To understand the story and issues presented in Last Wild Bison, it’s important to start with a bit of context.
What are bison?
Commonly called “buffalo,” the Plains bison are the largest and most powerful land animals native to North America. They can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and yet are incredibly nimble and fast, capable of running up to 35 mph (as fast as horses) and jumping over 6-foot fences. Bison are ungulates or hooved animals, with highly specialized grazing habits that actually reengineer the prairie to become more fertile.
Before their near-extermination, bison formed some of the largest herds to ever roam the planet. From Lewis and Clark to dozens of others who lived and traveled across the West in the 1800's, there are accounts of herds so vast they took days to cross rivers. One such account comes from a military officer, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, who once observed a herd over twenty five miles wide, writing, “the whole country appeared one great mass of buffalo.”
Original distribution of plains bison and wood bison in North America based on available zooarchaeological, paleontological, oral and written historical accounts. Holocene bison (Bison occidentalis) is an earlier for at the origin of plains bison and wood bison. CC BY-SA 3.0
Ho Holocene bison W Wood bison Pla Plains bison.
To help put this into context, picture whatever local creek or stream or river that's closest to you. Now consider now that if you reside anywhere in the brown segments of the map above, then hundreds of years ago, you could've seen bison crossing that same creek.
What happened to the bison?
Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans hunted bison for at least 10,000 years. It was among the longest sustained ways of life in the history of the Americas.
But when Europeans colonized the American West, U.S. Army soldiers and hunters slaughtered countless buffalo in order to starve Native peoples and control the land. In one of the most systematic genocides against wildlife ever perpetrated, millions of bison were exterminated.
Bison skull pile, 1870. This mountain of skulls would be ground up and turned into fertilizer.
From the brink of extinction
Once numbering in the tens of millions, only two dozen surviving buffalo took refuge deep in the Pelican Valley of what is today Yellowstone National Park. Concerned that these last bison would go extinct, Yellowstone park officials began one of the first wildlife conservation programs in the country. And from the early 1900's, within the protection of Yellowstone, bison populations quickly rebounded to a couple thousand animals.
Why are bison still an issue today?
As European cattle came into the West, they carried a bacterial disease called Brucellosis. This disease was transmitted from cattle to wild bison. While there has never been an instance of bison transmitting the disease back to cattle, the powerful stakeholders and lobbyists of the cattle industry have always pressured policymakers to keep bison off public lands where cattle and bison could mingle.
In the 1990’s, continued pressure from the cattle industry led to a legal showdown between state and federal agencies over land management, resulting in a court settlement called the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP).
This ruling transferred wild bison management from Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to the Montana Department of Livestock and set an arbitrary population limit on wild bison with "zero tolerance" for them roam outside of Yellowstone National Park during certain times of the year. If they bison did roam freely outside the park, the IBMP gave legal sanction to a new policy of “hazing,” where the animals would be chased, rounded up, and/or slaughtered.
Over the last three decades, this management plan has led to the senseless slaughter of thousands of bison at a cost of millions to taxpayers each year.
Who are the Buffalo Field Campaign?
In 1997, a gathering near Yellowstone of Native American elders distraught over the treatment of their “relatives” (as they refer to bison) led to an act of civil disobedience. Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder was arrested for approaching recently-shot buffalo in order to pray for them, all while being filmed by activist Mike Mease.
This was the catalyst for the two to co-found the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC). Today, more than two decades later, the BFC remains one of the longest-running frontline environmental activist groups in the US, with patrols monitoring and documenting the treatment of wild bison in the field year round.
What is the status of wild bison today?
Because of the BFC and fellow supporters' efforts, several important conservation victories have occured in recent years. In 2016, Montana Governor Steve Bullock passed legislation that designated Horse Butte, a section of public land near Yellowstone, as a year round protected habitat for bison. With this designation, bison were given tolerance to live beyond the boundary of Yellowstone National Park for the first time in decades.
Nevertheless, as of winter 2020, the Interagency Buffalo Management Plan is still in effect, with zero tolerance for wild bison outside of Yellowstone or Horse Butte, and with over 850 bison already slaughtered this year (between 2019-2020).
To learn more about the issue and what you can do to help, please visit the Buffalo Field Campaign.