,” he said.

“Essentially, the bullet would have had to ricochet 90 degrees from the direction that the [state] hunter was shooting in,” he said.

Mary Jane Oatman, the mother of the hunter who’d been shot, called for a federal investigation into the incident in the Buffalo Field Campaign statement.

“I am upset that state and federal politics put my son in the line of fire,” Oatman said. “No other person besides our Treaty tribes, with our historical and cultural ties to the area, should even be there exercising that right.”

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A spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park did not offer comment on the incident. 

The park is currently preparing an environmental impact statement examining three differing strategies for managing bison. Those strategies permit varying levels of tribal and non-tribal hunts.

They include managing for a bison population of 3,500 to 5,000 bison and keeping hunting and culling operations similar to years past; managing for an expanded population of up to 6,000 animals with an emphasis on tribal hunting and relocating brucellosis-free bison to tribal lands to hit population targets; and allowing the landscape’s carrying capacity rather than trapping and slaughter operations to drive population numbers.

The park is expected to issue a draft EIS this summer.

This story was updated Jan. 20, 2023, with comment from the Park County Sheriff’s Office.

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