By Tom Woodbury, Director of Communications 

Hebgen Lake, MT.  

Buffalo Field Campaign supports the exercise of treaty rights by tribes, and honors the resumption of the relationship between tribes and the sacred buffalo. It is not for BFC or any other non-Indigenous group to instruct tribes in how they should or should not exercise their treaty rights.

2022 11 17 yellowstone buffalo

Publication of the provocative, paradigm-shifting article “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone” in this summer’s issue of the Wyoming Law Review has shaken up the settler-dominated (mostly Caucasian) ‘old guard’ in the Montana conservation community. A long-time wilderness advocate and wildlands defender penned a think-piece in Ralph Maughn’s widely read Wildlife News entitled The Future of Badger-Two Medicine and Blackfeet Tribe  (Nov. 4, 2022). Writing from a place of understandable concern over the prospect of losing hard-won protections of undeveloped wildlands to control of Bureau of Indian Affairs-imposed tribal governments — which sometimes act in ways that have a lot in common with our own federal and state public land agencies — the writers’s reasoning goes too far. It betrays the kind of systemic colonialism that has historically infected white male dominated conservation groups (many of whom I, a white male conservationist, have worked with myself).  

For example, after recognizing that not ALL tribal governments exhibit exploitive tendencies, the article then goes on to list anecdotal examples of exploitive tribal government actions, and on this basis he then critiques two ideas central to Indigenous social justice - ‘land back’ and ‘co-management’ - citing to the well-reasoned law review article dismissively.  

Toward the end of his grievances with tribal actions, he then singles out the “slaughter” of wild bison outside Yellowstone National Park via hunting, and slanders the Indigenous-founded and led activist group I now work for in the process, with this patently misleading and inflammatory hyperbole:  

“Tribal groups annually kill hundreds of bison each winter as they struggle to find snow-free grasslands outside of Yellowstone National Park. Some groups, like the Buffalo Field Campaign, support this slaughter.” 

As we here at the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) begin BFC’s 26th year in the field, and as this season promises to be unlike any other that has gone before, it's important for us to clarify what we do and, contrary to statements like the one above, what we do not support. BFC’s position on the tribal hunting regime imposed by the State of Montana is much more nuanced than what the Wildlife News piece and others would have you believe.  

FACT CHECK: Do tribal hunters really kill “hundreds” (i.e., >200) of bison “each winter”? No. The hyper-link citation in the above quote, from the original article, doesn’t support that assertion, nor do the mortality figures kept by the agencies. There have been some years where hundreds of bison were killed in the hunt – but it is Yellowstone National Park’s trapping program that sends buffalo by the hundreds off to slaughterhouses almost every year. From the perspective of bison conservation, it is Yellowstone National Park that is the leading source of bison being killed (over 12,500 since 1985) and it is the state of Montana that has imposed boundaries beyond which buffalo are not permitted to roam.  

COLONIALISM CHECK: Even if it was factual, why characterize tribal hunting of “hundreds” of wild buffalo a year as “slaughter,” when it was our recent ancestors who terrorized the plains and mountains of the West by carrying out the ecocide of between 30-60 MILLION buffalo, for the purpose of executing our government’s genocidal pogrom of tribal peoples? Is it really fair to equate tribal hunting of a species settlers tried to wipe out completely with the attempted extinction itself?  

I will return to these questions in the following contextual discussion.  

FACT CHECK: Does BFC support the slaughter of buffalo by the tribes? No. 

This assertion is quite insulting, both to BFC and the tribes. Quite apart from characterizing tribal hunts as a ‘slaughter’ (you know, like the annual slaughter of elk and deer by Montana hunters?), BFC does not see its role as passing judgment one way or the other on any of the treaty tribes’ chosen manner of exercising their sovereign rights. It also does not seem to us to be the proper role of non-Indigenous conservation groups. We would be well-advised to stick to telling our own government how not stop mismanaging wildlife.  

To understand BFC’s position on this complex issue, it is essential to provide the contextual framework in which the issue of tribal hunting, and conflicts with local groups like the Neighbors of Beattie Gulch, arises. 

Re-indigenizing Colonialist Attitudes 

I encourage anyone who cares about wild buffalo and/or the survivors of America’s genocide to read “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone” for themselves. It is long, thorough, and extremely well-reasoned, as one would expect from a law review. It is also fascinating and informative, something you do not often find in a law review journal.  

I especially recommend the section on “Federal-Tribal Relations in Yellowstone,” which is helpfully divided into three periods: Trespass; Separation; and, Connection. 

For the history of cultural genocide is the context in which the current debate over tribal hunting of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo is enmeshed. While it is convenient for some to pretend that genocide is a relic of the past, in truth it reverberates throughout the government’s management plan and the attitudes of Montana’s livestock industry to this day. To take the debate out of that context, to attempt to reduce it to a binary of good and bad, only perpetuates the systemic colonialist paradigm that is decimating wildlife biodiversity and putting all life at risk. 

Tresspass (1872-1900). When President U.S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park in 1872 - 150 years ago now - there happened to be Shoshone-Bannocks still living there, in a relationship with the land and the animals that had persisted since “time immemorial” (a legal term borrowed from England’s common law which is defined as that time “from which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary”). The statute creating the Park rendered this relationship unlawful, and called for the eviction of the tribes from the white man’s newly designated sacred natural space.  

It doesn’t get much more colonial than that. Obviously, the real trespassers were the same people who swore they would never violate the sacred lands of the Black Hills, and then violated that legal trust as soon as gold was discovered. Consider that the Discovery Doctrine’s and manifest destiny’s golden rule: he who lusts after the gold makes the rules. Not long thereafter, the Lacey Act established a general prohibition on hunting in the Park, preventing the tribes from returning to their ancestral hunting grounds. 

Separation (1900-1990). “Federal policy during the period not only separated Yellowstone associated tribes from the park, it also separated the Park Service from interacting with the tribes and the park itself as a Native space.” Perhaps the best way to appreciate the effect of this severance of the co-evolutionary relationship between the tribes and the buffalo is to consider this heart-rending statement from the last Crow Chief, Plenty Coups:  

“When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,  

and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened…” 

Linderman, Frank B. Plenty-Coups: Chief of the Crows (Univ. of Neb. Press, 1962). 

(Re)Connection. For almost all of the twentieth century, colonialist settlers severed not only the relationship of wild buffalo to the vast landscapes of Turtle Island that had been shaped by them as the largest mammal and keystone species, but ‘we’ (settlers) also severed the co-evolutionary relationship of the indigenous wildlife with Indigenous people who had taken care of both the land and the buffalo for at least 15,000 years. The buffalo we know and love today are smaller and faster than the species the first peoples on this continent found, as a direct result of that co-evolution. And there has been a dramatic trophic decline of plants and animals on the landscapes that buffalo shaped since the invaders and settlers carried out the U.S. mandated ecocide/genocide pact, helping give rise to both climate chaos and the biodiversity crisis the nations of the world are only now beginning to address.  

BFC Supports Treaty Rights 

It bears mentioning here that 80% of the biodiversity in the world today is found on the 5% of the lands still controlled by Indigenous people. Whereas settler (consumer) culture has triggered about 80% declines in insect and wildlife populations in the last 50 years, ushering us into the planet’s 6th Great Extinction event.  

And so, in this context, since 1990 the Park Service has begun to ‘allow’ and even foster the re-establishment of the severed relationship between buffalo and the tribes that historically and sustainably cohabited with and hunted those buffalo for at least 15 millennia - a relationship that is still held sacred. That’s the good news, and it deserves to be honored, if not actually celebrated. The bad news is that this renewal of treaty (and human) rights has been carried out under unjustifiably harsh and onerous terms dictated by the livestock industry in Montana and the federal Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service (APHIS).  

Buffalo Field Campaign is and has always been opposed to the government’s management plan, which resulted from a devil’s deal that settled a lawsuit brought by Montana against the Park Service. As will become clear to anyone who takes the time to read “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone,” there are clearly better ways to ‘manage’ wild buffalo in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Until such time that the State of Montana’s chokehold on buffalo management is finally broken, however, it remains the framework governing tribal relations with buffalo. 

BFC was founded by Rosalie Little Thunder and Mike Mease in response to the largest slaughter of wild bison in the 20th Century, following the winter of 1996-97, when the Park’s herd was mercilessly reduced from 3,436 to 1,089. That was the beginning of a government-sponsored terrorist campaign pursuant to which Yellowstone’s buffalo and tribes who held them to be sacred were re-traumatized by actual ‘slaughter’ at the hands of cowboys with Montana’s Dept. of Livestock and Park Service rangers; that is, rounded up like cattle by men in cowboy hats on horses, snowmobiles, and in helicopters, herded into traps operated by the Park Service, often resulting in grievous wounding from wild animals who had never experienced anything like this, and then squeezed onto trucks for transport to distant slaughterhouses. There is nothing more horrific for a wild animal than to be confined and controlled in this manner.  

Throughout all of that time, with annual government ‘culls’ in the thousands, mandated by the State of Montana, with the complicity of federal agencies, BFC was there, documenting and broadcasting these inhumane and racist practices to the world. 

And the world cared. Our media campaign has always served to undermine government actions. 

After much bad publicity, the government grudgingly began modifying their behavior. We won protections for year-round habitat outside the Park for the first time in Montana’s history in 2015, safeguarding the buffalo’s calving grounds on Horse Butte. Long before that, however, the government had the idea of shipping meat from the slaughterhouses to tribes, on reservations struggling with poverty, generational trauma, and poor diets, as well as establishing a kind of trophy hunt for Montana hunters in response to a bill from Montana’s legislature in 2003 authorizing same. In considering the first hunts to be implemented under the auspices of the Bison Management Plan, tribal hunting rights and “the role of bison in reparations for ill treatment of Native Americans” were ruled "outside the scope of analysis.”  

Montana’s hunt was intended to be exclusively a white man’s affair (Montana = 90% white). 

Once Montana’s wild buffalo hunt went forward, however, the tribes, acting as sovereign nations, asserted their treaty rights to hunt biosn on National Forest lands contiguous to the Park, thus creating leverage for re-establishing the possibility, at least, for what is considered by Indigenous people to be an “honorable harvest” of their close relatives, the buffalo.  

An Honorable Harvest: ‘This is Good Medicine’ 

That is the important historical context for considering this debate over tribal hunts. The ecocide and ‘slaughter’ legacies properly belong to the settler culture - including the 2,347 buffalo slaughtered the winter of 1997, and four other years when more than a thousand were rounded up and sent to slaughterhouses - not to the tribes. In fact, since the tribes have injected themselves into the IBMP process, and asserted their treaty rights, the population of buffalo in Yellowstone has risen to its highest level since the ecocide ended 150 years ago, though one of the two herds is actually in decline, and the threats to bison viability are still a major concern. It is not insignificant in this context that the Park Superintendent very recently stated that the past slaughters of bison carried out by DOL agents under the IBMP are “unacceptable,” and that there is room in the Park for at least 10,000 buffalo. 

The pushback on the tribes’ assertion of treaty rights was inevitable. In fact, when an environmental scientist and leader from the Nez Perce tribe, James Holt, decided to assert the treaty rights of his tribe, and encouraged other treaty tribes to do the same, they were accused of being complicit in the government’s schemes.  

Here is how Holt responded at the scene of an early hunt, in a story from The Guardian from 2016: 

“[S]ome conservation activists have accused tribal hunters of being pawns of the government and the livestock industry. Hunters such as Nez Perce tribal member James Holt, who helped initiate the hunts, take exception to such claims: ‘I find that idea offensive and revolting. I [come here] fulfilling the legacy of my ancestors; the dialogue dominating bison mismanagement does not quantify my relationship or spiritual beliefs with Brother Buffalo.’ Holt decries the limited conditions, locations, and times they are allowed to hunt in, and believes wild bison need to be allowed to migrate freely and recover in all of their native habitat.” 

James Holt, who has also been heavily involved in leading the Nez Perce’s successful efforts to restore salmon runs through the assertion of treaty rights and traditional ecological knowledge, subsequently became the executive director of BFC, returning our organization to its indigenous roots after the passing of Rosalie Little Thunder. 

“Honorable harvest” is a term that describes the reciprocal nature of an Indigenous person’s approach to harvesting both plant and animal beings. It is quite the opposite of the kind of slaughter Western culture practices towards livestock and, too often, wildlife. If tribes are practicing honorable harvest again with wild buffalo, then it would seem, at the very least, racially and culturally insensitive for white activists, privileged by a legacy of land-theft, genocide, and broken treaties, to falsely and intemperately label it “slaughter” - especially in the immediate wake of almost two decades of actual slaughter carried out by government agents, and without having reconciled the ecocide and genocide that coincided with the founding of Yellowstone NP.  

It is overtly colonialist to pretend to instruct the tribes on how they should (or should not) exercise their treaty rights. More humility is required of settler culture than is reflected in this paternalistic elitism. To provocatively re-label an honorable harvest as “slaughter” is “to strip a people of their culture, language, land, family structure, who they are as a person and as a people” - the very definition of colonialism. Rehman, B. And Hernández, D. Colonize This! (Seal Press (2019). 

Which begs the question: are the tribal hunts on National Forest lands in Yellowstone an honorable harvest, in spite of the government-imposed "limited conditions, locations, and times they are allowed to hunt [bison] in,” alluded to by Holt consistently since he began exercising the Nez Perce’s treaty rights? 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potowatomi woman who practices traditional life ways and is also a Distinguished Professor of Conservation Biology at SUNY, devotes an entire chapter in her best-selling, beautifully written book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) to the idea of honorable harvest. What it comes down to is the nature of the relationship with the life that is being taken, which can be thought of as the difference between killing a who and killing an it.  

Honorable harvest is a cultural practice of reciprocity that involves such things as asking permission of the being that is about to be taken, taking only what is needed, sharing the bounty, and giving thanks afterwards. In other words, honoring the life or lives that are being taken in this endless dance of life and death. She quotes a tribal elder explaining to youths that “[a]cknowledging the lives that support ours and living in a way that demonstrates our gratitude is a force that keeps the world in motion.”  

Judging by contemporaneous reports of tribes hunting wild bison, it seems to be about renewing an ancient, sacred relationship just as much as it is about securing a healthy diet for their families and communities. For example, in a 2020 article by David Reese, a reporter for the Courthouse News Service, we find these insights into the attitudes of the tribal hunters outside Yellowstone NP that are entirely consistent with the cultural practice of honorable harvest: 

“This is good medicine,” [Lee Whiteplume of Idaho] said while hunched over his big bison, helping skin the big animal. “I think it’s only right that of all people on planet Earth, we get to exercise our aboriginal rights by being able to harvest one of these animals.” 

Once back home, the bounty of the harvest will be shared with his family. The entire family will get involved with the tanning of the enormous bison hide, using the brains as an emulsifier on the hide. “This will take weeks of strenuous work,” he said, “weeks and weeks, and hours upon hours of work.” 

He was not festive or jovial, and no sense of bloodlust was displayed. He appeared at the same time somber but grateful. Snow began to spit out of the ashen gray sky and Whiteplume resumed his work on the bison. 

“This represents our life and our livelihood,” Whiteplume said. “This is our connection to this landscape.” 

This sentiment is an echo of the 2016 article, in which Holt spoke for his fellow tribal hunters: 

“These men do not take part in this practice as a matter of sport. There is no celebration in the loss of life for this animal they deem so sacred. Rather, the celebration is in the sustaining of life for their families, tribe and culture. Hunting has always been simply a matter of subsistence for Native hunters. Certainly there is honor in accomplishing a difficult hunt; but, it is not done for recreational pastime it is done for survival.” 

Holt’s obvious passion for wild buffalo comes through every time he speaks of them as family to his people. Holt’s dedication, his strident advocacy in securing habitat for wild buffalo outside of the Park, the success his tribe is having on behalf of salmon, and his scientific expertise in traditional ecological knowledge are among the reasons BFC hired him to lead our organization, and we have added representatives of the Dakota and Shoshone-Bannock tribes to our Board of Directors.  

To gain an appreciation of the cultural significance of tribes hunting buffalo, I highly recommend Nick Martin & Chris White Eagle’s 11-minute film The Hunt (Patagonia Films), which explores “the beginning of a relationship renewed” between tribal youth and the sacred buffalo.  

It is instructive to pause here and compare this approach to taking wild bison to the situation preceding tribal hunts. The Montana Department of Livestock does not adhere to the principles of honorable harvest. They adhere to a tradition of slaughter and ecocide. Any characterization by non-Indigenous conservationists of the honorable harvest of buffalo by tribal members as “slaughter” is a clear projection of our settler shadow, or unresolved perpetrator trauma. Nothing more. 

As Justine Sanchez, a long-time buffalo activist and current President of BFC’s Board points out, “Montana has set the stage in which every other actor plays their part,” when it comes to ‘managing’ bison. “Divide and conquer is part of the story’s malicious plot,” according to Sanchez.  

As noted in “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone,” for “Native Americans the buffalo represent the essence of their social, cultural, and spiritual identity.” According to an article in the periodical Indian Country News, decolonization is both a personal and a political process that “requires all participants to work on themselves, [un-colonizing] their thinking, assumptions, perspectives, beliefs, and habits of mind.”  

Leaders and activists in the conservation community are not exempted from this exercise in, and observance of, long overdue recognition of Indigenous culture and people and their connection to the stolen lands and severed relationships with animals like the buffalo who sustain them. In fact, the lack of this kind of cross-cultural deprogramming best explains the relative absence here in the northern Rockies of effective collaborations between traditional conservationists and tribal leaders, as well as the kind of sniping from the sidelines that accompanied the assumption of managing the National Bison Refuge by the Kootenai-Salish tribe.  

There can be no sustainable ecological recovery without honoring and respecting ‘traditional ecological knowledge,’ as the international science community has emphasized, and that will not happen apart from social justice for the tribes in places like Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. That should begin with honoring and celebrating the cultural revival that is being sparked by the resumption of the tribes’ relationship with the buffalo. 

BFC Position on Treaty Rights & Quarantine 

From its inception, the Buffalo Field Campaign has honored the historic and vibrant connection enjoyed by buffalo and Indigenous peoples. We support tribal sovereignty by respecting - not ‘approving’ - the exercise of treaty rights, and by advocating for tribes to be given greater responsibility for finding holistic approaches to cohabiting with wild buffalo in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That is the real issue at hand - not brucellosis, and not tribal hunting. While we celebrate and honor the cultural revival that has followed the return of quarantined bison to tribal communities like Fort Peck, we are adamantly opposed to the idea that quarantine is necessary.  

There are over 8 million acres of National Forest lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park. Because of BFC’s advocacy and the success of our attorneys at Friends of Animals, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is currently engaged in an exhaustive, year-long scientific study and analysis of the threats to the future viability of Yellowstone’s two herds of wild buffalo. One of the threats the Fish & Wildlife Service cited right from the start of accepting BFC’s and Western Watersheds Project’s petition to list Yellowstone’s buffalo under the Endangered Species Act, is the untenable fact that the herds are constricted by the government to a mere fraction of their historic, or natural, range in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.  

The only reason tribal hunting impacts fall disproportionately upon the neighbors of Beattie Gulch and Horse Butte is because Montana’s livestock industry, its federal counterpart in the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, and the Park Service have intentionally created so-called “killing grounds” for the exercise of treaty rights inclose proximity to local communities. When the agencies were first studying the prospect of a bison hunt in 2004, BFC supported a “citizens alternative” in the form of a petition calling for Yellowstone’s herds to have unfettered access to year-round habitat on National Forest lands surrounding the Park, if they were to be hunted, to be managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks like the wildlife they are.  

Now that Montana has abandoned scientific principles of wildlife management, at the behest of MAGA Governor Gianforte, we are advocating instead for the Park Service to work with the treaty tribes and staff biologists for the surrounding National Forests to devise a plan for tribal co-management of buffalo outside the Park. This would include expanding hunting opportunities for tribes and state residents away from communities like Beattie Gulch and Horse Butte.  

Brucellosis is not a real issue - it is instead a red herring that Montana’s former Governor Brian Schweitzer openly admitted was just a cover for cattle ranchers to safeguard access to highly subsidized foraging on public lands. In other words, to keep cows on National Forests, at the public’s expense, not wild buffalo. Since the time when Montana sued the Park Service over the threat of brucellosis to cattle, however, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming have all modernized regulations so that ranchers are no longer at risk of losing their entire herds just because one cow contracts brucellosis. And cows do contract brucellosis - from wild elk. Repeatedly, and without any state losing its “brucellosis-free” status. It isn’t a big deal, as it was before pasteurization wiped out undulant fever from drinking cow’s milk.  

There has never been an instance of transmission of brucellosis from bison back to cattle in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Brucellosis is a wildlife conspiracy myth perpetrated by livestock growers and the politicians they fund. All the ranchers really care about is access to the public lands that happen to be the historic range of America’s national mammal, the buffalo. And there is very little of that kind of public lands ranching left around Yellowstone.  

Nobody is calling for the government to slaughter elk on public lands to protect cows in Montana. So why can’t we have wild buffalo, too? And what do you imagine the economic impact would be of having wild bison grazing along blue-ribbon trout streams on public lands in the Big Sky state?  

It’s time. The UN Biodiversity Conventions will be adopted in December by a convening of parties international in Montreal, Canada. Those conventions will call for restoring degraded ecosystems by engaging Indigenous people, respecting their traditional ecological knowledge, and supporting keystone species like Yellowstone’s wild bison.  

It is time for the world’s first National Park, Yellowstone, to take a more assertive role in protecting America’s national mammal in its native ecosystem, just as it is time to allow wild buffalo back into the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Reserve at the headwaters of the Missouri River, where Lewis & Clark first stumbled upon the American Serengeti of plant and animal biodiversity. 

And this is the whole point of the call for a “national reckoning” promoted by the authors of “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone.” As those legal scholars conclude, and as some conservationists are now voicing their objections to: 

“In light of [the] legal sleight of hand resulting in the historical and continuing subjugation of Indigenous nations, their rights to land and sovereignty, calls for land back can be seen as a demand to reconsider or reframe misguided assumptions. Indeed, it demands the rejection of the legal construct of the Doctrine of Discovery, and the restoration of Indigenous relationships with the land. 

‘Co-management’ is a limited descriptor for myriad ways in which the legal landscape supports increased tribal authority and invigorated federal-tribal partnerships. The universe of approaches to these objectives includes calls for land back, developing new ways for tribal and collaborative land and resource management to grow, enhancing tribal engagement within existing federal land management practices, and expanding the use and incorporation of traditional tribal knowledge and wisdom in ecosystem management. 

It is our sincere hope that future federal-tribal relations at Yellowstone will continue along the current trajectory— that is, continue leaning in toward connection. Yet not just ‘continue,’ but elevate and evolve, and in ways that not only defy what earlier generations of park officials and tribal leaders thought was possible, but also realize what future generations will see as just.” 

BFC supports the respectful continuation of this trajectory to re-indigenize the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (not just the Park).  

We respectfully request that all those who have fought long and hard to protect these places and animals we hold so dear to our hearts join us and join the tribes in this ongoing struggle to restore biodiversity at scale, using keystone species like the buffalo to draw down vast stores of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, rather than reflexively giving into the divide-and-conquer strategies of Montana’s Department of Livestock and other colonizing social forces that still adhere within the dominant settler and consumer paradigm.  

We can do so much better than this by empowering tribes, and by elevating and centering traditional ecological knowledge. With tribal leadership, America’s climate keystone species and national mammal can lead us out of the coming climate storm. 

~ Tom Woodbury is Director of Communications for the Buffalo Field Campaign, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.