We have better options than killing bison

Annual culls, loss of genetic diversity and climate change set the odds against American bison.

 

 is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. She is an author and ethnoecologist affiliated with San José State University in California.


This winter, hundreds of bison will be slaughtered in Yellowstone and — again ­— and we shouldn’t let it happen.

We owe a lot to the American bison (Bison bison), the West’s original engineers. When herds of these 1,000-2,000-pound animals graze, paw the ground, take dust baths or wallow in the mud, they help create fertile prairie mosaics. 

In the winter, snow trails made by bison open up grazing areas for their fellow herbivores. In spring, bison wallows host migrating waterfowl and amphibians. In summer, the foraging that bison do helps prevent catastrophic fires and encourages the growth of shrubs, favored nesting sites for prairie chicken and sparrows. And in the fall, their dried-up wallows shelter prairie dogs and plovers.

For the First Peoples, bison are considered spiritual family members. Their existence on the land shapes memory and speech, song, ceremony and prayer. Bison-centric words and sayings and an encyclopedic understanding of the animal are represented in hundreds of Native languages. Before modern supermarkets, every scrap and smidgen of bison killed by tribal hunters was eaten, drunk, smoked, dried, pounded, carved, scraped, stitched, woven or worn.

There was no American creature with greater ecological and cultural significance — until we exterminated 99.999997 percent of them. Seven generations later, the killings continue. Of the 600,000 so-called buffalo extant in North America, most are “beefalo,” an artificial mix of wild bison with domesticated cattle.

At the Stephen’s Creek facility inside Yellowstone National Park, rangers overlook holding pens for bison awaiting shipment to slaughterhouses in Montana.
Michelle McCarron

The Yellowstone National Park herd — around 4,800 animals — is the largest remnant of genetically pure bison, the final guardians of ancient DNA and environmental memories stretching back for millennia. These animals know how and where to migrate, how to communicate with each other and search for food, and how to withstand adverse conditions and care for one another.

The wholesale slaughter of bison to deprive the Plains tribes of sustenance is well documented. Less well known is the Park Service’s annual winter culling of Yellowstone bison the moment the animals step outside park boundaries and onto national forest lands — lands that are held in trust by the federal government for the sake of all U.S. citizens. The Park Service does this despite the to “preserve, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of the park system …for current and future generations.”

Stray bison not killed outright by hunters are captured by the Park Service and then sent off to slaughter. The agency’s rationale is both complex and simple — complex because of contradictory state and federal policies, and simple because we allow it.

During the Great Depression, the U.S. government leased national forest lands surrounding Yellowstone as inexpensive feeding allotments to help ranchers survive economically. Almost a century later, private ranchers on these publicly owned lands. Cattle ranchers leasing those lands argue that brucellosis — an exotic disease that can cause spontaneous abortions in cows — is spread by bison, despite the lack of any scientific proof. Elk, deer, moose and bear populations also carry brucellosis and range freely throughout cattle lands. Yet no similar killing campaigns are waged against those animals.

When ecologists justify the culling by pointing to the limited carrying capacity of Yellowstone ecosystems, they ignore basic genetics. Countless generations must occur for beneficial traits to be fixed in a genome. For bison to persist as a species, their genetic diversity needs to remain intact, or we risk inbreeding. When bison subpopulations with crucial traits are indiscriminately killed, it’s the equivalent of tearing out and obliterating entire chapters of the bison’s survival manual. 

Goodshield Aguilar, a Lakota activist with , has tried to halt the Yellowstone bison culls for two decades.

“I want my grandkids to be able to see buffalo, to eat buffalo, to be with buffalo,” Aguilar says. “The Lakota and the buffalo have a symbiotic relationship. At the turn of the century, when 99 percent of the buffalo died, 99 percent of the Lakota died as well. We belong together, on this path, right now.”

We have better options than slaughter. We can ban the culls in favor of transporting all excess, disease-free Yellowstone bison onto tribal lands. This will make it easier for the 63 tribes composing the InterTribal Buffalo Council to . We can offer incentives to ranchers to encourage them to accept bison grazing on cattle lands. We could also gradually eliminate subsidies like the ones in the current grazing system, which privilege a small number of businesses over our irreplaceable heritage.

With climate change, bison — and the enormous range of species and habitats they support — will face longer droughts, extra-cold winters and other extreme weather events. Our national mammals deserve all the help they can get. 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • 2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...