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Hunt, slaughter or harvest? Advocates argue over tribal killing of Yellowstone bison

Bison graze in a thermal area near Obsidian Creek inside Yellowstone National Park on April 5. As many as 1,600 bison migrated outside the park’s North Entrance this winter due to the heavy snow and cold weather.  (NPS / Jacob W. Frank)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Yellowstone National Park bison advocates are at odds over whether the killing of more than 1,100 of the animals by tribal members this winter is a hunt, a harvest or a slaughter.

“How in the world is this buffalo population supposed to survive all these people coming to kill them?” questioned Jaedin Medicine Elk, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and co-founder of Roam Free Nation.

The killing of bison was extensive this winter because deep snow and extended cold weather forced as many as 1,600 bison to migrate outside the park in search of food. Hundreds moved into the Gardiner Basin, past the park’s North Entrance, stepping into a firing line of mostly tribal hunters waiting near Beattie Gulch and Eagle Creek.


The removal of so many bison from the nation’s only wild, free-roaming herd – last estimated at 6,000 animals – has again drawn national and international criticism to the region. Last year the killing of 24 park wolves that wandered outside Yellowstone’s boundaries brought condemnation.

The bison brouhaha comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers a request to list the animals as an endangered or threatened species. In addition, the National Park Service is working to update its bison management plan, which was written in 2000 with fellow Inter-Agency Bison Management Plan members.

Word choice

The bison advocacy group Roam Free Nation and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies paid for billboards in seven Montana cities decrying the tribal bison killing as a “slaughter.” That prompted the Buffalo Field Campaign to issue a news release denouncing the use of the term.

Slaughter is a word more appropriate to what Euro-Americans did, Buffalo Field Campaign argued, when millions of bison were killed only for their hides and the species was nearly exterminated.

“It is perfectly fine to point out that the harvest this season is not a ‘sustainable harvest,’ and many Tribal members would agree with you on this point,” BFC wrote. “To call it a ‘slaughter,’ however, is to minimize what happened in the 19th century and is incredibly disrespectful – if not actually racist – of the situation the Tribes have been placed in by the state of Montana’s heavy hand on the scales of bison management.”

BFC went on to argue use of the word hunting when applied to tribal bison killing is a “mismatch of terminology” based in a European tradition that includes trophy hunting. Instead, the group sees tribal bison killing as an “honorable harvest” that goes beyond the act of taking the bison’s life, calling it a “relational process” that scorns the “glorification” indulged in by hunters who pose for photographs with their kill.

“So please, out of respect for our ‘elders,’ let’s stop conflating ‘hunting’ with ‘harvest,’ or trying to impose colonial ideas like ‘fair chase’ on honorable harvest,” BFC wrote.

The Nez Perce Tribe accounted for more than 400 recorded bison kills, the most of any of the eight tribes involved. A rough estimate of the amount of boned-out meat from that many bison totaled more than 61,000 pounds, or about 17 pounds of meat for each of the 3,500 enrolled members of the tribe. For comparison, an average deer may yield around 50 pounds of boned meat.

Calls and emails to the Nez Perce for this story were not returned.

The Northern Arapaho and Blackfeet said their bison hunting season will last until April 30, according to a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks spokesman, and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have a year-round season.

Montana-licensed hunters killed 75 bison. Another 100 bison deaths are classified as unknown for not being formally reported by a tribe. Together with trapping conducted by the Park Service to enlist disease-free bison in its live transfer program to tribes, more than 1,500 bison have been removed from the population.

The Park Service consigned 88 bison to slaughter, a practice it is attempting to move away from with its quarantine and live transfer program. It’s unknown what the bison death toll may be from winterkill.

Another 800 are being held in Park Service corrals for release as soon as “conditions are favorable,” a park spokesperson said. Snow still encases Yellowstone, despite the calendar saying it is spring, making it difficult for bison that choose to migrate back into the park to find nourishment.

Appropriate use

Stephany Seay, a former Buffalo Field Campaign member who has helped organize Roam Free Nation, said use of the word slaughter is completely appropriate in the wake of so many park bison being killed, mostly by tribal members.

“In general, I think their (BFC’s) language is completely human-centric and offers no consideration for the buffalo,” she said. “I think BFC has lost sight of what is actually happening to the buffalo and focusing way too much on human interests.”

That’s a line of thinking echoed by conservationist George Wuerthner. In a posting on the Wildlife News website, he argued the tribal killing of bison is having “significant ecological impacts.”

“The tribal hunters’ removal of biomass (bison) is essentially strip mining food that would feed native species, from scavengers like ravens and coyotes to predators like grizzlies to wolves,” Wuerthner wrote.

He and Seay both argue that the removal of bison could also affect the animals’ social behavior, everything from breeding and fidelity to a loss of learned knowledge about the best places to graze or when to migrate.

Legal argument

Wuerthner is also arguing the hunts are not legal and is chastising other conservation organizations for not speaking out against the liberal killing of bison. He wrote that although courts have ruled in favor of tribal rights to hunt on ceded lands, none of the tribes occupied and used lands near Gardiner over an “extended period of time.”

That viewpoint contradicts Yellowstone National Park’s stance, which acknowledges the region was used from around 1400 to 1700 by the ancestors of many contemporary tribes. The Park Service recognizes 26 tribes associated with Yellowstone.

University of Montana associate professor of law Kekek Stark pointed to several court rulings acknowledging tribal rights.

“When a Tribe contends that it used and occupied an area since time immemorial, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that this contention is sufficient proof of Indian title or the right of occupancy because an accepted principle of federal Indian law is that Indian Nations held ‘aboriginal title’ to the territories,” Stark wrote in an email.

Tom Woodbury, of Buffalo Field Campaign, cited a different argument in upholding tribal hunting rights to Yellowstone bison.

“The U.S. may not claim that off-reservation treaty rights no longer apply to areas where their own policy extirpated the subject of the treaties; i.e., bison,” he wrote in an email.

He went on to argue, “As a matter of law and basic human rights, the Tribes have inherent jurisdiction over their aboriginal food source. It is ethnic genocide to deprive them of that most sacred relationship.”


One thing all of the disputing parties agree on is that Montana’s current management of Yellowstone bison is broken. The animals are the only wildlife in the state regulated by the Montana Department of Livestock.

That’s because the animals may carry brucellosis, which can cause pregnant cattle to abort. Elk also carry brucellosis but are allowed to roam freely. Their management is overseen by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks which tries to keep elk and cattle separated, especially in the spring when it’s believed transmission of the disease is most likely to occur.

“Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ game wardens have cited people for shooting into elk herds, but people are shooting into bison herds as soon as they set one foot into Montana in the narrow Beattie Gulch hunting trap with no consequences,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “The state of Montana needs to let bison roam throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and let Fish, Wildlife & Parks manage them to have a sustainable population, just like they do with elk.”

Buffalo Field Campaign agreed.

“The problem is the restrictions placed on natural migration of buffalo in the Yellowstone ecosystem, and the artificially low population of Yellowstone bison that has resulted from decades of shipping them to slaughter and sacrificing our national mammal and keystone species on the altar of Montana’s livestock industry,” BFC wrote.

Wuerthner goes further, saying tribal members are “essentially doing the bidding of the Montana livestock industry, which seeks to bottle up Yellowstone bison in the park based on the exaggerated threat of brucellosis transmission to cattle.”

In the end, though, Seay said, “It doesn’t matter who is doing the killing or why, a dead buffalo is a dead buffalo.”