Update From the Field: BFC Position on Tribal Hunting of Buffalo in the Yellowstone Ecosystem

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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.

Publication of the provocative, paradigm-shifting article “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone” in this summer’s issue of the Wyoming Law Review has shaken up the ‘old guard’ in the Montana conservation community. A long think piece in the Wildlife News by a longtime Montana conservationist betrays a kind of systemic colonialism that has historically infected white male dominated conservation groups.

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Embedded in a long list of grievances with tribal government actions, there is reference to the “slaughter” of hundreds of wild bison outside Yellowstone National Park every year via tribal hunting, along with the assertion that BFC “supports this slaughter.” As we begin BFC’s 26th year in the field, a season that promises to be unlike any other, it's vitally important for us to make abundantly clear to the press and to our supporters alike just what our position is on the tribal hunting regime imposed by the State of Montana and the National Park Service.

FACT CHECK: Does BFC support the slaughter of buffalo by the tribes? No, we do not.

BFC Position on Treaty Rights & Quarantine
  • 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 public lands surrounding Yellowstone NP. Because of BFC’s zealous advocacy, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, working with Park biologists and the public, are 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 FWS cited right from the start of accepting the petition from BFC and Western Watersheds Project, represented by our attorneys at Friends of the Animals, 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.
Historical Context of BFC's Support of Treaty Rights

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.

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 also 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.

And there has been a dramatic trophic decline of plants and animals on the landscapes that buffalo shaped since we carried out our 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.

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).

To be clear, the Buffalo Field Campaign is and has always been opposed to the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which resulted from a devil’s deal that settled a lawsuit brought by Montana against the Park Service. 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.

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. And 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.

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.

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.