Buffalo Assert Their Territorial Rights In Yellowstone Ecosystem

Hebgen Lake, MT - At BFC, we stand in solidarity with wild buffalo. We stand in solidarity with Indigenous tribes. We stand in solidarity with the residents of GardIner and Horse Butte. And we refuse to give in to the state of Montana’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

bfc 2022 11 25 bison in snow

Last week, we learned from our friends in GardIner that hundreds of wild buffalo had migrated out of Yellowstone National Park’s northern entrance. This week, our patrols discovered another hundred or so migrating across the western boundary of the Park, along the Madison River towards Horse Butte. This early migration follows closely the start of Montana's hunting season for bison, and we’d already seen hunters take four buffalo in the field. How many more tags would be filled? Would the tribes be arriving soon to exercise their treaty rights?

This was how BFC's 26th season started. We scrambled patrols out into the field from first light to twilight, in Gardiner and on Horse Butte.
The Park Service, at the state of Montana’s urging, likes to pretend that there is a 'surplus' of buffalo in Yellowstone’s ecosystem, though more recently Park Superintendent Sholly admitted that, according to the science, there is room for thousands more.

As a matter of federal supremacy, the Park Service’s care-taking responsibilities for migratory wildlife like bison, antelope, wolves and elk extends beyond the Park’s boundaries, as necessary to fulfill the Park Service's preservation mission. This authorizes them to enter into cooperative agreements with tribal governments for the purpose of protecting wildlife through collaborative efforts on land inside and outside Yellowstone National Park.

Regrettably, as the buffalo remind us every year with their natural migratory patterns, the Park Service has abdicated this sacred responsibility for our national mammal to a state, Montana, and an industry, livestock, that don’t even recognize buffalo as wildlife!

And so, under the dictates imposed on our federal (not state) wildlands by a state that doesn't respect buffalo as wildlife, we are seeing Montana’s “divide-and-conquer” strategy take hold once again outside the northern entrance, in and around the town of Gardiner, MT, creating unnecessary conflict for political gain. Meanwhile, Montana's governor is attempting to bully the National Park Service into abandoning its science-based attempts to improve conditions for wild buffalo.

Why do President Biden, Interior Secretary Haaland, and Yellowstone Park’s Superintendent, Cam Sholly, continue to play along with this sham?!

Due to the extreme limitations artificially placed on the ability of Yellowstone’s buffalo to inhabit their natural range - which impoverishes all plants and animals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem - state and tribal hunters are forced to gather en masse at the arbitrarily drawn borderlands of the Park near populated areas, rather than being dispersed throughout the open forests and meadows of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest like elk hunters at this time of year. There they watch attentively, waiting for their intended prey to unwittingly step into one of the narrow hunting gauntlets designated by Montana to maximize buffalo mortality while minimizing their access to public grasslands.

Why would the state and the Park Service choose to create such an unnatural zone of conflict between competing interests here?

Well, we know from former Governor Schweitzer whose interests the state is looking out for - and it isn’t the citizens that live in or near Gardiner and Horse Butte. They want to prevent wild buffalo from competing with domestic cows for access to grass on federal lands. They are so ashamed of this venality that they are forced to pretend that the REAL risk is a bacteria carried by both elk and bison that can theoretically cause - shudder to think of it now - a cow to abort!

Part of Montana’s strategy has been to let the tribes take the heat for ‘controlling’ the populations of Yellowstone’s bison in the exercise of their treaty rights. So they must be pleased that some extreme animal rights activists - as well as some archaic conservationists who seem to believe that the tribes place is on reservations, not ancestral hunting grounds - have initiated a campaign of slandering the tribes and BFC itself, as an Indigenous-founded-and-led organization that respectstribal sovereignty.

It seems ironic that those who owe their privilege to colonialist land grabs, genocide, and broken treaties suddenly find themselves possessing the moral authority to instruct the tribes on when and how they can exercise treaty rights (or, more accurately, why they should not be able to exercise certain treaty rights). Tribes are sovereign nations, and treaties represent the supreme law of the land in the same way that the U.S. Constitution sets forth inalienable rights for its citizens. They deserve to be respected - especially where it concerns the tribes re-establishing their relationship with wild buffalo.

But while we can see through Montana’s corrupt motives, what exactly motivates the National Park Service to refrain from asserting their inherent trust authority to provide for the dispersion of wild buffalo in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? If the state of Montana has no interest in treating wild buffalo the same way they treat wild elk, which is a given so long as ranchers rule the Statehouse and we have a MAGA governor, then it’s time for Superintendent Sholly to work with the treaty tribes and President Biden’s National Forest Supervisors on a new holistic plan that allows buffalo to be buffalo, and that empowers tribes to fully restore their sacred relationship with buffalo. This would include co-management of buffalo within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and establishing honorable harvest regimes based on traditional ecological knowledge and federal treaty laws.

Such forward-thinking management would benefit state hunters as well, of course. In fact, all Montanans would benefit from the economic windfall of having wild buffalo grazing along blue ribbon trout streams. And there would follow a cascade of the beneficial effects bison have on plant and wildlife diversity, in stark contrast to the ecological damage inflicted on our National Forests by cows.

If you agree with this holistic approach, please take the time to let Superintendent Sholly know how you feel. There will be a public meeting next Wednesday, Nov. 30, at the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone, which is an appropriate forum for public comment (and/or protest).
As for those hundreds of wild buffalo who trampled over invisible lines on a map, wandering unwittingly into harms way? Here's the latest from Mike, checking in from Gardiner:

"After two days of watching 100 plus buffalo walk in and out of the Beattie Gulch hunt zone two bulls were taken by hunters. Our hearts go out to those who witnessed these deaths from their homes. Today, my prayers were answered as I watched all 100+ march back into the park, but not before stopping to mourn their fallen family member's remains. They and almost all other Buffalo in the valley marched solemnly past the entrance gate back into Yellowstone NP on their way up to Mammoth. We will keep you all posted on all things the Buffalo have to do to survive and the sad things that happen along the way as we continue to fight to expand their habitat and reduce these unnecessary conflicts."

With hundreds of buffalo making their presence felt, 8 have been taken by hunters so far this season, and another 4 have been killed in collisions with vehicles on the roads. None have been trapped. According to Superintendent Sholly, there are more wild bison in Yellowstone now than at any time since the ecocide and genocide of the 19th Century. And there is room for more.

Now is the time to let our Park stewards know our demands on behalf of the buffalo, whose obvious wishes have not been respected for over 150 years.
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