This winter, an unprecedented heavy snowfall in Yellowstone National Park pushed a large portion of the park’s bison herd to search for milder climates and food at lower elevations.
In response, state and federal officials sanctioned a four-month-long hunt to prevent the spread of brucellosis—a disease that could infect cattle and cause cows to abort their calves—from the bison to livestock.
The hunt generated widespread opposition as it resulted in the culling of over 1,530 bison, including pregnant females and hundreds of others being sent to slaughterhouses or quarantine facilities.
For centuries, bison have played a central role in Native American culture and history. Indigenous tribes, including the Nez Perce, Blackfeet, and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, traveled to the region to harvest nearly 1,100 bison under historic treaties.
The hunt serves as a cultural and spiritual endeavor, bringing families together and allowing tribes to reconnect with their heritage. Additionally, the harvested bison provide a reliable food source for many families.
Critics argue that the hunt disrupts the herds’ social structure and that the limited migration area for the bison unfairly concentrates the animals in a small area, making it easier for hunters. Some Native Americans also criticize the commercial influence driving the extent of the hunt. They believe that the Montana livestock industry is responsible for the excessive culling.
Despite the controversy surrounding the hunt, Native Americans are actively working to increase bison herds on reservations. Currently, 82 tribes have over 20,000 bison in 65 herds, in an effort to reconnect with their history.
Yellowstone Park officials are also helping to move bison to tribal lands. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently announced a $25 million investment to help conserve and restore bison herds across the West.
The Yellowstone bison hunt highlights the complex balance between cultural heritage, conservation, and disease prevention. While the hunt allows Indigenous tribes to practice their cultural traditions and provide sustenance, it also raises concerns about the impact on the bison population and the broader ecosystem.
So, what can we do to support a sustainable solution? We can advocate for further research into the development of more effective brucellosis vaccines for bison, promote better management strategies for the interaction between bison, elk, and livestock, and support initiatives that aim to restore bison populations on tribal lands.
By engaging in these actions, we can contribute to a more balanced and sustainable coexistence between bison and humans, while respecting the cultural heritage of Indigenous tribes.
This article by Nicholas Vincent was first published by OneGreenPlanet on 9 April 2023.
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