Of bison and betrayal | Other Nations


Perfectly formed–just weeks from birth–a bison calf fetus still attached to the womb is discarded by treaty hunters and left with mom’s gut pile just north of Yellowstone. Buffalo Field Campaign photo; click image.

Anyone who’s ever carried a wild bison’s heart into a governor’s office belongs to a small and select club. James St. Goddard, a Blackfeet spiritual leader from Montana, is the latest inductee, and–for all I know–the only member. Mr. St. Goddard appeared at the state capitol earlier this month to protest the latest twist in the ongoing injustice that passes for wild bison management in Montana: Tribal people, hunting under treaty rights, are conducting springtime hunts that kill pregnant bison carrying fully-formed fetuses. Dead moms mean dead babies–discarded along with mom’s gut pile.

It’s a sad fact. Some tribal people have joined forces with state and federal government agencies to do the dirty work of Montana’s livestock industry: reducing the already-small population of wild bison to a politically-derived number (as low as 3000 animals) under the farcical guise of disease management. While I won’t speculate on their motives, one can’t help but observe that the tribes are also enthusiastically getting a piece of the slaughter action. Yes, not only are tribal people hunting bison into the springtime birthing season–they’ve also hauled captive animals directly from Yellowstone National Park to tribal slaughter facilities. Seems like an odd way for a sacred relationship to play out.

So how did such a stunning betrayal come about? Like everything else related to this complex and deplorable issue, easy answers don’t exist, and finding a way through the bureaucratic iron curtain sometimes requires a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. That’s where the bison defenders at Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) come in.

The road to slaughter starts at home

If there’s one word to keep in mind, it’s politics. Politics–not science–drives the management of bison in Montana via the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), an indefensible, rancher-serving plan based on control of brucellosis, a nonfatal disease that bison have never transmitted to cattle in the wild. The betrayal of America’s last pure, wild, and most genetically-diverse bison begins with the state and federal entities that signed on to the plan, including those directly charged with protecting them: employees of Yellowstone National Park. These public servants round up and herd their charges into a capture facilitywithin park boundaries near the Gardiner, MT entrance and the tribes take it from there:

Prior to this year–the first that tribes have conducted slaughter operations–IBMP partners exterminated some 4500 bison, snuffing out diverse and pure wild genes forever. BFC filed a FOIA with Yellowstone, learning that the park approached the tribes several years ago regarding a slaughter agreement–first meeting with the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a bison ranching collective of 56 tribes in 19 states. With the ITBC on board, CSKT perceived a turf war (not all tribes in the ITBC are buffalo cultures, nor did all traditionally use the Yellowstone area) and jumped onboard the slaughter train, as did the Nez Perce. When all was said and done, out of some 450 bison captured by Yellowstone, the ITBC had hauled 157 to slaughter; CSKT, 101. An unknown number was released, and others were taken hostage by USDA-APHIS to serve as research subjects for the chemical pesticide birth control GonaCon. Capture/slaughter activities ceased the day after a bison defender blockaded the road to the bison capture pen (video).

Hunted without habitat: a Montana tradition

When bison step over the invisible park boundary into Montana, they instantly become “big game animals” even though they’ve been tolerated only on a limited basis and without permanently-designated habitat by this livestock-dominated state. The state hunting season runs from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15 (read my account of monitoring the first reinstated bison hunt in 2005); this year, 31 bison were killed. Native American treaty hunts account for another 291 animals, and that number will continue to grow–and include the uncounted fetal calves who won’t live to see their world. While no one is disputing the fact that treaties must be honored,


The little calf fetus is dwarfed by his/her mom’s gut pile. BFC photo.

The four tribes hunting bison (CSKT, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Shoshone-Bannock) set their own hunting dates “not with biology or science or population health/dynamics in mind, but with interest from tribal members. If more people are interested, more tags are issued. If more buffalo are on the landscape, more will be killed” (from BFC correspondence). CSKT is done hunting in January, but the other tribes take advantage of the late winter/early spring migration, leaving gut piles containing the next generation of Yellowstone bison. It was this late-season hunting that prompted James St. Goddard to carry the heart of a slain, pregnant cow to Helena, the state capitol. His act prompted angry words from the Nez Perce tribal chairman, who added that “although the killing of pregnant female bison is not his tribe’s preference, the Montana Department of Livestock wants to stop the spread of brucellosis to domestic cattle” (source).

Let’s be clear: The tribes are assuredly not more responsible for this wildlife debacle than are the state and federal IBMP partners. They’ve apparently been convinced (or have chosen to believe) that there are “too many bison”–for indeed, this slaughter looks more like a population cull than anything else–and that “disease management” is something more valid than just a trumped up excuse to kill migratory wildlife.

It takes a strong heart to walk into a state capitol toting a bison heart and bearing a solemn message: Let this ancient buffalo herd regenerate itself. James St. Goddard has that heart. It takes a strong heart to block the road to slaughter with one’s body; it takes a strong heart to witness the tragedy of slaughter, document it, and tell the world. The bison defenders at BFC have that heart (please, please support this VERY grassroots organization with donations!).

Without doubt, it takes the strongest heart of all to withstand the rending of family, the death of herdmates, the indignity of capture, the terrifying ride to slaughter, and the terror of hazing–that particular hell is still to come.

It takes a bison heart.

  • Book: “In the presence of buffalo: Working to stop the Yellowstone slaughter,” here.
  • Read James St. Goddard’s appeal to all tribes for a bison hunting moratorium, here.
  • InterTribal Buffalo Council’s rationalization for participating in the slaughter, here.

Comment on this post at animal law blogAnimal Blawg.

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