Yellowstone National Park annually announces the “need” to kill hundreds of buffalo to placate ranchers' unfounded fears and prejudices. Assisted by the media, they manipulate facts and language, attempting to persuade the public to believe their lies. For example, see the recent Associated Press article, “Yellowstone Park looks at large bison cull to trim herds” (Dec. 1). This damaging propaganda is loaded with false premises supporting their buffalo-killing agenda.
Premise 1: Bison herd size needs to be reduced. Why do the herds of ecologically extinct wild bison need to be reduced? Scientists acknowledge that Yellowstone can support more than 6,500 individuals, and wild, migratory buffalo also create their own habitat. Gallatin National Forest, surrounding the north and west boundaries of Yellowstone, encompasses an additional 3 million acres that could support thousands more buffalo, while the whole of the Greater Yellowstone bio-community is around 20 million acres. The continent can support tens of millions of bison, yet today, a few thousand is deemed “too many.” Compared to what? The 23 who saved themselves from extinction in Yellowstone’s remote Pelican Valley? The politics of competition is using declining baselines to define populations; instead we should compare them to those before European invasion and exploitation.
Premise 2: Bison are spilling into neighboring Montana. When did seasonal migration become an accident? Do elk and deer “spill” over park boundaries? This is just more livestock rhetoric. Wild buffalo aren’t “park animals” that should stay put within artificial, ecologically meaningless boundaries for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Migration is not some error that humans should correct.
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Premise 3: 5,500 bison is a high number. Declining baselines again (see Premise 1). Interestingly, Yellowstone now claims they “underestimated” the population last year. How did these professionals miss counting over 1,000 of America’s largest land mammals? Who’s to say they aren’t overestimating now to serve livestock agendas? Yellowstone’s Central Herd, which migrates north and west, is doubly impacted by management actions; they haven’t recovered from the 2008 slaughter. In spring, our field patrols typically see 400-600 buffalo in the Hebgen Basin, but last spring we saw fewer than 250 total. Recons into the park, to places suggested by Yellowstone’s bison biologist, also failed to reveal where these buffalo were. In what corner of Yellowstone were a thousand buffalo hiding? How convenient that this “mistake” is revealed when it’s time for them to kill again.
Premise 4: Bison pose a brucellosis threat to cattle. What threat? There has never been a single documented case of wild bison transmitting brucellosis back to cattle, even where they co-exist, even decades prior to the Interagency Bison Management Plan. Cattle brought brucellosis here when they were imported. Brucellosis entered the bison population by human error. Meanwhile elk, who have been implicated dozens of times (and as recently as last week) in transmitting brucellosis to cattle are free to “spill into neighboring Montana” without consequence.
Premise 5: Yellowstone’s neighboring communities are concerned about property damage and threats to human safety. Who? Not communities who actually live with wild buffalo. In the Hebgen Basin, where year-round habitat for wild bison finally exists, residents are celebrating. These communities are teeming with “Buffalo Safe Zone” signs and the residents fiercely defend their shaggy neighbors. For many years Horse Butte residents have demonstrated a living classroom of co-existence with wild buffalo. Gardiner residents are waiting for the same chance. As to safety, an average of two Yellowstone tourists per summer are charged by bull bison during the rut. Compared to the hundreds of buffalo who are killed by humans each year, who’s dangerous?
Montanans are tired of the political games being played with the country’s treasured buffalo. We are through being bullied by cattle ranchers and lied to by the governments who serve them. Current management schemes threaten the evolutionary potential of wild bison, violate treaties with and autonomy of indigenous sovereign nations, and undermine the will of Montana’s citizen majority. Contact your legislators and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and urge them to defend America’s national mammal. Urge them to repeal or amend MCA 81-2-120 to remove Department of Livestock authority over wild bison, and to support a new plan that respects wild buffalo like wild elk in Montana.
Stephany Seay is the media coordinator with the Montana-based Buffalo Field Campaign and has been on the front lines with Yellowstone’s wild buffalo for the past 14 years.