The wild bison that roam inside and outside the borders of Yellowstone National Park aren’t necessarily native to this particular part of the American west.
An advocate for the bison, who was at Yellowstone Monday to protest the government-sponsored slaughter of 900 animals, Mike Mease, said they “don’t come from here. This is the last place they survived,” he told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
The plight of America’s bison is well-documented in our history. Over a few decades in the 1800s, tens of millions were slaughtered for their hides, fur, and to deprive Plains Indians of their food supply, the New York Times reported.
As many as 60 million are believed to have roamed the American west at one point, but by 1900, only 700 remained in private herds, about 23 at Yellowstone. For the past 100 years, Yellowstone has worked to protect them so the population could recover and today, 4,600 live there.
And apparently, that’s far too many. A management plan, passed in 2000, requires that the population remain at 3,000. So on Monday, the annual slaughter of 900 of the iconic American animals began. According to Times reporter Christopher Ketchum, who has covered the annual cull for years, it’s an attempt to pander to Montana ranchers.
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“Why would the park service, whose mission includes preserving ‘native wildlife species and the processes that sustain them,’ opt to help kill one of its most historically and ecologically important wildlife populations? The explanation, I’ve concluded, has nothing to do with ecology and everything to do with politics.”
By 1995, Montana stockmen started to complain about the bison who — according to their migratory nature — roamed outside the borders of Yellowstone. The state of Montana sued the park service to keep the animals under control. The motivation: an as-yet unjustified and unseen risk of the creatures infecting local cattle with brucellosis infection, which causes pregnant cows to abort calves. The management plan in 2000 was the result of this legal spat.
According to Ketchum, the agreement forces Yellowstone to answer to “the politically powerful livestock industry.” So every year, the slaughter takes place inside the park. They are captured, killed, and sent to slaughterhouses, and the government has spent $50 million over the past 15 years to do it.
Retired park service biologist Mary Meagher said that the infection stockmen fear isn’t a real risk at all. Not once in history has a cow been infected by a wild bison.
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“The real issue is that ranchers don’t want bison out there on the land.”
For years, the slaughter has been performed outside the public eye, even though it occurs on public land. This year, journalists will have limited access to the slaughter, which takes place over a couple weeks. Ketchum theorizes that the cull has been kept secret because of its brutality.
The reporter doesn’t suggest that the herds shouldn’t be managed, and in fact advocates for their number to be controlled in the same way other wild animals are — through seasonal hunting. Unfortunately, hunting also has its controversies, since hunters are said to “slaughter bison in droves” and litter Yellowstone’s borders with gut piles.
The state of Montana is already taking steps to protect the animals; the governor has proposed that bison be allowed to roam in certain areas outside the park.
Meanwhile, protestors have made their feelings about the annual slaughter known once again this year. A group who gathered Monday chanted “You can’t touch my wild and free buffalo,” and “They’re the last of their kind and they do what they want!” They protested the slaughter for hours outside park headquarters and held candlelight vigils.
A Lakota man from northern California named Goodshield Aguilar beat a drum and sang “Eagle Song,” then lit sage among his fellow protestors. He said the song was meant to communicate that there’s something bigger out there than people, “and we’re all a part of that.”
[Photo by David Osborn/Shutterstock]