They might be amongst America's most iconic animals, but the answer to this question is very possibly 'yes'. Reuters reports that authorities at Yellowstone National Park are considering slaughtering hundreds of bison (also called buffalo) each year over the next several years because the park's herds are now exceeding target populations.

12 02 2013 Bison Migrating
During particularly harsh winters, bison stray beyond Yellowstone's borders in search of better foraging grounds. Image: Diana Norgaard, Flickr

During particularly harsh winters, bison stray from Yellowstone's snow-covered high country in search of better foraging spots in lower elevations in Montana. If large numbers cross Yellowstone's borders this year, park authorities say they will take the opportunity to reduce herd numbers by rounding up the wayward animals and sending them to slaughter. 

An estimated 4,600 bison now roam the park, far exceeding the target population of 3,000 to 3,500. Yellowstone biologists believe that between 600 and 800 bison must be culled annually over the next few years to rein in the herds. 

"In order for us to approach that population target, we're going to seek opportunities to capture any animals that move outside the park's boundaries," said park spokesperson Al Nash. Just over 100 bison have already been removed this year through hunts in Montana, he added. Hunting is not permitted inside the park, but bison, wolves, elk and other animals that leave Yellowstone's borders are not necessarily protected.

“The planned culls have revived a decades-long debate about how Yellowstone bison should be managed.”

No surprisingly, the planned culls are facing some strong opposition – and they've also revived a decades-long debate about how bison numbers should be managed.

Montana cattle ranchers, for one, worry about the risk of disease, fearing that stray bison exposed to brucellosis (a disease that can cause cows to miscarry) will infect their domestic herds. It's estimated that about half of Yellowstone bison have been exposed to the disease.

Animal advocates, on the other hand, argue that no other wildlife in Montana, including Yellowstone elk with brucellosis, is killed for embarking on an ancient migration to winter range.

"The idea that there are some surplus bison is absurd. Are there surplus elk being hauled off for slaughter? It's a clear double standard of Montana failing to respect bison as the valued native species they are," said Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association in Montana.

So what is the likely fate of the bison this year? It all seems to depend on the weather. Last winter, thanks to mild conditions, very few strayed beyond the safety of Yellowstone. 2006 was very different – almost 1,000 were shipped to slaughter.

Original story: Reuters

Top header image: Tupulak, Flickr