The wild buffalo of Yellowstone country are the last continuously wild, migratory buffalo in this country. There are two sub populations, the Central herd and the Northern herd. Central herd buffalo are the direct descendants of the 23 individuals who sought shelter in what is now Yellowstone’s remote Pelican Valley, saving themselves from extinction. The Northern herd is comprised of buffalo who were brought to Yellowstone by concerned humans who saw the slaughter that was happening all around them. Some of the Northern herd buffalo were brought from Texas by the Goodnight family, and others were brought from Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation by Salish tribal member, Samuel Walking Coyote.
Most people are familiar with the terrible acts of genocide inflicted upon the Native people – and wildlife – of this country at the dawn of European colonization. Before settler-culture, there were approximately 70 million buffalo thundering across what is now North America (Turtle Island). They roamed north into Canada, as far south as Florida and Mexico, east into Virginia, and west into Alaska. In an effort to suppress and subjugate many Tribes, the U.S. Government also waged a war against the buffalo, knowing how important they were (and still are) to, especially, Plains Tribes. By the close of the 19th century buffalo had been driven to near extinction. When the wars against the Plains Tribes were at their peak, within a span of two decades, tens of millions of buffalo had been slaughtered, most left to waste, their heads and hides taken for market, their bones ground into dust for fertilizer. The 23 mentioned above were all who were left in the wild. They are the ancestors of Yellowstone’s Central herd, the last truly wild, migratory buffalo left.
Today, this remaining wild population hovers around 5,000 individuals. If livestock interests have their way, those numbers could be driven even further down by a couple more thousand.
As a migratory species, buffalo move according to the availability of forage. Yellowstone sits on a high elevation plateau and winters can be extreme, with snow accumulation averaging six feet deep. As Ice Age mammals, buffalo are well equipped for extreme winters, and use their huge heads supported by their strong humps to “crater” to move the snow exposing the grass below. But when the snow gets that deep, survival becomes difficult, and naturally, buffalo move to lower elevation habitat. The lower elevation habitat they seek brings them into the state of Montana, where a war awaits them.
Montana is heavily influenced by the cattle industry which is not a friend to the buffalo. Cattle ranchers view wild buffalo as direct competitors for grass so they do not want them roaming freely in the state. In fact, in the late 1990’s, Montana actually sued Yellowstone National Park for “allowing” wild, migratory buffalo to migrate into the state. To covet the grass they believe is only for their cattle, they created a smear campaign against the buffalo stating that buffalo carry a disease called brucellosis (which came to this continent with invasive cattle) and that they pose a threat to their livestock because they could transmit it back to them.
In response to Montana’s lawsuit, a federal court ordered a compromise between the state and Yellowstone National Park. The result was the draconian Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) which was signed under the Clinton Administration in 2000. The IBMP is a joint state, federal, and tribal plan that allows for the gross mismanagement of the sacred buffalo. The techniques used by the IBMP include capture-for-slaughter, capture-for-quarantine (domestication), excessive hunting, hazing (forced removal), as well as scientific experiments on the last wild buffalo. The IBMP was a fifteen-year plan which expired in 2015, yet the government agencies involved continue to operate under it.
The governments and agencies involved with the IBMP include:
• Yellowstone National Park
• Montana Department of Livestock
• Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks
• U.S. Forest Service (Gallatin National Forest)
• USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service
• InterTribal Buffalo Council
• Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes
• Nez Perce Tribe
The IBMP was largely crafted by cattle interests to serve the livestock industry. The goal of the IBMP is to “conserve a wild, migratory population of American bison,” and to “protect Montana’s cattle industry from the threat of brucellosis.” The IBMP fails at both. There has never been a documented case of wild buffalo transmitting brucellosis to cattle. Ever. Meanwhile elk, who have also been exposed to brucellosis, are free to roam. Elk have been implicated more than 20 times in transmitting brucellosis to livestock, yet they are free to roam. Why are the buffalo so sorely mistreated? What this issue really boils down to is all about the grass and who gets to eat it.
The Ugly Faces of Bison “Management”
The governments and agencies of the IBMP use many tools in their war on buffalo.
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