Washington's War on the American Bison Still Rages
February 14, 2015
Nate Schweber / Al Jazeera America
There's a free speech fight taking place over how bison are killed as part of federal efforts to limit animal populations in and around Yellowstone Park. For decades, hunters hired by the West's powerful agribusiness industry have run down and killed any bison that strayed beyond the park's boundaries. The killing has continued despite a pact signed on Blackfeet territory that establishes an alliance among Native American groups to revive bison population.
Buffalo and 'Ag Gag':
Battling to Save Yellowstone's Hairy Humpbacks
Nate Schweber / Al Jazeera America
'The buffalo is a fantastic environmentalist. We want to respect them.'
-- Leroy Little Bear, member, Blood Tribe of the Blackfeet Nation
(February 13, 2015) -- In 2008 for a story for Harper's magazine, journalist Christopher Ketcham stalked the snowy, pine-filled landscape on the Montana-Wyoming border in Yellowstone National Park with a group of environmental activists known as the Buffalo Field Campaign.
For decades, volunteers for the group had filmed men working on behalf of the West's powerful agribusiness industry as they ran down and killed bison that tried to migrate out of the park.
But this year, when Ketcham and the campaign asked for unrestricted access to a corral just inside the northwestern corner of Yellowstone where park employees pen hundreds of buffalo before they are trucked to slaughterhouses, the National Park Service (NPS) said no.
That refusal has sparked outrage among activists beyond those concerned about animal welfare, putting the dispute over the fate of the buffalo into the realm of free speech. Late last week James J. Holman, an attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming, sent park officials a letter threatening to sue the NPS.
"The First Amendment aspect is what got us involved," he said. "The bottom line is this is something that is very important to a lot of people."
The spat over press freedom is the latest twist in the fight over one of the most contentious mass wildlife slaughters in America. Yellowstone is the only place in the country where by 1900 a few wild bison (commonly known as buffalo) survived a government sanctioned mass extermination that annihilated an estimated 30 million of the animals and brought the species to the brink of extinction.
That some wild buffalo were saved here was such a point of pride to the National Park Service that its emblem features a white buffalo, considered by many Native Americans the most sacred animal.
Legal experts say that the battle today for a clear view of how Yellowstone employees chase buffalo into the corral, prod them onto semi-trailers and butcher them at slaughterhouses is similar to the fight against anti-whistleblower "ag-gag" laws passed in many states. Opponents say "ag-gag" laws laws deter free speech and criminalize whistleblowers, activists and journalists who are looking to expose illegal practices and working conditions.
"We are hoping the park will recognize they are part of the government and they have the duty to allow the press and public to observe their activities," said Jennifer Horvath, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Wyoming, adding that such scrutiny of public officials was a powerful way to hold them accountable.
Al Nash, a spokesman for Yellowstone, said that the park has made a video available of a biologist talking about the social struggle to conserve buffalo and that officials will take members of the press and public on a tour of the buffalo corral in a valley called Stephens Creek at a date yet to be set.
Ketcham worries such a tour will be sanitized. "I want free and unfettered access to the facility," he said, "so I can watch what's going on, smell the blood and the feces and see the fear in [the bison's] eyes and the way stockmen interact with them. I want to be able to document that as a reporter."
Yellowstone officials and cattle industry representatives compromised on a plan this year to cull 900 buffalo, about 1 in 5, through hunts outside the park and a capture-and-slaughter program inside the park. State and federal agencies aim to limit the bison population to 3,000 to 3,500.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association, which for years lambasted the park for not killing more buffalo, said that it does not advocate mistreatment of animals and that this situation is outside its control. "Our main concern is representing the concerns of our ranchers," said Ryan Goodman, the group's communications manager.
A big issue, he said, is fear that buffalo outside Yellowstone will eat grass out from under the mouths of domestic cattle, though some studies have argued that is not a problem.
Last month Dustin Ranglack, a research associate at Utah State University, released data based on years of study in Utah's Henry Mountains on the way domestic cattle interact with the nation's only other herd of genetically pure, free-range buffalo -- transplanted from Yellowstone in the 1940s at the behest of sportsmen. He found hardly any overlap. Buffalo, he learned, graze higher, steeper terrain than cows do and then move on.
"This whole competition between bison and cattle," he said, "has been overblown."
Some wildlife advocates say that there is a more ethical way to manage Yellowstone buffalo than the park's industrial-style slaughter: fair-chase hunts. All other animals native to Yellowstone roam free and are managed through fair hunts on the vast expanses of public land outside the park. Such species include elk, deer, antelope, moose, wolves, cougars and bears.
The argument to manage buffalo through hunts is bolstered by economics. Yellowstone officials say they expect to spend about $2 million of taxpayer money on this year's cull. Tens of millions more were made available in the latest federal Farm Bill to study how to stop buffalo from transmitting the bacterial disease brucellosis to domestic cattle -- something that has never occurred but is often used as rationale for the killing of buffalo outside park boundaries.
Meanwhile, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, a state agency funded by revenue from the sale of licenses to hunt and fish, faces a nearly $6 million budget shortfall. The agency received 9,513 license applications this year from sportsmen willing to spend from $125 to $750 on the opportunity to hunt a Yellowstone buffalo in Montana.
But bound by Yellowstone's compromise with the livestock industry -- in which park officials have captured and sent to slaughter about 250 buffalo and may double that by season's end -- the number of licenses Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was able to issue was 72.
"We need to break some paradigms and think outside the box," said Tom McDonald, a fish and wildlife manager for the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes in Montana, recipients of some of the meat and ceremonial skulls and hides from Yellowstone buffalo. "We've been very supportive of expanding buffalo habitat on public lands so we can exercise our treaty rights."
On Tuesday, Native American tribes gathered outside the Montana Capitol in Helena to protest the buffalo killing. A recent poll of Montanans showed strong support for the restoration of buffalo herds in the state that could be managed with hunts.
Part of shifting the paradigm is showing how animals held in the public trust are disposed of, said Brooks Fahy, executive director of the wildlife advocacy group Predator Defense, which has fought to film government workers poisoning coyotes.
"The American taxpayer is footing the dime on this, and as usual, the livestock industry gets their way," he said. "Reporters get embedded in wars, but they can't see this? If the public saw this stuff, they'd vomit, and things would change very quickly."
Buffalo Field Campaign volunteer Comfrey Jacobs grew so frustrated last year by the lack of access to the corral at Stephens Creek that he chained himself to a gate across the access road. As punishment, he was fined $1,000 and banned from the park for three years, sentenced in the Yellowstone magistrate court that opened in 1894 after public outcry over the well-publicized arrest of the park's worst buffalo poacher.
"I felt it was important to draw attention to this facility," he said by phone from Colorado. "It's a very contradictive part of Yellowstone National Park's history."
'His Life Is Our Life':
Tribal Elders Want Buffalo Back in the Ecosystem
Nate Schweber / Al Jazeera America
BROWNING, Montana (September 26, 2014) -- Late in the afternoon, dozens of young Native American children arrived in a yellow school bus and galloped across a sunny field on Montana's Blackfeet Reservation while wearing buffalo robes as if they were superhero capes.
They play-acted a long-gone Blackfeet practice of stampeding buffalo off cliffs to harvest their meat. But the only leap on this day was taken by Landen Ground, 6, who belly-flopped onto a pile of buffalo robes as if they were autumn leaves.
"Whoo! It felt like a trampoline," he said. "You just imagine me as a buffalo."
But buffalo are not just a figment of the imagination. Inside a large white teepee rising from a grassy hill nearby Ervin Carlson, president of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, told a crowd gathered for a treaty ceremony that bringing buffalo herds back to North America was a vital task for Native Americans -- whatever the difficulties that lie ahead in ambitious plans to restoring their place in the landscape.
"We slowly have to work on it and work it out," said Carlson, whose group has helped coordinate the return of some 20,000 buffalo to tribal land in the US, including the Blackfeet's herd of about 250 that was celebrated on Tuesday at the signing of a multitribal treaty calling for even more buffalo restoration.
The group's work has been successful. The buffalo has long been saved from extinction, and buffalo ranches are commonplace. But conservationists say that buffalo need what they call a second recovery, a return to their historic role in the ecology of North America.
Buffalo till soil with their hooves and fertilize plants and spread seeds with their waste. They create living spaces for birds, prairie dogs and other small animals and feed apex predators like bears, wolves and people.
"The buffalo is a fantastic environmentalist. We want to respect them," said Leroy Little Bear, a member of the Blood Tribe, part of the Blackfeet Nation in Alberta, Canada, and a professor emeritus at the University of Lethbrid
When buffalo (technically bison, not buffalo, but the name persists in common usage) were all but annihilated, from an estimated 30 million to about 1,000 by 1889, the survivors were penned in a few zoos, ranches and wildlife preserves.
By the 1930s, their numbers had grown to some 20,000, though many were inbred. Conservationists call this the first recovery of the buffalo because it kept the species from dying out. But it also seeded the notion that buffalo must be kept fenced like cattle and other domestic livestock. From an ecological perspective, scientists say, buffalo went extinct.
"We need restoration in a scale and management level that allows bison to be bison, that allows bison-ness," said Keith Aune, bison program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
While millions of acres that could support the return of roaming buffalo remain in western North America, cultural opposition is fierce. Ranchers and farmers in the sparsely populated parts of the rural West where buffalo restoration is most feasible have long railed against it. They argue that buffalo restoration has been accomplished by private ranchers in the US and Canada, who now raise about 400,000 domesticated buffalo for meat.
The overarching problem, conservationists say, is that the opportunity was lost for communities in the West to learn to co-exist with wild buffalo. Before Western states and Canadian provinces were created and just before homesteaders settled there, the landscape was wiped clean of buffalo by unregulated hunters who killed them with the tacit support of Army commanders who were waging war on Native tribes that depended on the buffalo.
Other animal populations were devastated too -- including elk, deer, antelopes, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose and bears -- but none as thoroughly as buffalo. In the 1900s, other species recovered naturally in the wild and are today a part of the cultural fabric of the West. Buffalo, conservationists say, never had that chance.
"We have a failure of the imagination in treating buffalo as a wild animal in North America. I I believe we have a historic wrong to right," said Harvey Locke, 55, founder of the Canadian group Bison Belong, which is working to restore a wild herd of bison in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Momentum has grown in the last 15 years for ecological bison restoration. New conservation herds were founded in Grasslands National Park in Canada and to the south in Montana on land owned by a private nonprofit, the American Prairie Reserve.
Bison from Yellowstone National Park were transplanted to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana, and plans are underway to reintroduce herds on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming and Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
The U.S. Department of the Interior released a report this year in support of more bison restoration, and last week three dozen scientists sent a letter to the governor of Montana that urged him to support the same. "If you're looking at a bigger vision, you have to get people to work together," said Arnie Dood, a native species biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Last week's signing of a Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty was the first of its kind since 1855, when indigenous people from the northern U.S. and southern Canada met to establish boundaries for their buffalo hunting grounds.
On Tuesday, tribal elders shared a pipe while seated on buffalo robes and talked of their people's ancient connection with the animal. This connection was noted in the 1890s by pioneering ethnologist and wildlife conservationist George Bird Grinnell, who visited Blackfeet country and translated from an elder a story about how of all the animals, the earth's creator made the buffalo the most Nat-o'-ye, meaning sacred.
"The buffalo -- we call him the Iinnii -- he's our brother, our sister," said Larry Ground, 50, a member of the Blackfeet tribe's Crazy Dog Society, who began the treaty ceremony with drums and song. "His life is our life."
Around a campfire, attendees agreed that ecological buffalo restoration need not be accomplished by a single sweeping act. Separate herds of buffalo could be established in different places.
The buffalo could be allowed to roam as naturally as possible on as many acres as is feasible, even in fenced areas. Herd managers could work to improve the genetics of their animals. Some herds could be managed by ranchers, others by hunters, others by natural predators and some by a mix of all three.
"It's a gradual thing. It's not going to happen overnight," said Peter Weaselmoccasin, 59, a member of the Blood tribe from Standoff, Alberta. "But we feel it's time."
Most crucial to any buffalo restoration project is the support of surrounding communities. A fine example of that, tribe members and conservationists say, happened on the Blackfeet Reservation.
"The tables have turned," said Angela Grier, a member of Piikani Nation, part of the Blackfeet Confederacy in Alberta. "We're here trying to take care of these animals like they once took care of us."
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