Park Service kills hundreds of bison despite objections from Native Americans and activists

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Stephanie Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign

The Buffalo Field Campaign, which monitors the Yellowstone border and tracks the park’s bison management activities, reports that 410 wild bison have been trapped and removed for slaughter in recent weeks.

“We don’t know exact numbers because the park service will not tell us,” says Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) media coordinator.

Their estimates, based on the field campaign’s ongoing monitoring of bison management and the park’s biweekly reports, is that 135 have been taken through hunting, 270 to slaughter and at least five to a research facility. Field campaign staff have also reported seeing buffalo hazed by management agency staff on horseback to steer them away from tribal lands where hunters awaited an opportunity to fulfill their treaty-promised hunting rights.

As of Feb. 3, another 59 bison were reported by BFC field patrols to be in the trap used by the Yellowstone park service and Montana Division of Livestock. Stock trailers have been removing bison from the Stephens Creek bison trap, the site of last spring’s direct action by Comfrey Jacobs, the young Coloradan who chained himself to a 55-gallon drum full of cement and rebar to stop bison removal actions.

“This is a profoundly tragic event,” Seay said in a press release. “These buffalo are a national treasure, a native keystone species beloved the world over, and are the most important bison population in the world. Yellowstone should be preventing harm to the buffalo, not bending over backwards for cattle interests by participating in their destruction.”

Yellowstone and its partners in the Interagency Bison Management Plan began its annual bison capture operations at the Stephens Creek facility in mid-January. Management plan agencies have agreed to the removal of 800 to 900 bison this year, expecting 350 to go to hunting, both by tribes and by state permit, and 500 to 600 to be captured, slaughtered and transferred to tribal groups for food and ceremonial use. The goal is to keep the population to around 3,000 to 3,500. In 2014, about 600 bison were removed from Yellowstone’s herd.

“It’s awful to see such a wild and majestic animal get shipped off like cattle to a slaughter house,” a Buffalo Field Campaign volunteer who witnessed the bison removal said in a press release.

The Yellowstone herd is comprised of descendents of the only wild buffalo to escape slaughter — roughly two dozen retreated into the Yellowstone mountains in the late 1800s and escaped extinction there. It is considered unique among bison herds as the only genetically pure and persistently wild population of buffalo in the U.S.

Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers also reported seeing park service and Montana Department of Livestock staff on horseback chasing and baiting a group of about 40 bison toward traps and away from national forest lands where Native American hunters were waiting to take bison per their treaty tribal rights.

“I don’t know any specifics about any particular hazing activities this year,” says Al Nash, chief of public affairs at Yellowstone National Park. “I can tell you that as bison move toward the park boundary, we are going to look for opportunities to haze and capture bison to work towards our population goal. Our intent is to do so while working to avoid conflict with the hunting opportunities.”

Staff makes their best determination on where bison and how many may move across park boundaries.

“I certainly see that there might be occasions where we may make a judgment about where we anticipate bison will move, take an action about hazing and those bison may or may not move in the numbers that we otherwise expected across the park boundary and make themselves available for hunters,” Nash says, conceding that “it is certainly an imperfect approach.”

The park service supports tribes in exercising their treaty rights to hunt, he adds, but it’s the state of Montana that reviewed their petitions and crafted the policies for tribal hunters.

Buffalo play a key role in Nez Pearce ceremonies and tribal history, and their treaty hunting rights, suspended since the 1800s, were only restored in 2005 and are limited to the Gallatin National Forest adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

“We’ve kind of witnessed the boxing in, the minimizing of treaty hunting rights to what it is today. In a way, it’s a management tool for population control rather than what its supposed to be — a sacred relationship, a means to subsist but also a spiritual connection for the buffalo,” says James Holt, a Buffalo Field Campaign board member and Nez Perce tribe member. Holt was instrumental in reuniting the Nez Pearce with the Yellowstone herd. He has called the current bison management “misguided,” and has argued that the slaughter program should not trump treaty hunting in the Greater Yellowstone area.

“The buffalo have always been a figure of wisdom and power, similar to the grizzly bear in a lot of ways. The buffalo have a unique spiritual power,” Holt says of the buffalo’s place in the Nez Pearce tribe. “Those that focused on the teachings of the buffalo were often seen as wise men and medicine people and we’d turn to them for knowledge.”

Each tribe member’s spiritual relationship would be different, he says. Some would become so devoted to the buffalo nation that to eat buffalo meat would feel akin to cannibalism, and some would go into ceremonies with buffalo skulls and buffalo robes.

Because of the management policies currently in place, the tribal members are being forced to amend their philosophies for hunting time to what the park service will allow, moving the practice from September and October into January and February.

At that time of year, not only do the tribes miss the opportunity to include buffalo in their midwinter ceremonies and feasts, which fall before the winter Solstice in December, but they also run the risk of shooting pregnant cows by waiting until later in winter to hunt.

“That’s taboo among the members,” Holt says. “It’s not something that is condoned, but yet here we are today having that as some of the only means available to us and that fact alone flies in the face of what we’re taught as traditional people.”

The impacts of current management, he says, come on both a spiritual and a subsistence level. He argues that the management is done in the name of preserving the interests of the cattle industry.

“It’s a disheartening situation to see a federal agency taking this stance,” Holt says. “I think the world would be a better place and would restore a balance to that area and to Indian people if the buffalo were allowed to flourish again. So I would hope that in the future they would see the folly of their ways right now and they would discontinue these hazing operations and the trap-to-slaughter herd control.”

He suggests exploring possibilities of shipping bison to tribes to supplement their herds, to other national parks and open prairie landscapes.

Because bison in Yellowstone are known to be infected with brucellosis, a disease that also affects cattle and can cause them to spontaneously abort, bison can only be transported to a terminal facility, Nash says. They cannot be transported live and used to augment or start a new herd elsewhere. 

The state, federal and tribal agencies participating in the Interagency Bison Management Plan are revisiting the plan this year for a comprehensive overhaul. The National Parks Service and state of Montana have begun work on a new environmental impact statement, and public scoping is expected to begin some time this year.

“The whole intent is to take advantage of our collective experience managing bison and to look at the science that is now available that wasn’t when the existing plan was adopted to see how we might make changes to the current bison management plan,” Nash says.

Everything will be open for examination, and anything could change.

“This was a court mediated settlement that led to the 2000 record of decision but over time, the group of partners has expanded,” Nash says. “There have been fruitful discussions that have led to some adaptive manage ment changes and we certainly feel that we’ve had an opportunity to learn, to adapt, to improve our efforts, but we also recognize that it’s time for us to take a comprehensive review of the current bison management activities and see if it is possible for us to come up with an appropriate replacement to the present approach.”

Buffalo Field Campaign and the Denver-based Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program have filed an emergency rule-making petition and lawsuit in an effort to halt the slaughter and the Field Campaign, with Western Watersheds Project, filed a petition in November to list Yellowstone bison under the Endangered Species Act. The request for rulemaking asks the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service to conduct a population study, revise the bison management plan to “correct scientific deficiencies” and “make the plan consistent with the best available science,” and asked that pending that decision, the capture, removal or killing of bison be ceased.

“We’d like to see increased tolerance, viable habitat, viable herd size before we start to take bison. They’re saying that the herd size is larger than what Yellowstone National Park says the park’s carrying capacity is and … we’d like to have some real science done on what is a true carrying capacity,” says Justine Sanchez, a Buffalo Field Campaign board member who lives in Ward, Colo. “We are really looking at just continuing to keep the pressure on the management agencies both in the courts and in the field.”

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