This winter, 582 Yellowstone buffalo have been killed, either by hunters or government agents. The killing is escalating as winter drags on and buffalo, desperate for food, leave Yellowstone Park for lower elevation grasslands north in Montana. Hundreds more buffalo could be sent to slaughter or quarantine by the time spring green-up occurs, when buffalo return to graze in the protected core of the Park.
Once buffalo approach the border of the nation’s first park, management turns fundamentally hostile. As in the case of grizzly bears and wolves, management of buffalo caters primarily to a minority of well-heeled and politically well-connected agriculture interests at the expense of the broader public, who flock to Yellowstone to see these rare and iconic species in the flesh. More on what is behind this later.
Yellowstone supports the largest and most genetically pure free-roaming buffalo population in the country. In most other places buffalo have been interbred with domestic cattle. The comeback of Yellowstone’s buffalo from the brink of extinction is one of the greatest wildlife success stories in history of the US.
We came close to losing buffalo in the American West, which is incredible given that they once numbered between 21 and 88 million animals (link). It is important to remember that the 4,500 or so buffalo that now live in Yellowstone are descendants of just 23 surviving buffalo at the turn of the last century. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature continues to designate Bison bison as “vulnerable to global extinction.” Our current policies that led to this year’s slaughter don’t help.
Torment and Death inside Yellowstone Park
It baffles me that the National Park Service is leading current efforts to capture and send to slaughter buffalo that are poised to roam across the state border into the Gardiner basin. Even though buffalo are well-equipped with huge heads for shoveling deep snow to uncover grass, roaming downhill to non-park lands is the path of least resistance when snow is deep.
Among other measures, the Park Service built a holding pen and capture facility just inside the border of the Park, where it tries to keep its abusive treatment of buffalo out of the public eye – largely because it is so patently offensive, but also because this abuse is antithetical to the Park Service’s mission of protecting natural resources. Only Montana's Board of Livestock and some local livestock producers seem pleased.
Pressured by the Buffalo Field Campaign (more on them later) and others, on March 8 and 9 the Park Service finally invited members of the press to watch as officials poked and prodded 150 buffalo into pens and a squeeze chute called “the Silencer”, where the animals bucked, thrashed and bellowed. They bolted between pens along a maze of alleys, goring each other and their babies in panic. Even Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said that what is going on with buffalo “would make you sick to your stomach. ” (link). The video taken by BFC is heartbreaking (link).
Montana aims to kill 1,000 buffalo by spring. Although the Park Service estimates that forage in Yellowstone could support 5,000-7,000 buffalo, the outdated plan includes an arbitrary target of 3,000 animals.
The few animals that are not sent to slaughter from the capture facility are shipped 30 miles north to a 50 acre quarantine facility managed by the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. This agency kills the 50% or so of captive buffalo that test positive for the disease brucellosis. Over time, the caged sub-population is “cleaned” of the disease, but there is no chance of returning home. Nor will this -- or any other method proposed so far -- purge the entire population of the disease.
Buffalo Management: The Ruse of Brucellosis
You commonly hear that the killing and expensive quarantine of buffalo is to protect cattle from the disease brucellosis, which is carried by buffalo. But this rationale turns out to be bogus. Although buffalo do carry brucellosis and could theoretically transmit the disease to cattle, they have never been known to do so in the wild. In fact, there are only a handful of cows within miles of where the buffalo migrate in winter – and none of these cows are on public lands.
By contrast, elk, which are 25 times more numerous than buffalo and interact with cattle far more often, have transmitted brucellosis to cows on at least 6 documented occasions, most recently in November, 2015 (link). Yet nothing is being done about the elk “problem”, most likely because elk are sportmens’ darlings and generate at least $11 million annually in state hunting revenues in Montana.
Compounding this illogic, in Jackson Hole a buffalo herd intermingles freely with cattle without much fanfare. And this despite the fact that these Jackson buffalo harbor more brucellosis compared to Yellowstone’s buffalo, most likely because of their proximity to brucellosis-riddled elk concentrated on nearby feed grounds.
If brucellosis were a real problem, the livestock industry would be advocating more consistent policies and taking the elk disease threat seriously. But such is not the case, which suggests that the hype about brucellosis is really cover for something else.
In fact what we have is a cabal of stockmen, state veterinarians, legislators, and employees of the Board of Livestock using paranoia over brucellosis-carrying buffalo to perpetuate political control and an archaic, regressive mindset obsessed with dominating and using of the natural world. These bad actors aim at nothing less than keeping the West under their thumb, as their ancestors did in frontier times – even though the region’s economic and cultural health depends increasingly upon wildlife and public lands.
In furtherance of this agenda the livestock industry has adopted the bizarre and extreme position of tolerating “no risk” of brucellosis in the case of buffalo, no matter what the cost, which is borne mainly by state and federal taxpayers—a classic case of subsidies for a coddled special interest. It is all the more strange that Homeland Security funds have been secured for managing buffalo and brucellosis. Who would have thought? Buffalo, domestic terrorists.
Buffalo Field Campaign: Buffaloes’ Best Friends
I can’t talk about the buffalo issue without mentioning my friends at the Buffalo Field Campaign (link) (hereafter BFC). These brave souls have been on the ground fighting for buffalo and documenting the mistreatment of these animals since 1997. They work closely with Native Americans who also see buffalo as sacred yet maligned creatures.
I honestly cannot imagine how the hardy warriors who volunteer with BFC survive bearing witness to the atrocities perpetrated on buffalo and counting the dead – over 7,000 since they were founded. The BFC community lives communally and frugally in cabins near West Yellowstone and Gardiner, where they keep an eye on the buffalo every day, no matter how bitter the cold.
The last winter we saw a slaughter buffalo similar to what we are seeing this year was 2007-2008. During this horrific winter over 1,600 animals were killed. Back then I was working as a Senior Wildlife Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and deeply involved with BFC on the buffalo issue.
As part of our team effort we recruited and then guided the national media during the annual hazing of buffalo by Montana’s Livestock Board near West Yellowstone. Sure enough, we all got swept up in the helicopter- and horse-driven haze that pushed hundreds of adult and newborn buffalo 25 miles back into Yellowstone Park. It was pure chaos and cowboy machismo, with helicopters buzzing low over the terrified buffalo and police cars hazing us with their lights flashing.
In the process, adult buffalo were harried to exhaustion and their babies injured, some to the point of barely being able to walk. The buffalo were driven across and into a barren landscape of snow, which meant that they soon piled out of the Park again in search of grass. Like other aspects of buffalo management, the exercise was counterproductive, costly, and cruel.
At least this time, reporters from the LA Times and other newspapers witnessed the mayhem. Some nearly got arrested by state officials, which was old hat for BFC’s heroic volunteers.
Parenthetically, BFC’s Mike Mease managed to capture on film the plight of a grizzly bear caught in the stampede. The bear was running to keep pace with hundreds of thundering buffalo and stood up a few times as if to say: “what the hell is going on here?” Something all of us might legitimately ask.
Ties that Bind Buffalo and Grizzly Bears
Which brings me to another important point: Yellowstone is the only place left in North America where grizzly bears still rely on buffalo carcasses for food, which is amazing given that this exception was once the rule. Both grizzly bears and buffalo were wiped out from 99% of their former range after European settlers arrived, leaving Yellowstone as the only ecosystem where these ancient relationships still hold.
And buffalo carrion was indeed a centerpiece of the ancestral grizzly bear diet for pretty obvious reasons. Research in Yellowstone has shown that buffalo are disproportionally important to grizzly bears compared to other sources of meat such as elk. The reason is simple: biomass. Grizzly bears will find a lot more meat on a two-ton dead buffalo compared to a 350-pound dead elk (link). And, on top of this, grizzly bears do other scavengers a huge favor. With powerful claws and teeth, they are the only animals capable of ripping through the thick hide of a bull buffalo, which, in turn, makes carrion from such carcasses available to other scavengers.
Interestingly enough, during the last decade or so, buffalo have become more, not less important to Yellowstone’s threatened grizzly bears. The reason is that two of the bear’s four key food sources, cutthroat trout and whitebark pine, have been wiped out due to a combination of climate change and invasive species. These dramatic changes have prompted bears to seek more meat to compensate.
Buffalo matter today more than ever.
And not just to bears but to all of us, which brings me to concerns that have been increasingly expressed by Indians.
Protecting Buffalo, Protecting Indian Culture
Given the ancient cultural ties between buffalo and Indians, it is no surprise that Indians have re-emerged as major challengers of the status quo, including policies that have led to the pointless slaughter of thousands of buffalo.
The cultural, spiritual and economic connections of Indians to buffalo cannot be overstated. In the words of Cheyenne elder John Lame Deer:
“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted… The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake--Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian--the real, natural, "wild" Indian.”
Throughout the controversy surrounding modern “management” of buffalo, Indians have prayed for those that were slaughtered, filed suit to stop the killing, and offered to take buffalo to their Reservations to save them.
Here is how one Indian elder sees the connection between buffalo and the plight of his own people. According to John Potter, an Ojibwe: “the U.S. government has long believed that eliminating the buffalo will erase the Indian from the Earth - and they are correct in thinking so. They have been trying to do just that for 150 years, in order to make the world safe for their sacred cow, and they are still at it. When the buffalo are gone, we will be dead. Working together to protect the buffalo is working to protect ourselves, our spirits, and our cultural identities.”
The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes rather pointedly expressed themselves by acquiring nearly 200 brucellosis-free Yellowstone buffalo and moving them to their reservation at the Fort Peck in 2012 and 2014. Outraged, the white-dominated livestock industry sued – and lost.
Another hopeful sign is the 2015 buffalo treaty signed by 11 Plains Tribes to promote buffalo restoration and the cultural connections tied to this sacred animal. These Tribes aim to use this treaty as the framework for promoting a different paradigm of buffalo management defined by reverence rather than hatred.
An Alternative Vision for Wild Buffalo
We do not have to repeat the atrocities of the past and present. The basic principles of democracy, fairness, and respect would go a long way towards righting the wrongs now being inflicted on buffalo and those who care for these animals.
First, buffalo are not cattle. A self-defined cowboy agency, as in the case of Montana’s Livestock Board, should not be in charge of management. Wildlife professionals should. And brucellosis should be relegated to the dustbin as a non-issue in the management of buffalo.
Second, the outdated and unscientific buffalo plan must be revised. BFC wisely suggests that buffalo be managed as elk. As part of this revision, buffalo should be allowed to roam free in the modest confines of the Gardiner basin.
Third, the example of Horse Butte, west of Yellowstone Park, should be explored elsewhere. Local landowners were unanimous here in supporting the presence of buffalo on their lands -- in defiance of state officials who ran roughshod, harassing buffalo at the behest of ideologues in the livestock industry.
Fourth, and finally, the state and federal government agencies should evaluate areas suitable for the restoration of buffalo. Such areas are increasing in extent as ranchers go out of business, especially in eastern Montana. Moreover, the restoration of Yellowstone’s buffalo on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation could be replicated on other tribal lands.
Co-existence with buffalo is not rocket science. It is largely about compassion. We can still restore healthy wild buffalo population that function as in ancient times, with predators such as grizzly bears and wolves, in a landscape larger than Yellowstone Park. If we as a society care about freedom, are we willing to grant it to buffalo, in the last wild ecosystem where they are not fenced in?