Indigenous Tribes and the Management of Yellowstone Bison: A Controversial Proposition

Recently, a suggestion for the Indigenous tribes to assume “primary jurisdiction” over the bison in Yellowstone National Park has been brought to the fore by the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC). This recommendation has sparked several debates, primarily questioning why any group, especially one grounded on racial preference, should be granted control over public wildlife.

One might argue that the Yellowstone bison is a shared resource, managed under the Public Trust Doctrine. It does not exclusively belong to the Indigenous tribes. Being U.S. citizens, members of these tribes already have equal access to public comment and influence as any other American.

The idea of tribes and BFC using bison as a smokescreen to further tribal control over public lands and wildlife has been strongly put forward. The primary concern here is not the welfare of the bison, but the welfare of the tribes. This public land is part of a democratic heritage, owned by all citizens, and should not become the plaything of a political movement.

History has shown us that conceding authority to any interest group – be it ranchers, miners, loggers, or ATV enthusiasts – results in undue influence over public land management. The case of the Yellowstone bison should not become another example of this.

Most tribes do not showcase exceptional management of their lands or wildlife. Driven by monetary gains, their actions often mirror those of other humans – self-interest usually prevails. This self-interest is evident in the BFC’s advocacy for bison restoration, which is seen by some as a ploy for expanding tribal power over public resources.

On one hand, the BFC supports the expansion of bison on public lands, a goal which many people, including myself, resonate with. However, the execution of this plan should be in the best interest of the bison, not just the tribes. The Wild Bison Coalition’s proposal for bison restoration in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is a good example of a policy that tribal members can support without having to claim “primary jurisdiction” over the bison.

The BFC’s release refers to cultural restoration, but many see it as a false justification for killing under the guise of culture. The question arises, if culture is a valid reason for killing wildlife, should the killing of elephants in Africa, clubbing of seals by Newfoundland fishermen, or slaughtering of whales by Japanese whalers, be deemed valid too as these are cultural traditions in their respective countries? Our wildlife should be managed based on scientific principles, not religious or cultural justifications.

The tribes’ history of bison hunting in the 1800s led to the elimination of bison in many parts of the West, years before commercial bison hunters came into the picture. The tribes’ belief system didn’t anticipate overkill, as it was believed that bison replenished annually from a hole in the ground. This relationship with bison was guided by superstition and religion, not by sustainable practices or scientific understanding. Should we allow these methods to shape wildlife policy in the United States?

Tribal ecological impacts provide ample evidence against the “traditional ecological knowledge.” Mayan deforestation leading to a significant decline in soil carbon, Indian exploitation of sturgeon leading to a reduction in population, and paleo hunters driving Pleistocene extinctions, are just a few examples of how tribal communities have historically over-exploited natural resources.

The Yellowstone bison are unique, they are the least domesticated animals we have, which is not a concern for the tribes. The BFC’s disregard for the ecological impacts of tribal bison slaughter near Gardiner, Montana, underlines the prioritization of tribal interests over bison welfare.

As for the treaties, no tribes in the West have a legal right to hunt bison in Yellowstone. These so-called treaty rights are more privileges than rights. The full context and legal decisions refining the meaning of treaties are often overlooked.

Furthermore, court decisions assert that even in places where treaties provide tribes with legitimate authority to kill wildlife off of reservations, tribes cannot harm the survival of the species. This legal argument could be used to halt the tribal killing of Yellowstone bison, a unique subset of bison due to their wild history.

A careful and holistic view is needed when dealing with the Yellowstone bison. They are not just animals; they are part of a delicate ecosystem. They are a shared resource, and their management should not be dictated by the interests of a single group. Several organizations, like Roam Free Nation and Gallatin Wildlife Association, advocate for bison, and if you’re interested in preserving wild bison, you should consider joining the Wild Bison Coalition.

About the Author: George Wuerthner has been studying Yellowstone for nearly 50 years. He has authored 38 books on national parks and other environmental issues. His work focuses on deep ecology, the preservation of wild spaces, and the importance of using science-based policies for wildlife management.

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