Living in a country of such incredible beauty as ours, every one of us has a bucket list of things to see and do in these United States.
Ranking high on many people’s lists is one day visiting Yellowstone National Park. Those of us who want to visit the park hope to see the things that make it so special – like Old Faithful and the vast subalpine forests, and the incredible wildlife such as wolves, elk, antelope, grizzlies, and bison.
It’s that last animal that intrigues me the most.
Seeing Yellowstone’s healthy herds would transport my thoughts to the days of yore and certainly improve my understanding of their former greatness.
In the early-1800s and before, populations of this magnificent animal numbered 30 million or more across North America. It had to be a sight to see and something to feel – the ground actually shook when vast herds, like a sea of brown, traversed the grasslands.
Now, the bison population is only at a half-million, with just 30,000 available for viewing on public land. Of them, 5,000 can be found at Yellowstone. Those buffalo are special, too: they are genetically perfect, the largest remaining band of wild, pure-bred bison.
Even so, they are marked beasts.
For years, state and federal officials have worked together to cull the Yellowstone herd with licensed hunts and government-run capture and slaughter. Since the 1985, their programs have killed a total of 12,575 Yellowstone buffalo. In the 2020 undertaking alone, more than 500 were killed. It’s thought that 2021’s goal will be something closer to 800 animals.
They conduct these kills every year to keep Yellowstone’s heard at so-called manageable numbers. It is believed that were the bison numbers to grow too much past the goal of 3,000 animals, they would adversely affect the profits of local ranchers who, by the way, are using adjacent public – not private -- lands on which the buffalo herd migrates to and from.
For starters, it is believed that the wild animals would overgraze, taking away precious grasses from the cattle. Secondly, it is assumed that larger bison herds would roam into that ranchland and stay, in turn afflicting cattle with brucellosis…although no occurrence of a bison-to-cattle transmission has ever been recorded.
Usually this column staunchly defends farmers and ranchers, but I can’t in a case like this where profit ranks higher than wild animals that were supposed to be protected at Yellowstone and the vast tracts of public land that the cattlemen are using.
This isn’t a practice that’s abnormal to American history, either. In the 1800s, profit was also placed above the natural value of the bison (and the health of Man) when railroad barons and our own federal government ordered the mass execution (even extinction) of the beasts to make good on Manifest Destiny by starving out the Native Americans and/or changing their culture until it was totally unrecognizable.
By 1884, only 25 bison remained in Yellowstone and just 325 in all of what are now the United States.
Have we not learned from that lesson of government-sponsored population control of beast and man alike?
The current Yellowstone management (massacre?) plan has to come to an end. But, it’s difficult to make an impact in a state where the cattle industry has greater lobbying power and influence than its citizens. Various conservation organizations have tried to change public policy to no avail. Lawmakers have turned a deaf ear to those who’d like to see the bison prosper. Lawsuits against the cull have gone nowhere.
Hopefully, recent successful undertakings by the Buffalo Field Campaign, a non-profit bison advocacy group, change all that.
They have been fighting with various government entities to have documents released under the Freedom of Information Act that have shown, and will likely show in greater detail upon further release, federal plans to actually manage these bison like cattle on a ranch, further controlling their numbers and dictating their forage, rather than letting them roam and flourish like the protected, important wild animals they are.
If their ongoing efforts continue to produce a trove of damning documents it would really cement future litigation against Yellowstone’s leaders, the Department of the Interior and other government agencies. This could strengthen attempts to list plains bison as threatened, ensuring more appropriate, respectful, and caring management tactics that these magnificent beasts deserve.
From the 26 October 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News