Mike Garrity

The images are sickening. More than a thousand huge gut piles litter the landscape just outside the borders of Yellowstone National Park from wild buffalo that were shot with high-powered rifles. Their only sin? They wandered over Yellowstone’s border into Montana searching for food and more favorable calving grounds.

In the early 1800s, it was estimated there were 30-60 million wild bison west of the Mississippi River. But due to overhunting and intentional decimation by commercial hide hunting to force indigenous tribes onto reservations, bison were quickly extirpated from nearly all their range. By 1890, only 50 of the last wild bison remained, primarily in Yellowstone National Park.

So far more than 1,500 of the 6,000 bison remaining in Yellowstone’s last wild bison herd have been killed in the last few months. And it’s not over yet.

This historic travesty is taking place on the watch of President Biden and his Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to hold that post. Given that more bison have been killed this year than since the near extirpation of the late 1800’s, it is incumbent on Biden and Haaland to immediately stop the slaughter.

Tribal “Tragedy of the Commons”

The bison are moving out of the Park’s high-elevation (8,000’) and exceptionally deep winter snows to a small area of warmer, lower-elevation public land as they follow their age-old migration pattern down the Yellowstone River.

Ironically, the vast majority of the bison killed in the last few months have fallen to various Indian tribes claiming historic treaty rights to hunt. But there’s not much about the slaughter that resembles a hunt.

Because ten different tribes are now competing for buffalo, hunters have indiscriminately fired into family groups hoping to kill one. Jaedin Medicine Elk is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a co-director of the wild bison advocacy group “Roam Free Nation. As he wrote of the tribes involved in the mass killing of bulls, pregnant cows and calves: “It seems the new ‘relationship’ is hunting them to near-extinction because our treaty rights are more important than the well-being of a strong buffalo population.”

Although the “management” of the Yellowstone buffalo is supposed to be a joint coordination between the Department of the Interior, the state, Park and indigenous tribal nations, it’s not working out so well. Why? Primarily because Montana has refused to set a quota for the number of bison that can be killed in any one year when they migrate out of Yellowstone -- and now that unfortunate decision has devolved into a tribal “tragedy of the commons.”

What can and must be done

Bison are currently being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for listing and protection under the Endangered Species Act. It’s been nearly a year since Secretary Haaland’s agency found the petitions to list bison “presented substantial scientific information indicating that the petitioned actions may be warranted.”

Not only would protecting bison under the Endangered Species Act end the slaughter, it would also help recover grizzly bears and wolves since both feed on winter-killed bison within Yellowstone National Park.

Move Yellowstone’s "surplus" bison to available federal lands

There is still room for a lot more bison in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem but there are limits on how far wild bison can roam. But rather than slaughter “surplus” Yellowstone Park bison, it’s possible to expand their numbers and preserve their gene pool by moving them to other large areas of federal land that are set aside exactly for the purpose of preserving native wildlife.

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge comprises over a million acres of land specifically set aside to benefit native wildlife. It’s the second largest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48 states and the largest in Montana. Combined with the UL Bend Wilderness Area, UL Bend Wildlife Management Area and the Missouri Breaks National Monument, this area encompasses a million and a half acres and includes 15 Wilderness Study Areas that are managed as Wilderness until Congress designates them as wilderness or removes them.

Within its boundaries livestock grazing, mineral exploration, settlement, and other uses have been withdrawn on 739,097 acres within the refuge, leaving a massive, nearly roadless, natural landscape that’s absolutely perfect for the return of wild bison herds.

Most of the entire complex is federal land directly under the control of Secretary Haaland’s Fish and Wildlife Service – as are the Yellowstone bison. Given the enormity of the on-going decimation of the nation’s last truly wild bison herd and the limited “carrying capacity” of Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding ecosystem, the only barriers to restoring wild bison and stopping the on-going bison slaughter is the political will to do so.

Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.