Save Wild Bison

Bison in Grand Teton National Park. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In a recent New York Times commentary, author Dayton Duncan celebrated what he termed as the ongoing restoration of bison across the West.

That may sound like a wildlife success story. However, what is not commonly admitted is that nearly all bison herds are domesticated to one degree or another. Most bison are culled, inoculated against disease, fed supplemental hay, protected from predators, and selectively bred. Most herds are too small to avoid genetic inbreeding.

There are no wild bison in Montana. The bison herds, whether on the National Bison Range, among the state’s tribal reservation herds, or on private ranches like Ted Turner’s, are domesticated animals.

The most ecologically and evolutionarily intact bison are found in Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone bison have been shaped by disease, harsh winters, predators, and migration to a greater degree than any other bison in the West. This makes the Yellowstone herd of international significance. It is a global treasure.

Yet the state of Montana treats these bison like vermin. Except for a small region just immediately north of Gardiner, Montana, bison migration from Yellowstone is prohibited due to concerns about the potential transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle,

It’s important to note there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission from wild bison to cattle, though elk have infected numerous cattle herds.

Killing or removing the globally significant Yellowstone bison from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a crime against nature. Whether removal is done to preclude the presumed disease transmission, to provide food for tribes, to transfer bison to reservations (privatization of public bison), or other reasons, it is analogous to blowing up giant sequoia and turning the wood into fence posts.

Claiming that bison restoration is a success is analogous to arguing that salmon restoration is a success when rivers are flooded with hatchery fish.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that hatchery fish are inferior to wild fish. They spread diseases, compete with wild fish for food and habitat, and gradually lose their ability to avoid predators.

In essence, claiming that hundreds of thousands of bison are scattered over the West represents a “success” like claiming hatchery runs of salmon is saving the species.

The removal of bison and transfer of bison to Indian reservations, tribal hunting at the park border, and testing and slaughter of bison is eroding the wildness of Park bison.

When bison attempting to leave Yellowstone National Park are killed or removed it inhibits the expression of migration and mobility, which is the bison’s major evolutionary adaptation to shifting ecological conditions. The killing of entire family groups is entirely different from native predators, which tend to kill the old and young.

Removing bison from the park ecosystem reduces their influence on park vegetation and takes food out of the mouths of wolves, grizzly bears, and scavengers.

Population reduction also reduces intra-bison competition, which is the essential element of wildness.

So, how do we preserve bison wildness? First, to the greatest degree possible, we must permit natural evolutionary processes like predation, starvation, functional breeding populations, and migration to dominate Yellowstone bison.

This means we must halt the artificial selection process created by tribal hunting, test and slaughter, and even bison transfers, all of which are turning Yellowstone’s bison into “hatchery animals.”

We can encourage the migration of Yellowstone bison out of the park onto other public lands by halting the annual slaughter of animals at the park borders.

We should stop privatizing public bison by the transfer of Yellowstone animals to Indian reservations. If there are any “surplus” bison, the federal government should transfer this public wildlife to other federal lands like the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This can be done over the wishes of the state of Montana or other groups since the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause gives the federal government ultimate power to manage lands under its jurisdiction.

Yellowstone’s wild bison are too valuable to kill. We must stop the vandalism of our national mammal and begin to treat Yellowstone’s animals as the extraordinary public treasure they represent. To learn more, go to Montana Wild Bison Restoration.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy