Annual Bison Carnage

Bison Yellowstone NP, Wyoming
Hunters gutting bison shoot on Gallatin NF by Gardiner Montana

State, federal and tribal representatives voted again to slaughter 600-900 Yellowstone Park bison this winter. The agencies and tribes use the less offensive sounding euphemism “cull”. But let’s be honest, what happens is nothing more than butchery done to appease the livestock industry.

It is shameful that these agencies and tribes legitimize the annual butchery of our national animal based on the phony excuse that bison “might” transmit brucellosis to livestock.

Brucellosis is a disease that can cause abortions in cattle. Yet thus far the only documented transmission of brucellosis to cattle has been from elk.

The removal of bison from the Yellowstone ecosystem is a form of domestication. This reduction in wildness has many ecological ramifications. Reducing the bison number means there are fewer weak or winter-kill animals for predators and scavengers be they wolves, grizzlies, fox, ravens, and coyotes.

Hunting with modern weapons, spotting scopes and other paraphernalia of the “hunt” distorts evolution. Native predators and harsh winter remove the less fit animals, but modern hunters make no distinctions and frequently kill the most genetically healthy animals.

Because the Yellowstone bison have been continuously wild, they a product of the evolutionary forces of harsh winters, predators, and disease.  They are genetically unique.

But how do we treat these unique animals? Do we honor their evolutionary heritage? Do we treat them with respect and as a national treasure?

Instead of acknowledging the unique attributes of the Yellowstone bison, we slaughter them like so many rats.

The present “hunt” is ethically questionable. The hunters gather on the border of the park and slay any bison unfortunate enough to step beyond the invisible park boundary. There is nothing honorable about what occurs.

It is particularly disturbing that the tribes are participating in this annual carnage. In a sense, they are doing to bison what the American manifest destiny did to them—using bullets as a fence, they are confining bison to a wildlife “reservation.”

There is no reason why bison should not migrate and occupy other public lands surrounding Yellowstone Park.

Rather than continuously remove bison from Yellowstone by hunting, this rare genetic stock should be transplanted to other suitable habitat like the Missouri Breaks National Monument/Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the Green River/ Red Desert of Wyoming, North Park of Colorado, the INL/Craters of the Moon/Snake River Plain in Idaho, among other suitable sites.

These Yellowstone bison are part of our national patrimony.  It is time we treat them as such.


  1. Don Avatar

    I am completely opposed to the Cull. However, if I recall from my research into the Yellowstone Ecosystem(I was working on my biology degree(1985)and going over my records of searching for grizzly bears in Yellowstone(between 1972-77), it was my understanding that the genetically distinct mountain bison were wiped out at one point, in Yellowstone and replaced by other bison. I would have to go through my records for references. Am I wrong|?

    1. SAP Avatar

      Don – see this link.

      YNP says bison were reduced to a tiny number, and then bison from private herds were brought in to augment numbers. So, they’re a mix of original “mountain” bison genes and who-knows-what (probably plains bison?) genes.

      According to this source

      YNP bison have no evidence of cattle genes. Apparently, most domestic bison herds in the US do have Bos taurus genes mixed in.

      Here’s some other interesting work, showing two distinct genetic subgroups in the Park.

  2. Oakley Taylor Avatar
    Oakley Taylor

    I don’t understand how this can be considered legal; much less ethical in the eyes of blood-thirsty hunters that will stop at nothing to quench their savage desires. What kind of respect do we extend to these animals? Their lives mean nothing to these people. Why does it seem like they will find any excuse to kill something for whatever feeble excuse they find to drum up to justify their blood lust! This is wrong in so many ways. How do we stop this?

  3. Frank Krosnicki Avatar
    Frank Krosnicki

    Well, if the Bison are “allowed” to wander out of the park, they would likely eat a bit of the natural growing grasses that “belong” to the cattle ranchers! After all, the ranchers do pay a huge amount of money to our benevolent government in order to graze their animals (for a pittance). Oh, some so called ranchers even get away with not paying their contracted amount, so they feed their livestock at our expense only.

  4. Dale Houston Avatar
    Dale Houston

    What an egregious act with the lack of science. I am appalled at this and wish that we had ways to eliminate this killing. White settlers have killed enough buffalo in the 19th century…why continue it!

  5. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Again, from the great ecologist (not) Don Peay in The Real Wolf, “Well, as we now know, there has been an 80% reduction in the greater Yellowstone elk herds, moose are for all practical purposes gone from Yellowstone, and now the bison are the final prey… and they are declining as well”.

  6. idaursine Avatar

    Terrible. 🙁

  7. Ruth Berge Avatar
    Ruth Berge

    Thanks for alerting us to this. Which tribes are involved and can we appeal to them? I’ve sent this to my Senator as well. Lastly, personally, i would call it matrimony. But then i am not that keen on patrimony…

    1. Frank Krosnicki Avatar
      Frank Krosnicki

      Ruth, good idea, but your pockets are not deep enough to buy your Senator.

  8. Ruth Berge Avatar
    Ruth Berge

    The tribes might see it differently. In Washington the Makah tribe hunted and killed a gray whale in 1999, 2007 (illegally) and have applied to be allowed to kill whales for 10 years. The tribal spokesperson says that the hunt enhances their cultural identity and fulfills spiritual needs. Of all the groups you mention the tribes seem most likely to listen. From a 2011 article “”Our tribe has been hunting buffalo for centuries. It’s one of our traditional foods. They were just returning from buffalo country before the treaty was signed,” Marsh said, recalling the Indian chiefs who cited buffalo more than a dozen times in their treaty. “It was important to me to try to return that tradition to my people.” This 2011 article mentions that New Perce, Umatilla, Cayuse, Walla Walla and Shoshone-Bannock, Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes all have native hunting rights. That is probably in addition to the tribes residing in Montana. I’m not disagreeing with what you are saying about brucellosis but there are other reasons why people are killing buffalo.

    1. Marc Bedner Avatar

      Elizabeth Warren may identify with those who claim their Makah DNA entitles them to kill whales, but some native nations are concerned about conservation. The Piikani Nation of the Blackfeet Confederacy and the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe (Hunkpati Oyate) have worked with the Buffalo Field Campaign.

      1. idaursine Avatar

        I didn’t realize Elizabeth Warren said that.

        As far as the buffalo slaughter, it seems like it is a political statement from the time of the colonists (‘this land is my land, no longer your land, from Cali-fornia, to the New York I-Land’), over and above ranching interests and the ridiculous claims of the dangers of brucellosis, which other ungulates do carry, but for hunting interests is ignored. It needs to stop!!!!

        I am always dismayed by the irrational hatred of wolves and bison. Sure, the indigenous did hunt, but not with the same wanton and deliberate intent on destruction as the descendants of the European colonists did and do.

        But things have gotten so bad that in today’s world that I think it is no longer realistic to support even indigenous hunting rights either. There has been permanent damage IMO.

        With climate change, plastics, constant pollution – marine and other life are severely pressured and stressed. What is more important, an ideal that is no longer realistic, or the real lives of wildlife?

        I can’t believe Elizabeth Warren is getting involved in that. 🙁 I agree with Paul Watson that whales are part of the Cetacean Nation.

  9. Joan Avatar

    Here is a video I posted a couple of years on YT called the “The Tragedy of Yellowstone’s Bison.”

  10. joanne favazza Avatar
    joanne favazza

    These beautiful beings deserve our respect and appreciation.

    Instead, they are being needlessly and savagely slaughtered solely to benefit the livestock industry.

    Truly barbaric, and truly despicable:

    1. idaursine Avatar

      Agreed. They are beautiful animals, and unique to our continent. But very few care!

  11. MAD Avatar

    While I categorically agree that the brucellosis issue is a red herring to protect the livestock industry, which reigns supreme here in the West, I’m not sure I totally agree with people regarding the Native American tribes being allowed to hunt a small # of buffalo every year. I believe that the constraints of Montana & Wyoming in not allowing buffalo to leave the park creates the bottleneck hunting which is not what the tribes really want, but they’ll take what they can get – especially since there is no hunting in the Park.

    Currently, there are 6 tribes that are allowed to hunt near Gardiner, MT – the Blackfeet, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Nez Perce Tribe and the Yakama Nation. It is surprising that that the Crow, who have occupied the Yellowstone Valley and Yellowstone NP, for at least the last 600 years, do not join in the hunt. But legally, they could if they requested, as evidenced by the May, 2019 US Sup. Ct. decision (Herrera v. Wyoming) which reaffirmed their 1868 treaty rights of hunting on lands historically theirs, but now off the Crow reservation.

    Over the last 7 years I’ve been in Montana, I’ve worked with many Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Crow and Northern Cheyenne, Chippewa-Cree and Assiniboine. It is difficult for us white folks to understand the deep cultural significance in hunting and the importance of activities that we outsiders see as non-important or unnecessary in today’s world.

    While there are numerous issues and problems with the way most of these tribes are run and operated, there is a depressing dilemma they face in trying to cling to a traditional way of life and culture, while at the same time navigating in the modern world because they must.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Well spoken MAD, thank you. It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like for Natives. Things are usually more complex then most of us realize.

    2. idaursine Avatar

      It’s unfortunate, I think, that their way of life has been permanently altered and damaged, by wanton destruction of bison and other wildlife by colonists with an entirely different mindset.

      It’s not that I or others feel it is unimportant, but that it may be impossible to restore given the current state of things.

    3. idaursine Avatar

      Personally, what I meant was that we many not be able to go back and fix things, to the way that they once were. In many ways.

  12. idaursine Avatar

    And another thing I should add: On the endless list of human rights to do this and that, where does wildlife preservation come in? I agree that in an ideal situation, indigenous people ought to be able to hunt and I certainly do understand the importance of culture to us all.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that wildlife populations are not nearly in the numbers they once were before settlement of this country, and I think it is highly arrogant of humanity in general to think they can ‘manage’ wildlife populations. Humanity has done a bang-up job, haven’t they?

    That’s the point I was making – the right to hunt is one thing, the but wildlife populations just are not there anymore. Except maybe for deer and elk, but even that may be under threat with diseases coming out that noone could account for.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “Except maybe for deer and elk”

      Odd statement you’ve made, Ida, please clarify.

      because I’m seeing a reduction in deer and elk in my neck of the woods, not because of disease… yet… but because of livestock overgrazing the landscape; private lands that had conservation in mind, decades ago (the term was good stewards of the land I believe) back when they left sagebrush steppes and less desirable aspects of their property alone for wildlife habitat that existed on those landscapes (while getting paid by the government in subsidies, if they did) Not the case anymore….

      And similar now to mankind moving into areas that use to be wildlife habitat and wondering why deer and elk (and predators) are increasing showing up in their backyards.

      1. idaursine Avatar

        Sure, why not clarify. Most states talk of overabundance of deer and elk. So which is it? I really don’t know – it seems to change like the weather.

      2. rork Avatar

        Where I live (lower Michigan) we are up to our necks in deer, and are concerned about their disruption of the ecosystem (when densities are this high). I want much lower densities. Even though I kill and eat them. Every person knowledgeable about plants feels the same. We had EHD knock the deer down to 50% in 2012, after which I saw a few young white cedars for the first time in 30 years, but they are stunted knee-high shrubs or (mostly) dead now.
        It’s just an example of one place though. I’m not saying there are too many everywhere. We lack enough predators for example.
        Oh, we need to drastically reduce densities to slow CWD transmission now too. I’d guess over half the hunter in MI don’t get that, and actively try not to get it. Requires long-term thinking. They display every feature of anti-science.

        1. idaursine Avatar

          Well, there’s that – but what I was referring to were accounts from the Western states only (The ‘big’ 3).

          Hunters say there are not enough deer and elk, ranchers and farmers complain there are too many. Usually they are in response to ‘getting rid of’ wolves – but population numbers from F&W show differently. Anyway, the discussion was about Native American hunting rights. I’m not a hunting supporter, but I realize others are and do.

          Montana, Idaho and WY, and the many articles that have been posted here at TWN that have been about this topic over the past several years – the perception of too many or too little elk and deer because of wolf predation.

          I’m sure Nancy has read these articles just as I have, so I’m not sure why she even asked the question.

    2. MAD Avatar

      I’m not saying that tribes should always get their way with everything, especially when we’re talking about a finite resource-species. There’s plenty of examples of abuse/misuse with the tribes. I just give a slight bit of deference to them in some situations since I’ve experienced close-up the difficulties they experience.

      But I do have problems with our state management of things like CWD, or the heartless practice of trapping, or hunting of rare species like wolverines. But the West is replete with crazy policies and practices.

      1. idaursine Avatar

        Yes, ordinarily I would and have, give deference for a lot, and we should. But I do worry about finite resources too.

  13. Allison Lansberry Avatar
    Allison Lansberry

    Leave all the wildlife alone. They balance the Ecosystem.

  14. Robyn Korn Avatar
    Robyn Korn

    Leave the buffalo for the wolves and you wont have to kill the wolves!

    1. idaursine Avatar

      There’s so much to make amends for. What a beautiful photo too. You can almost see bison as a spirit of the prairies, especially when they have snow on them. There’s an amazing photo from a calendar by the Buffalo Field Campaign.

  15. idaursine Avatar

    There was an article, I think this is it (quite old), where it said something to the effect that wolves had to ‘relearn’ how to hunt the bison that was once their mainstay of prey. I think it was by Doug Smith.

    But European settlers have done untold damage and balance upset to the natural world:

  16. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    Wildlife species (and humans too really) are subject to what we biologists used to call “death by a thousand blows”. There are many factors relating to mortality such as poaching, road kill, hunting, chemical pollution, lead poisoning by ingestion, hazing by machinery/vehicles, habitat loss, a host of diseases etc.. The list is long and depressing, especially since the government/corporate cabal is now attempting to go so far as regulating weather and has allowed the pollution of the entire planet with a ‘stranger than truth’ chemical soup.

    Clearly, the impacts of past atrocities and flaws in Americas social contracts plus corporate greed are being felt today. A good question would be- will there be a tomorrow for bison and for us? Will there be a tomorrow for anything?


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner