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Bison Abuse in Yellowstone

Harsh criticism is increasingly justified in todays world of National Park and public land management, a world in which regulatory retreat from principles and regulation is the new norm and “gut and grab” politics seem to be an every day threat. One such issue deserving of harsh review is the continuous persecution of bison in the Yellowstone ecosystem. What is happening on Yellowstones borders is no less offensive than the corralling and clubbing of dolphins in Japan, the clubbing of seal pups off Canada’s coast, or the indiscriminate slaughter of African elephants that eventually led to massive population declines barely a decade ago.

The institutionalized abuse of ecological and behavioral cycles that bison have responded to for over ten thousand years, making them at one time the most successful and numerous large North American grazing animal, is abhorrent to people around the world. It is moreover a dangerous indication that a mountain of ecological / scientific knowledge, gained over half a century, and presumably vested in government agencies, is being ignored and wasted. A massive accumulation of social, scientific, and management evidence is being trumped by a shrinking minority in the livestock business, blindly aided and abetted by the Montana Dept of Livestock, the federal Animal Health Inspection Service and a not so silent partner, the Park Service. Why are we investing tens of millions of dollars and spending lifetimes doing research into ecological well being?

Thousands of bison have been casualties of this retreat from reason and accountability, and 500 more are in the crosshairs this week, but these helpless and trusting animals have not been the only casualties. These practices have inflicted psychological damage to a century old link between “wild” and wildlife. They have degraded National Parks as strongholds of biodiversity and ecosystem conservation; they have severely set back the long established, but obviously vulnerable principle that American citizens should set the vision and direction of National Park management; and they have gouged wounds in what has been one of the most unifying issues in Americas floundering democracy – the right of people from every street and every state in the Nation to be heard when significant National Park decisions are being made.

It strikes me as severe treatment to confine “wild” bison at all (other than the rare soundly justified research project) but the fact that National Park staff are complicit with this practice and seem to turn a blind eye to plans to again destroy bison indicates a major professional retreat by senior management. This represents failure by the Park Service to serve the people of America by protecting and maintaining, or recovering, the biodiversity of the ecosystem as a top level management / conservation objective.

I confess I have a personal interest in this issue; For days, several times each year, I walk parts of Yellowstone, and one of the joys of doing so is being in (often) constant contact (visually, space wise, philosophically, emotionally, ecologically, and professionally,) with bison and their ecological footprint. But I also am part of a collective interest; millions of Americans have fought for Yellowstone to be the best it can be, and millions have visited it and enjoyed what I have, and millions more are entitled to enjoy an intact Yellowstone when they eventually get there. I admittedly resent the continued abuse of bison by a sadly outdated Montana Dept of Livestock and its political sidekicks, apparently embraced in a twisted partnership with the Park Service.

I fear for these bison, for Yellowstone, and for the power gap developing between self serving local agency actors and the American people. The slaughter and perpetual harassment of Yellowstone bison may be a “time honored” practice – what on earth was that Judge thinking? – but so was the exploitation of children in coal mines, abuse of African Americans, joy killing of millions of bison from railway cars, and dumping sewage in water ways. Call it what you may, it remains a chronic, unethical and inexcusable conflict that has to move up the power ladder for resolution.

Until bison have low elevation winter range freely available, there will be no peace on the land and Yellowstone cannot lay claim to being ecologically intact. People in Washington, even Helena, legislators, citizens, activists that are not mired in the petty local politics, need to step in decisively. It will cost money – literally peanuts when put in perspective – but its time for America to move beyond this festering division in favor of the greater public good as exemplified by a protected and intact Yellowstone National Park, public lands managed for all Americans, and largely free ranging bison.

Dr. Brian L. Horejsi is a Wildlife Scientist and long time Yellowstone user. He lives in Calgary, Alberta