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Bison in Yellowstone National Park, MT (2005)

The Controversial Slaughter of the Yellowstone Bison
In the winter of 1996-7 approximately 1,100 Yellowstone bison were killed after crossing the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, thereby reducing the Yellowstone bison population by roughly a third. The number of bison killed in 1996-7 was exceptionally large owing to a particularly brutal winter, which starved many bison out of the park. Yellowstone’s boundaries favor areas of high elevation, leaving lower elevations mostly outside of Park borders. This forced thousands of bison out of the Park as they sought out food at lower elevations. The practice of killing bison who roam outside Park boundaries has resulted in the slaughter of over 3,000 bison.
This management strategy began in 1984 when Montana Fish and Wildlife and Park game wardens killed a total of 88 bison with the intention of preventing the transmission of brucellosis from the Yellowstone bison to nearby herds of domestic livestock. Brucellosis is a contagious disease that can cause stillbirths, infertility, and decreased milk production in cattle. The disease was originally transmitted from cattle to wild buffalo and elk herds of the Greater Yellowstone Area. Recently, though, attention has shifted toward those wild herds as dangerous carriers of the disease, despite the fact that, while 10% of Yellowstone bison are infected with brucellosis, none of the 810 cattle that were tested for brucellosis (selected in 1989 from 18 different herds where Yellowstone buffalo ranged) had contracted the disease. As a result all buffalo that left the Park in 1996-7, infected or not, were slaughtered. This practice is opposed by many environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), who see bison as essential to the native ecological landscape of the Yellowstone area. For others, however, the survival of these bison means much more-- in particular, many Native communities for whom the bison are an essential and sacred part of their ways of life. Many of the communities who feel this way have collaborated to oppose the killing, forming the InterTribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC).
The Significance of the Bison to Native Peoples
The sacred significance of buffalo is present in the mythology, cosmology, and daily experience of Native peoples from the Great Lakes to the Northwest to the Southwest. The buffalo, Native peoples, and the prairie have co-evolved for thousands of years, making the buffalo crucial to Native culture and society, Native nutrition, and the ecological integrity of Native lands. The depth of the spiritual relationship between Native peoples and the buffalo is difficult to overstate. Birgil Kills Straight, an Oglala Lakota leader, explains that “The four leggeds came before the two leggeds. They are our older brothers, we came from them. That is why we are spiritually related to them. We call them in our language Tatanka, which means ‘He Who Owns Us.’ We cannot say that we own the buffalo, because he owns us.” (LaDuke, Winona. All Our Relations. Cambridge, MA, South End Press, 1999) The following statement by ITBC president Fred DuBray elaborates on this relationship: “Buffaloes mean everything to us, and teach us all kinds of things... self-respect, how to relate and live in other species and respect each other. Those are things that are real to Indian people.” The strength of this relationship is so great that Natives frequently identify themselves and their way of life with the buffalo. Chief Arvol Looking Horse says, “I humbly ask all nations to respect our way of life, because in our prophecies, if there is no buffalo, then life as we know it will cease to exist” (LaDuke, All Our Relations).
This identification with the buffalo also pertains to treatment of buffalo and Natives by the US government. Natives have often remarked that, ‘the way they treat buffalo is the way they treat Indians,’ and according to Winona LaDuke the bison represent these Native people’s spirits, reminding them of how they once lived free and in harmony with nature. Because of this, the Yellowstone buffalo herd is especially significant to tribes strongly related to the buffalo; the Yellowstone herd is believed to be the only remaining free-roaming buffalo herd descended from a wild herd, and has never historically subjected to domestication or enclosure. As a result, many Natives have taken direct action against the gradual slaughter of the Yellowstone herd in the form of civil disobedience or demonstrations. Rosali Little Thunder and a group animal activists called Buffalo Nations have been arrested numerous times for forming human barriers between buffalo and game wardens attempting to shoot them. In addition, in 1999 a ceremonial Sun Dance (involving the penetration of sharp wooden sticks into the dancer’s back, connecting the dancer by strings to a central pole) was performed as part of a large protest at Yellowstone against the slaughter of bison there each winter.
Protecting Montana’s "Brucellosis-Free" Status
In the face of this opposition, then, why have government and national park officials continued a practice that critics consider indiscriminate slaughter? The primary reason given by The Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) for the bison killings is the DOL’s commitment to "maintain Montana’s Brucellosis Free Status with the hope of eliminating brucellosis in one of the last remaining brucellosis reservoirs in the United States." Though many opponents point out that no transmission of brucellosis from buffalo to cattle has ever been documented, the DOL is unwilling to take any risks. In addition to citing a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) publication entitled Brucellosis In The Greater Yellowstone Area which reported a small, but real, risk of brucellosis transmission to cattle, the DOL refers to Wyoming reports of two cattle herds’ contraction of brucellosis from elk in the Southern Yellowstone Park herd (1985-88).
The DOL also claims human infection as a risk (however low, because of widespread pasteurization of milk, and the virtual elimination of the disease in humans by the National Brucellosis Eradication Program). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) similarly reports brucellosis’ miniscule threat to human health, writing in Brucellosis: An Overview that in fact "the true incidence of human brucellosis is unknown." Montana’s brucellosis history sheds some light into the extreme importance placed on maintaining its "brucellosis-free status" and preventing the reintroduction of the disease in Montana. In 1952, frustrated by the crippling effect of brucellosis on its cattle, Montana began an aggressive program to eliminate brucellosis from its livestock industry. By 1985, Montana's livestock industry was finally certified brucellosis-free after the expenditure of more than $30 million.
A Political Disease?
Mark Heckert, the executive director of the ITBC, refers to the Yellowstone/bison/brucellosis issue as a "political disease" in "Buffalo Slaughter Not Necessary" by David Melmer, an article in Indian Country Today (2/10/1997). Although the conflict behind this issue seems fundamental and unavoidable, Native Americans and environmentalists have suggested several sensible alternatives, the rejection of which suggests the manipulation, and perhaps even abuse, of political power by those in favor of the killings.
One proposed alternative regards land adjoined to, but outside of, the Park, that is leased by Yellowstone to Montana cattle ranchers. This "park grazing allotment," is public land that was originally intended primarily for wildlife use. Tony Willman, who has worked closely with the ITBC since its inception in 1990, has pointed out that Yellowstone earns between 4,000 and 5,000 dollars a year, leasing park grazing rights to cattle ranchers, and yet it spends at least $1 million every year in bison management on these grazing lands. Willman suggests that Yellowstone is unwilling to regain its grazing rights because such an action would entail a confrontation with what Willman calls the ‘old west rancher mentality.’ Ranchers who oppose proposals to manage public ranch lands in ways that privledge native plants, and animals, cite encroachment on their economic livelihood. And because ranching is not only the state’s largest industry, but also a central part of Montana’s cultural identity, it also wields considerable influence in the Montana State Legislature. This led to the decision, in 1995, to give the Montana Department of Livestock the authority to manage the bison/brucellosis issue.
The influence of this lobby is also evident in what would seem to be a double standard in the state’s grazing rights leasing policy: Yellowstone is unwilling to stop leasing out grazing rights to cattle ranchers on lands where buffalo would roam, and yet it does not lease out grazing rights on lands where elk currently do roam. Willman explains this difference in leasing practices in terms of economic interests: buffalo cannot be legally hunted due to their vulnerability and small numbers, whereas elk are ‘fair game’ to hunters and thus generate substantial revenue via the hunting economy in the area (licensing agencies, motels, restaurants, hunting shops, etc), which makes Yellowstone reluctant to lease out grazing rights on these lands. Members of the ITBC and the National Wildlife Federation are at best frustrated with the lack of fairness in these political processes: “We want the National Park Service to remember that they are stewards of the buffalo, not executioners on behalf of shortsighted economic interests” (Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation). Winona LaDuke aptly summarizes the issue: “All this buffalo killing is in honor of 3,000 or so cows and their babies who graze on public land that is actually designated first for wildlife and only secondly for livestock” (Laduke, All Our Relations.
The Seven-Point Plan and Other Alternatives
In part because of Yellowstone’s stance toward grazing rights, the ITBC and the NWF have proposed an impressive Seven-Point Plan, designed to effectively protect against the remote threats of brucellosis while also ensuring their long term viability of the nation's last remaining wild buffalo herd. Of the seven points, the ITBC is currently working most diligently on the first: establishing a quarantine facility where wandering buffalo can be tested for brucellosis, with negative-testing animals being reintroduced to tribal lands and positive-testing animals being sent to slaughter and donated to Native tribes (for ceremonial and nutritional purposes). Also notable is point three (acquiring additional winter ranges and key migration routes for buffalo), point five (vaccinating cattle consistently against brucellosis), and point six (implementing a vaccination program within Yellowstone once a vaccine for wildlife is proven safe and effective). These last two points reflect a management strategy that has already been implemented in Wyoming, and which allows for the protection of both cattle and bison.
The 1998 Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Interagency Bison Management Plan (DEIS) a document expressing the collaborative intention of the National Park Service (NPS), the state of Montana, the United States Forest Service, and Animal-Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) incorporated the same intention of the Seven-Point Plan to strike a compromise between the interest of protecting cattle from brucellosis while maintaining “a wild, free ranging bison population.” However, conservationists and tribal members were surprised and disappointed by the end result of the DEIS: the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Interagency Bison Management Plan (FEIS) released in August of 2000. This disappointment resulted from an expectation that the agencies involved would actualize their stated intention to “recognize the need for coordination in the management of natural and cultural resource values” and to “maintain a viable population of wild bison in Yellowstone National Park, as defined in biological, genetic, and ecological terms.” Steve Torbit, senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation protested that "balanced management doesn’t mean killing hundreds of buffalo from America's largest remaining free-ranging wild herd. But under this plan, unless it is fixed, that could happen. In fact, the current plan has no provisions for preventing all 2,800 buffalo that remain in Yellowstone from being slaughtered" (Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) news release entitled, “Killing of Yellowstone Buffalo May Continue for Up to 15 Years”).
Although the FEIS helped secure some protective measures for bison (such as the $13 million purchase of land north of Yellowstone on which buffalo may be able to find forage in future winters without being shot), it ignores the request for cattle vaccinations and a quarantine facility and provides no concrete measures for protecting the buffalo that will still wander near the cattle. In response to the FEIS, the ITBC, the NWF, the GYC and other organizations wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt asking them to step in and a) stop the unpopular government slaughter of buffalo, b) protect the integrity of Yellowstone National Park, c) make public lands adjacent to the park available to public wildlife and d) base all management of buffalo on sound science. Although none of these measures have yet been taken, those opposed to the buffalo slaughter are hoping for the passage of a current bill being proposed in the Montana State Legislature that would move all buffalo matters from the Department of Livestock (DOL) to the Department of Fish and Game. The National Park Service, the State of Montana, and APHIS all agree on this new Management Plan, which is viewed by many as a necessary improvement from the DOL’s current authority on the matter.
In many respects this issue appears to be a classic “competing goods” case. That is, the ‘good’ of protecting Montana’s cattle from brucellosis is in direct competition with the ‘good’ of protecting the Yellowstone bison from unnecessary slaughter. However, though the ITBC and NWF have acknowledged and worked to accommodate the wishes of Montana ranchers to protect the cattle industry, there has been no effort by ranchers or the Federal or State governments, including the USDA, to even recognize the essential role bison play in the way of life for so many native communities. This case, not anomalously, is an example of governmental interests working against, and without even recognizing, the interests of Native communities to protect their religious and cultural freedom. For indeed, throughout the negotiation the ITBC, an organization representing 51 tribes nationwide who all consider the vitality of the buffalo crucial to the general health of their communities, was never included in discussions between the government, ranchers, and environmental interests. Perhaps ironically the perspective being excluded from this discussion, that of the Native communities, is that which is most deeply and historically linked to the bison, as Fred DuBray poignantly expressed, “We recognize the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity, and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will bring our people back to health.”
* The map on the top of this page shows the original range of the American Bison, and was taken from: The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals edited by Don E. Wilson and Sue Ruff.
Originally drafted by Jeremy Lambshead
Updated on March 21, 2005