Bison Battles: When will Yellowstone halt its slaughter of an American icon?

By on March 28, 2018

(Vaughn Robison)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Two men locked themselves with steel tubes and metal chains to a squeeze chute meant for wild bison in Yellowstone National Park, risking jail time to make a stand: End the slaughter of one of the last genetically pure wild bison herds.

“I’ve personally seen enough, heard enough, experienced enough and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Thomas Brown said in a video following his release from jail. “These animals need a voice and I chose to be that voice.”

Brown and Cody Cyson, activists with the direct action collective Wild Buffalo Defense, were arrested on March 6 and charged with entering a closed area in Yellowstone National Park and interfering with an agency function. Hanna Ponder was attempting to observe and document the actions of law enforcement and was also arrested on the same day and charged with entering a closed area.

Ten days later, two activists, known as Coyote and Wolf, locked their arms inside three concrete-filled 55-gallon steel barrels and sat along the access road, blocking the entrance to the capture facility and the exit for trailers carrying wild bison for slaughter.

Behind the activists hung a large hand-painted banner that read “Yellowstone Buffalo Slaughter.” Each concrete-filled yellow drum was painted with phrases like “protect the sacred” and “honor the treaties.” Their arms linked behind them, they were exposed, knowing an arrest was likely. If they could stop trucks filled with bison on the way to be slaughtered it would be worth it to them.

They were hardly a deterrent.

Protesters barricade a gate with their arms locked through 55-gallon barrels (top left). Ten days prior, two fellow protestors locked themselves to a squeeze chute meant to steady livestock at the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility. (Wild Buffalo Defense; Jacob W Frank, NPS; Jim Peaco, NPS)

National Park Service officials used heavy machines to plow a path around the gate and the trucks drove around the blockade and off the road to bypass the protesters. After law enforcement removed the protesters from the barrels and chains, they arrested the men. Coyote agreed to a plea deal and was found guilty of trespassing and obstruction and Wolf plead not guilty to trespassing, obstructing an agency function and obstructing a government worker. Coyote and Wolf were released and Wolf is set to reappear in court on April 4.

Five arrests, five direct action protests and two earlier incidents of bison release at Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek Capture Facility have reignited public interest in a decades-old issue that activists and conservation organizations have been fighting just as long. The Park Service admits its management of the national mammal needs revision, but it’s an interagency issue held back with political tape.

Organizations like the West Yellowstone, Montana-based Buffalo Field Campaign, that aim to restore and protect the wild bison, say the National Park Service has other options and want it to end the practice of slaughter.

“The bison are in Yellowstone and people would never believe the national park would harm the animals they’ve been entrusted to protect,” said Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign’s media coordinator. “But that’s not the case.”

Park Service officials, meanwhile, say their hands are tied because of a 1995 lawsuit, in which Montana alleged Yellowstone bison were migrating out of the park onto state lands.

Montana sued the National Park Service and won, and by court order, the agencies had to devise a plan to prevent Yellowstone bison from migrating into Montana. A large part of the push against wild bison in Montana comes from cattle ranchers, part of a 1 billion dollar industry, who say they fear the bison will spread brucellosis to their animals. In the 1990s, cattle first brought the disease to the Yellowstone area and transmitted it to wildlife.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease, spread by infected birth tissues that cause abortions in pregnant cattle, elk and bison. According to Yellowstone, about 60 percent of adult female bison test positive for exposure to Brucella bacteria, but that doesn’t mean they carry the disease or can transmit it. Only 10 to 15 percent of the population carries the live bacteria that can be transmitted.

While the infection rates seem high, Neal Herbert, a spokesperson for Yellowstone, said there have been no documented cases of bison transmitting brucellosis to elk. “We’ve taken great steps to prevent it,” he said. 

In August 2017, almost 5,000 bison were estimated to live in Yellowstone, but the Interagency Bison Management Plan set a target population of 3,000. The 2018 Winter Management Plan calls for 600 to 900 bison to be hunted in Montana and trapped and slaughtered in Yellowstone.

Those numbers were set through negotiations with eight agencies, Herbert said. The goal population had to be low enough to discourage a large migration out of the park.

The number of bison culled through Yellowstone’s capture and slaughter changes every year based on population. According to daily patrols by Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers, 637 bison have been sent to slaughter and 800 bison have been captured this year.

Seay said the figures that determine how many bison will be slaughtered are completely arbitrary, but have serious effects on the population. “It’s not based on anything other than politics,” she said.

The Bison Trap

Caption 2: Bison are moved through pens to a chute where Park Service officials draw blood to test for brucellosis. (Jim Peaco/NPS)

Stephens Creek, located on the edge of Yellowstone’s northern Montana border, a 10-minute drive west of Gardiner, sits at the heart of the debate.

Herbert said the area acts as an administrative facility, but also contains the corrals used for bison management.

The park service has videos of the facility on its website that show how the bison are captured, sorted and transferred to slaughter. The process is similar to that of cattle, but for the one-ton wild animals, the corrals, pens and humans are foreign.

Yellowstone implements a few different ways to get bison into the trap. In the winter, the Park Service plows a path toward the facility. Officials try to keep other bison in the enclosure to lure free-roaming bison in. When necessary, the bison are herded up in family groups and hazed toward Stephens Creek Capture Facility and the bison trap. Herbert said only animals already at the northern end of the park, seemingly ready to migrate into the Gardiner Basin in Montana, are affected.

But bison from other reaches of Yellowstone, including the Central herd, are affected, too. It’s not just the adults that are herded up either, Seay said. Family groups get taken together, including calves. “They destroy these families and kill them,” she said.

The bison, accustomed to grazing openly in the wild, are unsure what to do in the high-walled, tight sorting corral and run from side to side in panic, looking for an opening. Once in the individual squeeze chute, the bison bucks and clamors, uncomfortable with the metal walls around it. The bison calms when the pressure of the machine presses down, giving Park Service employees a chance to examine the animal and draw blood for testing.

Herbert said the testing for brucellosis isn’t straightforward—there isn’t a single test. It’s a process that can take up to a few years.

Eventually the bison are driven onto cattle trailers and shipped off to be slaughtered. The meat and hides are then given to the Native American tribes that are part of the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

To reduce the population, slaughter and hunting are “the only two methods currently at our disposal,” Herbert said.

As the population grows, by 10 to 17 percent each year, Yellowstone officials fear that indefinite growth could lead to overgrazing and a possible mass starvation of animals within the park. A larger population also leads to larger migrations and further potential conflict. 

Tribal leaders from the Nez Perce have proposed bison hunting within the park, their ancestral hunting grounds, which the Park Service opposes.

“This is not the future we want for Yellowstone, and we don’t believe it’s the future the public wants either,” Yellowstone’s website reads.

But there is one possible option for the future: a quarantine program.

It is illegal to move animals that have been exposed to brucellosis to other conservation areas. Herbert said a facility is already built at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, but the transfer of bison has been held up by political disputes. The Montana Legislature needs to pass a bill that allows the transfer of bison that have tested positive for brucellosis. 

If the Fort Peck transfer was allowed, the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes would receive live bison. By using a quarantine facility, the Yellowstone bison could be moved to establish new tribal and public populations of plains bison without the risk of spreading brucellosis.

Seay said the Buffalo Field Campaign is vehemently opposed to quarantine. “It’s essentially a domestication process,” she said. “It’s also another tool of the oppressor.”

If things continue the way they do, Seay is afraid the bison will risk extinction.

“When you think about the buffalo, the earth chose them,” she said. “They are supposed to be on this land in large numbers.”

Bowing to Bison

(Jim Peaco, NPS)

Bison are native to North America and used to roam the plains in herds that numbered in the millions. The large animals were the primary source of food and resource for Plains Indians in the 17th and 18th centuries until European settlers expanded west. Tribes like the Lakota migrated alongside the bison, revering the animal and paying them sacrifice and honor when killing them.

The East’s appetite for bison hides and easier hunting due to guns and horses in the 19th century helped ignite a gradual population decline. During the American-Indian Wars of the 19th century, soldiers in the U.S. Army would not only attack and kill Native American troops, but their primary food source, the bison, too. An attack on bison was a direct attack on tribal members. By the end of the century the bison had been hunted and killed to near extinction. As the land of the native peoples shrank so did the bison’s.

While some consider the American assault on bison and their relationship with Native Americans to be a thing of the past, the Buffalo Field Campaign, among others, does not.

“This is a war against the buffalo,” Seay said. “It’s a war over the grass and who gets to eat it.”

Though almost half the partners of the Interagency Bison Management Plan represent Native Americans—the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, the Nez Perce Tribe—Seay says not all tribal members agree with the systematic slaughter of bison.

“It’s caused riffs within the communities,” she said. “The people and the government think differently and the people don’t agree with it.”

Where’s Wyoming?

The agencies behind the Interagency Bison Management Plan include the National Park Service, several national forests, Native American tribes and the state of Montana. But why isn’t Wyoming involved, given the majority of Yellowstone lies in the state?

Yellowstone spokesperson Vicki Regula said Wyoming and Idaho were not involved with the lawsuit, so they were not involved with the settlement and cooperative effort to manage the bison. “Also, few bison migrate into Wyoming and Idaho,” she said.

But there are bison, currently about 300, that roam in Wyoming, specifically between Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge.

Lori Iverson, spokesperson for the National Elk Refuge, said there is no management plan for the bison in Teton County. The bison on the refuge will be supplementally fed when the elk are, but they’re not monitored closely for disease. There’s a bison hunt, managed by Wyoming Game and Fish, but no quarantine or capture.

That’s not because they’re disease-free, though. The bison herd in the area is not a brucellosis-free herd, Iverson said.

But the bison are mostly contained to federal land. “We don’t have bison moving on to private land as much as they may have in Montana,” she said. “That’s not a worry.”

There was a time when the refuge was concerned about the bison heading pretty far south, but a cattle guard was installed that fixed the problem.

Similarly, the bison in Wyoming are treated like elk are in Montana. They’re both managed as wildlife species without any special treatment. Conversely, elk in Wyoming are treated more like bison in Montana.

Seay said that elk roam free in Montana, even though they’ve been known and tested to carry brucellosis. There have been documented cases of elk spreading brucellosis to cattle.

The migration of elk into Teton County and onto private ranch land is a concern for the National Elk Refuge. Brucellosis has been present in the elk on the National Elk Refuge since 1930 and poses a threat to livestock in the area. Conflict has subsided as ranching in the county has shrunk over the past few decades, but there’s still risk.

Elk are more susceptible to disease when they’re in high-density areas, like on feedline. The primary management action the agency employs is to spread the elk across the feedgrounds or reduce the reliance on supplemental feed, Iverson said.

They fenced in the rest of the refuge in a hope to prevent animals from wandering into roadways and off the refuge. Necropsies are performed on elk and elk refuge employees monitor the herd for disease and overall health.

Alternatives for Protecting a National Treasure

(Wild Buffalo Defense)

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group focused on protecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, works with Montana landowners outside the national park to create more tolerance for bison. Shana Drimal, a wildlife program associated with the coalition, said that more people are coming around to the idea of living alongside bison, but it hasn’t been easy.

“They’re fearful of the unknown and don’t know what it’s like,” she said. “There are a lot of common sense things you can do to live safely with bison. Generally, they don’t want to cause problems, they just want to eat.”

One of the coalition’s main projects is the Yellowstone Bison Coexistence Program, which provides financial aid and technical support for exclusion fences around private property that keep bison out. By talking with people on the ground, staffers have been able to expand tolerance areas outside the park including a large swath of land near West Yellowstone in the southern reaches of the Gallatin National Forest.

Given the many changes on the ground, in public opinion and scientific research, Drimal said the current bison management plan needs to be updated. “The current management regime is outdated and unacceptable at this point,” she said. “We don’t believe sending bison to slaughter is an appropriate way to manage this wildlife species.”

Drimal said there is an ongoing process to update the current bison management plan, which allows changes and updates every 10 years. But the partners have never been able to agree or make significant change to the plan, even though it’s been available for updates since 2010.

The Buffalo Field Campaign has offered solutions to the Interagency Bison Management Plan including a plan to “Manage Wild Buffalo like Wild Elk in Montana.”

The proposal, written in 2015 when the interagency partners started the process to write a new plan that was never released, says that bison could inhabit public lands and be managed by a hunting season based on sustainable populations. “You drive around Montana and there is so much open land with no buffalo,” Seay said. “It’s like ‘Where are the buffalo? Why can’t they be here?’ This is so wrong.”

The Buffalo Field Campaign says that the alternative plan would save taxpayers money by shutting down the capture and slaughter process and keep parts of the Bison Management Plan that work, like continuing the Designated Surveillance Area management of cattle.

The Yellowstone Coalition would also like to see bison treated and managed like other wildlife species in Montana.

“That’s their natural migratory route,” Drimal said. “Elk and all these other species are allowed to roam freely out of the park.”

Yellowstone sits on a high elevation plateau and doesn’t provide appropriate year-round habitat. The animals must be able to migrate out of the park to suitable winter habitat.

“Every winter when they try to do it, they have no idea that they can’t cross a line,” she said.

But Drimal said that kind of change can’t happen overnight, the landscape and tolerance aren’t there yet. It’s important for the people living in those communities to be on board and prepared.

“In a perfect world it would be great to do away with tolerance lines and how wildlife are managed today,” she said. “But I think we need to take more of a stepped approach.”

The most appropriate way for bison to be managed would be through tribal and public ethical hunting, Drimal said. That means bison would need more open space in Montana and would need to disperse in that space. A problem the coalition has seen in the recently opened tolerance areas is that bison, which were hazed and captured from the area for so long, have seemingly forgotten about the old migration route.

“The hunting that does go on is unsafe for people and borderline inhumane for the animals,” she said, referencing the small patch of public land that currently allows hunting in Montana. “They’re not spread out enough.”

Drimal said that Yellowstone’s quarantine proposal is another tool in the toolbox that could successfully manage the growing bison population and help restore herds on tribal and public lands.

“It’s a much more appropriate management tool than shipping them to slaughter,” Drimal said.

But the Buffalo Field Campaign wants change fast. Seay said the organization has petitioned for Endangered Species protection and Species of Conservation Concern protection. Each level of protection takes time and a lot of paperwork; fitting specific criteria and following a strict legal process and review.

Buffalo Field Campaign’s proposal outlined not only the importance of bison on an ecological level, but also as the nation’s national mammal and treasure. The bison sits alongside the bald eagle representing the nation.

Management Quandaries

In the early 1900s, there were less than 100 bison left on the Greater Yellowstone landscape. “For us, the fact that people can come to Yellowstone and see bison is a huge conservation success story,” Herbert said. “We brought that species back from the brink of extinction.”

But Herbert acknowledged the challenges. “We’ve succeeded to the point where we have new boundaries and on to land we don’t manage,” he said.

Yellowstone officials say the goal is to maintain a viable population of wild migratory bison.

“With animals that want to cross beyond boundaries, that goal becomes a goal that has to involve surrounding land managers,” he said. “How do you manage animals that don’t recognize political boundaries?”

Park officials admit that for long-term conservation, bison need more access to habitat outside the park and a new updated bison management plan. It will also require a greater tolerance for bison on the land, Herbert said.

Drimal doesn’t doubt the park’s intentions. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition attends the interagency bison management meetings and is a partner with the national park. She said Yellowstone officials are the biggest advocates for bison in those meetings, though they get a bad rap for carrying out the current plan.

“The Park Service is basically forced into this, they don’t want to be doing this anymore. It’s up to the State of Montana to say ‘we’ll let bison be bison.’”

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Field Campaign works to raise awareness. That means continuing daily field patrols in the national park, where volunteers document bison location and numbers, monitor habitat areas and watch for signs of harassment or malpractice. “We’ll keep doing what we do,” Seay said.

The Buffalo Field Campaign was not directly involved with any of the March arrests, Seay said, but it’s not against directly intervening.

“People are sick of this,” she said. “We stand in solidarity with anyone willing to stand up.” 


About Erika Dahlby

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