James Holt, Executive Director
Buffalo Field Campaign
W. Patrick Kincaid, J.D.
Inherent Rights Agency, LLC
Tom Woodbury, Communications Director
Buffalo Field Campaign
(406) 646-0700 (office)
(650) 238-8759 (private)
West Yellowstone, MT - Characterizing Governor Gianforte and the Montana’s livestock lobbies as “clear and present threats” to the future viability of wild bison, Buffalo Field Campaign urged federal land managers meeting in West Yellowstone Wednesday to “disqualify” the state of Montana from further involvement in managing wild buffalo on federal lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
With buffalo populations growing naturally in the Park, and new research that discounts any perceived threat they pose to cattle in Montana, Yellowstone’s Park Superintendent Cam Sholly has signaled a preference for managing buffalo more like elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including the Custer-Gallatin National Forest in Montana. At a public talk near Pray, Montana recently, Sholly questioned why the Department of Livestock felt compelled to send five agents to kill a lone bull bison that had wandered up the Paradise Valley, since bulls pose no threat of transmitting the livestock-disease brucellosis to cattle, while elk are known to transmit the disease back to cows.
The Park Service, an agency of the Department of Interior, terminated its’ prior joint analysis with the State of Montana, apparently over the state’s intransigence and unwillingness to follow the science in updating the management regime for Yellowstone’s buffalo. Due to present restrictions on buffalo’s migration patterns insisted upon by Montana’s Department of Livestock, state hunters and tribal hunters are forced to take bison in close proximity to the communities of Gardiner and Horse Butte, prompting two citizens’s lawsuits.
On Wednesday, Buffalo Field Campaign insisted that the state is no longer acting in good faith or in the public’s interest.
“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is currently considering Yellowstone’s buffalo for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act, based on the application of best available science,” said Nez Perce environmental scientist and BFC Executive Director James Holt. “And yet under the current governor’s direction, the state of Montana has made it clear that they’re not interested in science as it applies to buffalo,” Holt said.
Background of the Controversy
Buffalo are considered a keystone species by leading ecologists, because their presence on the land has cascading benefits for both plants and animals. In a letter to Cam Sholly earlier this year, Governor Gianforte made the surprising claim that buffalo would be a “detriment” to other wildlife, and would displace elk, not cows, if allowed to re-inhabit public wildlands.
Former Governor Brian Schweitzer, in contradiction to Gianforte’s specious claims, publicly admitted that Montana’s objections to wild buffalo in the state were based on the interests of stock grower’s maintaining colonialist control over grazing on public lands. As Schweitzer admitted in the 2012 film Facing the Storm: The Story of the American Bison, “the range war that continues to rage across the West is a competition between wildlife and cattle… [and] there are people who just don’t want buffalo to compete with the cattle for grass.”
Ignoring wildlife science, Gianforte also calls on the Park Service to reduce Yellowstone’s herds down to a floor of 2,500 total. Presently, it is estimated that there are about 5,500 wild bison in Yellowstone, and Sholly says there is room for thousands more. During his public talk, he characterized the prospects of slaughtering thousands of bison, as Gianforte demands, “unacceptable.”
“If Montana has its way,” Holt said Wednesday, “the central herd of buffalo, which the courts have found to be genetically distinct from the northern herd, is likely to go extinct.”
The central herd traces its lineage to the original 23 buffalo that survived the mass slaughters of the 19th Century. Its population has fallen well under the 3,000 minimum science says is required to be viable (Hedrick, 2009), which is likely attributable to disproportionate impacts under the 2000 management plan.
At the same time, there are far fewer cattle in the ecosystem around the Park than in 2000 when Montana forced the Park Service to manage for lower bison populations, in settlement of a lawsuit brought by the state, and regulations have also been improved so that ranchers no longer face a loss of their entire herd when brucellosis is detected.
The Park Service and State agree that brucellosis is endemic in Yellowstone’s ecosystem, is transmitted to cattle by elk, and that the risk of transmission from bull bison to cattle is “negligible,” if not scientifically precluded. Gianforte clearly expressed Montana’s intolerance of wild buffalo on federal wildlands in his letter to the Park Service, and threatened to exercise the state’s “sovereignty” should the federal agency adopt a more science-based approach to managing Yellowstone’s buffalo.
Montana’s Unlawful Stance
Unlike the 1997 lawsuit filed by the State of Montana against the Park Service, which was never decided by the courts, Buffalo Field Campaign says the outcome of renewed litigation would not favor the state, and there is no public support for renewed slaughter of Yellowstone’s bison.
BFC’s Director of Communications Tom Woodbury attended the managing partner’s meeting on Wednesday, and asserted that “[t]he Governor is promoting an extinction strategy to benefit Montana’s cattle industry, without regard to science, law, or the public’s interest in preserving wild buffalo.” Because of this change in legal position, Woodbury said “the state has effectively opted out of good faith planning for America’s wild buffalo.”
According to W. Patrick Kincaid, a treaty attorney for the Standing Rock and Yankton Sioux Tribes, Gianforte’s assertion of “sovereignty” over buffalo on national forest lands represents an empty threat.
“There are only two sovereign powers that have authentic jurisdiction over America’s buffalo,” Kincaid said, “sovereign Tribes and the federal government.”
According to a recent article in the Wyoming Law Review, “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone,” the Park Service has ample authority and every reason to enter into co-management agreements with the Tribes to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife without regard to Park boundaries.
Kincaid reinforced that legal principle, opining that “It's clear as a matter of law — Montana cannot interfere with tribal jurisdiction over wild buffalo, or federal protections of wildlife, on national forest lands. While the state has an interest in conserving wildlife,” Kincaid said, “it has no legitimate interest in promoting the extirpation of species on public lands.”\
BFC’s Executive Director James Holt is one of over a hundred signatories to the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Treaty, which the Park Service and the Department of Interior are actively supporting. Holt says the time has now come for Yellowstone’s treaty Tribes to assert their inherent, un-ceded rights in relation to America’s free-roaming wild buffalo.
“We have never surrendered our aboriginal rights to co-exist on unoccupied lands with our buffalo brothers and sisters,” Holt said. “And unlike the state of Montana, Tribes are willing and able to help take care of the buffalo, using the best science and our own traditional ecological knowledge,” Holt asserted.
Holt is urging the federal agencies to turn to the Tribes, not Montana, to co-manage buffalo in Yellowstone’s ecosystem. Such a co-management agreement would limit Montana’s role to that of science-based consultation with its wildlife agencies.
“Yellowstone bison management must reflect the values of the American People,” Holt said Wednesday. “Montana’s hostile treatment of wolves, including the Governor’s unlawful killing of a Yellowstone wolf, and the state’s unprincipled, unscientific, openly hostile stance against treating buffalo and the Tribes with the honor and respect we deserve, means they no longer deserve a seat at the table,” Holt said.
“The alternative to manage wild buffalo like wild elk respects the rights of landowners, protects the pocketbooks of taxpayers, and is the most beneficial for wild buffalo and habitat in Montana,” Holt concluded.
In addition to monitoring the migrations of buffalo into the Custer-Gallatin National Forests for over 25 years now, Buffalo Field Campaign works to minimize bison-vehicle collisions, and is advocating for a buffalo (wildlife) bridge on Highway 191 to protect wildlife and drivers more effectively.