Let’s Give Buffalo Freedom to Roam

Yellowstone Bison. Photo: Neal Herbert, National Park Service.

This winter, unusually heavy snows pushed bison out of Yellowstone National Park, and the combined efforts of tribal subsistence hunters and state-regulated sport hunters killed them in large numbers. There is little doubt that artificially concentrating the hunters in a thin strip of public land near the Park boundary – intended to make sure no bison can break through to traditional winter ranges farther down the valley – creates a gruesome spectacle.

This de facto firing squad is the result of State of Montana policies, and its Department of Livestock in particular, which seek to bottle up wild bison herds inside the National Park and prevent them from roaming freely to seek out suitable habitats outside the Park, as almost every other species of wildlife are free to do.

While some critics have sniped at the tribes for exercising their treaty rights to hunt in their usual and accustomed places, these are rights that Indigenous peoples have always held and exercised from time immemorial. Before the acquisition of the horse, Indigenous peoples on foot used the Madison Buffalo Jump to herd bison over a cliff. Subsistence hunting is about securing food, not fair chase or any other modern aesthetic. Modern slaughterhouses are no prettier to look at than this bison hunt, yet supply the meat sold in grocery stores and restaurants. Subsistence hunting rights were never surrendered through treaties under which the tribes ceded (or were swindled out of) their homelands to create the political jurisdictions of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

Western Watersheds Project isn’t questioning the propriety of the tribal bison hunt, but we do question actions by the State of Montana, and the Interagency Bison Management Committee, to bottle up the Yellowstone bison herds inside the National Park, and prevent them from roaming at will like the native wildlife species that they are. The cynical restrictions confining the bison hunt to a narrow strip of land creates a whole host of problems that would be much less of an issue if the bison (and the hunters) could spread out over the hundreds of thousands of acres of lands downstream of Gardiner Basin, where the bison naturally seek to migrate during Yellowstone’s tough winters.

When Yellowstone was designated as the world’s first National Park in 1872 by an Act of Congress, the boundaries were designated largely by latitude and longitude, without regard for the ecological realities of wild animal migrations. The Park included primarily summer range, prone to deep winter snows, but notably lacking in corresponding tracts of winter habitat.

The drive to keep bison bottled up inside Park boundaries has led to annual culls that keep Park bison herds at perilously small populations. Western Watersheds Project and our allies have repeatedly sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their failure to protect Yellowstone’s bison under the Endangered Species Act, and the courts have agreed with us every time. The Park’s bison are in two isolated herds during the breeding season. The population of the Central Herd is less numerous, well below the minimum viable population threshold set by scientists, and therefore at risk of extinction.

The Northern Herd is more numerous, and new studies show that bison grazing can be heavy enough to disturb fragile riparian plant communities, at least in some places, reversing the ecological resurgence that occurred when wolves were returned to Yellowstone and the large elk herds concentrating in the river bottoms were forced to scatter.

Both herds would benefit from the freedom to roam, and from a much larger habitat base in which to spread out, to expand their populations to healthy numbers, but at a lower density that has a less harmful impact on plant communities. The bison hunt could then also spread out, more like elk and deer hunting in other parts of Montana.

The current unhappy state of affairs is driven by a relatively small clutch of cattlemen, claiming to be concerned about the transmission of the livestock disease brucellosis back to their cattle herds. But a 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences found that transmission from Yellowstone bison to domestic cattle has never occurred even once, ever. Straightforward and common-sense methods of managing cattle, including booster vaccines and controlled winter feeding, are employed by some ranchers to virtually eliminate the risk of brucellosis transmission from elk, a far more likely and proven source. When the veil of brucellosis transmission is lifted, it is clear to see that what the ranchers really fear is competition for the nearly free forage they get for their livestock on public lands.

If the Forest Service and other federal agencies would cooperate, and the Montana Dept. of Livestock would get out of the way, the Yellowstone ecosystem could host migrations of bison to millions of acres of nearby federal public lands. Public lands should be managed preferentially for the benefit of native wildlife. When conflicts occur, it is the private livestock that should give way. Yellowstone National Park would no longer be a postage-stamp of high-altitude habitat in which bison were imprisoned year-round, but a natural calving and summering range for a larger but more dispersed population of our National Mammal. This outcome would also confer major benefits for migratory elk and pronghorn as well, which would likewise benefit from restored migrations and enlarged populations.

It’s a complicated problem, but letting bison roam freely, without artificial restrictions, is an ecologically sound solution that favors bison well-being without trampling treaty rights.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.