Buffalo Field Campaign Uses Bison As Pawns In Expanding Tribal Control of Public Wildlife


Harsh winter weather forces bison to seek forage outside of Yellowstone National Park where tribal people slaughter them. Photo George Wuerthner 


A press release from the Buffalo Field Campaign described a proposal for the tribes to develop a  plan to assume “primary jurisdiction” over Yellowstone National Park’s bison.

The first question anyone should ask is why any group, especially one based on a racial preference, should be given control of public wildlife. The announcement also mentioned that the tribes wanted control over wolves and grizzlies.

Yellowstone bison are unique. They are the least “domesticated” of all bison in the United States. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Yellowstone bison do not belong to the tribes. Wildlife is held in trust as part of the Public Trust Doctrine, and there is no reason why tribes should be given any greater authority or influence than any other American citizens. All tribal members are U.S. citizens and share the same access to public comment and influence as all other Americans.

The tribes and BFC are using bison as a pretext to further tribal interests and control of public lands and wildlife. The bison are pawns in this effort. Make no mistake. BFC is not concerned about bison welfare but tribal welfare.

A bison killed by tribal hunters outside of Yellowstone NP. Photo George Wuerthner

These public lands are part of our democratic heritage that belongs to all citizens, and I would suggest they are a global heritage that belongs to no one. They are under increasing threat from well-meaning people who see the public domain as political chips of the social justice movement.

We already know what happens when you give legal or otherwise concede authority to any interest group–ranchers, miners, loggers, ATVers, etc., all have undue influence over public land management. We do not need yet another group that will have greater control of what is a public resource.

This clearcut is on a tribal reservation. Indians are no different than the rest of humanity, they often put self interest first.  Photo George Wuerthner 

Most tribes do not manage their lands or wildlife in an exemplary fashion. When money is to be made, they act like all other humans-they put their self-interest first.

BFC advocacy for bison restoration is a subterfuge for expanding tribal power over public resources. One doesn’t need jurisdiction over bison to advocate for bison well-being. To see footage of recent tribal bison slaughter view this video from Yellowstone Voices.

BFC calls for the expansion of bison on public lands. On the surface, I certainly agree with the goal of bison restoration on public lands. But this goal should be for what is appropriate for wild bison, not what is good for the tribes. The Wild Bison Coalition calls for bison restoration on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Tribal members can support such policies, without assuming  “primary jurisdiction” over bison to promote bison restoration

Bison carcasses as evidence of tribal bison slaughter along road near Gardiner, Montana

The Buffalo Field Campaign letter talks about cultural restoration. It is deceit and disingenuous to justify killing under the guise of culture. If culture is a valid reason for killing wildlife, would that mean, the killing of elephants in Africa, the clubbing of seals by Newfoundlander fishermen, or the slaughter of whales by Japanese whalers, all cultural traditions in their countries, are equally valid.

Culture is not science; our wildlife should be managed on scientific principles, not religion or cultural justifications.

The BFC argues that the tribes should manage public bison using “traditional ecological knowledge.” Was the slaughter of more than a thousand bison outside Yellowstone Park this past winter an example of traditional ecological knowledge?

Remember that tribal hide hunting in the 1800s was responsible for the extirpation of bison in many parts of the West long before the final coup de grace resulting from commercial bison hunters in the 1870s. Indian hunting wiped out bison in Utah, Idaho, western Wyoming, western and southwestern Montana, North Dakota, Manitoba, and Minnesota by the 1850s.

This was long before most of these areas had any white settlement or commercial hide hunting, which did not begin in any effective manner until the 1870s after the Civil War when railroads penetrated the West, enabling the transportation of heavy hides to the East.

Because tribal people believed that bison annually repopulated the plains from a hole in the ground each spring, they could not conceive of overkill. Superstition and religion guided their relationship with bison, and hunting success would continue if one did the correct dance and followed the proper procedures.

Do we really want superstition and religion to guide wildlife policy in the United States? I would suggest this is a grave step backward.

Plenty of other evidence exists for tribal ecological impacts, notwithstanding “traditional ecological knowledge.” Tribal people are like the rest of the human race, and prone to over-exploitation of natural resources—if and when they can.

For instance, Mayan deforestation led to a significant decline in soil carbon in Central America, Indian exploitation of sturgeon led to a reduction in population, California tribes reduced the apparent distribution and numbers of elk, and paleo hunters are often one of the factors that drove some Pleistocene extinctions. Even today, Indigenous hunting of beluga whales in Cook Inlet is cited as a significant contributing factor in the whales’ decline from 1300 in the 1970s to less than 300 animals today, among many other examples I could mention. Obviously “traditional ecological knowledge” doesn’t preclude over-exploitation of the land.

Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not put the bison first; it puts tribal interest first.

It’s time we give more consideration to the non-human entities we live among.

Yellowstone bison are unique. They are not like most other bison in the West. They are the least domesticated animals we have. The tribes do not concern themselves with wildness. Indeed, all tribal herds are domesticated animals and treated like livestock.

Coyotes feasting on a bison carcass. When tribal hunters remove bison from the ecosystem, they are literally taking the food out of the mouth of numerous dependent wildlife from wolves to grizzlies to ravens and coyotes. Photo George Wuerthner 

BFC has ignored the numerous ecological impacts of tribal bison slaughter by Gardiner, Montana, to promote tribal interests. The tribal massacre this winter removed biomass from the park ecosystem that would have sustained bears, wolves, and other wildlife. It reduced the population dangerously low with genetic implications, a reduction in bison numbers exacerbated by bison being tournament breeders, and one male can impregnate a dozen or more females, significantly reducing genetic diversity.  It selectively killed the very animals that are most likely to migrate. Tribal slaughter altered the age and sex structure of the herds since, under “natural” conditions, the young and old are the animals that naturally suffer mortality. (All removals have the same influence, including the capture and slaughter by NPS or Dept of Livestock).

Bison herd on a private ranch in Montana. Nearly all bison outside of Yellowstone are managed more or less like domestic livestock. Photo George Wuerthner

Remember that of the nearly 500,000 bison found outside of Yellowstone, all are “farmed” like other livestock. The Yellowstone bison are a tiny and unique subset of bison.

Imagine if all the salmon in the West were raised in hatcheries and you only had less than 1% of wild fish. Would we permit killing 25% of this small number of “wild” salmon? Yet this is precisely what the BFC advocates.

That is precisely what the BFC and tribes say is OK for “cultural” reasons.

Tribes use modern technology to assit in the bison slaughter. Use of a crane for gutting bison killed. Is this how you preserve “culture?” Photo George Wuerthner 

And as far as preserving “culture” is concerned, there is far more to culture than merely killing animals. Using modern weapons, trucks, ATVs, drones, etc., negates any claim that you are preserving “culture.” All you are preserving is killing. And you don’t have to kill Yellowstone wild bison if killing a bison is your goal. There are plenty of farmed buffalo on private ranches, tribal lands, etc. that are available for slaughter.

Regarding treaties, none of the tribes in the West have a legal right to hunt bison by Yellowstone. The so-called treaty rights are privileges in reality.  Tribal advocates extract clauses from the treaties without providing the full context or legal decisions that refine the meaning of treaties.

Proponents argue that these privileges give tribes the right to hunt any place on so-called “open and unoccupied” public lands (FS and BLM). These privileges are limited to “ceded lands.” There are no tribal ceded lands anywhere in SW Montana, much less near Gardiner, immediately adjacent to Yellowstone.

Some tribes in the Columbia Basin were given the right to fish at selective locations like waterfalls where tribal people customarily sought salmon off reservations. Still, this privilege does not apply to hunting.

Furthermore, even this is restricted by a court decision that asserts that any tribe claiming such a privilege must demonstrate “occupation” to the exclusion of other tribes. No tribe can make such a claim for hunting anyplace on public lands in or around Yellowstone.

Finally, there was a Supreme Court decision led by none other than William O Douglas that says even in the places where treaties do give tribes legitimate authority to kill wildlife off of reservations; tribes cannot harm the survival of the species.

This landmark judgment on treaties held that the federal government may regulate treaty fishing rights in the interest of conservation, so long as the said regulation is reasonable and necessary as well as non-discriminatory against Native Americans [Puyallup Tribe v Washington Department of Fish and Game 391. The US. 392 (1968)]. This same legal argument could be used to halt the tribal killing of Yellowstone bison, which due to their unique wild history, makes them of huge conservation interest.

The problem is that few people or organizations are willing to challenge the tribes-witness the total lack of criticism and silence by almost all conservation groups like GYC of the excessive bison slaughter this winter. The tribes are exploiting this lack of critical oversight.

Wildlife is supposed to be managed by the Public Trust Doctrine.

We need wild bison. Yellowstone bison are unique and should be treated with greater respect and protection than they are receiving today. Photo George Wuerthner 

 We need more wild bison. Tribal interests are not the public interest. Several groups that advocates for bison includes Roam Free Nation and Gallatin Wildlife Assocation.

Those interested in preserving wild bison should join the Wild Bison Coalition.



  1. N.Pierce Avatar

    Thank you for this enlightened and courageous article.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Why should they have primary control over wolves and grizzlies too? On the other hand, I don’t know if management of wolves and grizzlies can get much worse. Their input might we welcome.

    These days, it all should be a joint effort. I don’t believe we can go back.

  3. Kirsten J Allen Avatar
    Kirsten J Allen

    Being Native American is not a matter of “racial preference”; it is a matter of political sovereignty. Please learn about Native histories, cultures, and political realities by reading Native authors and scholars and more current research on bison extirpation and recovery. Vine Deloria, Jacqueline Keeler, Kurt Repanshek are good folks to start with.

    1. George Wuerthner Avatar

      Read all of those recommended authors and many more. If you have a broad perspective on tribal efforts, one sees this is part of an effort to garner control of our public lands and resources that belong to all Americans–including all tribal members who are, also US citizens. No one should have “primary” authority to control public lands. We have enough of that now with ranchers, oil and gas, etc. We don’t need to add to that list by giving more control to any group. I wouild no more allow the Sierra Club or Wilderness Society to have “primary” control of public lands as anyone else. The widest representation is the best way to ensure that lands and wildlife are given consideration. This is movement by BFC and others is all about people. Time to consider the non-living entities that rely on our public lands.

      1. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        G.W., I know you understand Torrey House (Kirsten, Bailey & some of their authors) has a financial and reputation stake in this ‘woke’ area (along with industrial wreckreation); your readers may not.

        Yes. It’s way past time to put non-human beings (flora & fauna) first, which includes less “Torrey House” conservation and more preservation of landscapes without our presence.

        1. Kirsten Allen Avatar
          Kirsten Allen

          Chris, this is not true: “Torrey House (Kirsten, Bailey & some of their authors) has a financial and reputation stake in this ‘woke’ area (along with industrial wreckreation).” Torrey House Press is a nonprofit arts organization with no individual “stake” for anyone nor any interest in recreation land use. Using “woke” as a term of abuse does nothing to advance any goals toward protecting plants, animals, landscapes.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    This is very worrisome. The bison belong to no one, and never did. We’re putting human interests and political correctness above the welfare of the bison, which is paramount, IMO.

    From my understanding, the current population and genetics is still very fragile. I’m afraid that this will have unintended consequences for the welfare of the bison. It isn’t the same world as it was 200 years ago.

    I can’t support this, and I don’t feel people should be excluded from the care of our remaining bison.

  5. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Thank you George for saying what needs to be said. Too many of us are turning the other way, when faced with the fact that Native Americans are deliberately colluding with the Montana Dept. of Livestock to do their bidding to rid our Public Lands of bison if they ever step over the open un-fenced, un-marked boundary line of Yellowstone National Park.

    It is time for the U.S. Federal Government to take over from the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming its original duty of over-seeing the welfare, protection and expansion of the greater Yellowstone bison herds by granting them full protection as a “Species of Concern” with a total BAN of the killing of our National Mammal by humans.

  6. Makuye Avatar

    One of Arizona’s major Apache tribes also denies refuge and presence of Mexican Wolf, due to profitmaking trophy elk hunting guiding on their rez.
    Confederated Coleville tribes inWA also conduct hunting of Gray Wolf on their rez.
    Another WA tribe, the Makah desires to kill Gray whales endangered last century by 200 years of killing.
    Pretended “traditional ” use of snowmobiles – invented in 1939, and hardly used until 1950s-70s, and long distance shooting rifles, another NON tradition claimed by both tribes and Euroamericans, are relatively unregulated anywhere at all. I have encou tered far too many bags of doe and buck heads with antlers removed in such seasons as summer and fall for a couple decades now.

    One can only trust a proportion of Ojibwe on not killing wolves, even though the incredibly cruel dog (often with gps) pack hunting occurs there, as well, often by members of that tribe.

    While present racism against indigenous foully remains part of Euroamerican culture, it is refusal to grant validity to other animals that makes us ALL violators ofnatural respect for life.

    NO ritual that sacrifices animals as religion or culture is remotely moral. Other animals do not wantonly kill beyond need (wolves eat and return for weeks to consume prey, and from on the ground observation, i deny the lies of the excess Homo sapiens whose guns and traps ned to be outlawed, if “tradition” were to be truthfully claimed.

    Meanwhile the monetmaking industry of endless litigation over wildlife and wetland and habitat must be resolved through ending all human take on all public lands. The claimed ” victories” through whichhuge paid organizations run a permanent industry must become a historical anomaly, along with “sport” or subsistence use of firearms. And, no, i am not a “progressive” in politics, but recognize the VITAL necessity of vastly reduced human populations.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      “While present racism against indigenous foully remains part of Euroamerican culture, it is refusal to grant validity to other animals that makes us ALL violators ofnatural respect for life.”

      Couldn’t put it any more clear than that.

      Thank you, all.

  7. Tom Ribe Avatar

    I share George’s concern that woke politics is diluting and distracting conservation and wildlife protection efforts in the US.It is easy to focus on people. Much harder to care about non human elements of the world. I agree that public wildlife should stay public. Tribes are part of the US public.

  8. Michael Kellett Avatar

    I completely agree with George. Wildlife belong to all people and to the planet — including members of tribes. Bison and all other wild species should remain under the protection of all Americans, not one particular group of people.

    We need to create an expanded Yellowstone National Park that includes all the federal lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Livestock would be removed and bison would be allowed to roam free without the threat of being slaughtered.

    Tribes would continue to be free to expand domesticated bison herds on their reservations. But the genetically unique and wild Yellowstone bison would be protected from the killing that is now endangering the integrity of the species.

    Wolves, grizzlies, wolverines, and other predators would also be protected from trophy hunters in an expanded Yellowstone National Park. A portion of the expanded park could be designated as a National Preserve, as in the case of most Alaska parks, to allow carefully regulated hunting of non-threatened ungulates such as deer and elk.

  9. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Michael Kellett: Thank your for writing, “We need to create an expanded Yellowstone National Park that includes all the federal lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Livestock would be removed and bison would be allowed to roam free without the threat of being slaughtered…” Now, who can we call on in Congress and the Senate to start this important ball rolling. A way must be found to move from talk to action, as soon as possible.

    1. Michael Kellett Avatar

      Hi Ed,

      Expanding Yellowstone requires federal legislation. The Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming congressional delegations are unlikely to support such legislation without strong public pressure. We need a nationwide citizen movement to generate this kind of pressure on behalf of Yellowstone and many other potential parks across the country.

      The organization I work for, RESTORE: The North Woods, is building a grassroots coalition of groups and activists to create such a movement. If you have not seen it, here is proposal for such an expansion written by George. https://rewilding.org/a-greater-yellowstone-national-park-proposal/

      RESTORE will be unveiling a dedicated New Parks website later this year, but this page on the RESTORE website gives you the basics. https://www.restore.org/create-parks

      I was recently interviewed on a National Parks Traveler podcast on this subject, which you may find interesting. https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/podcast/2023-06-18-national-parks-traveler-podcast-episode-227-expanding-national-park-system

      Best, Michael

      1. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        Perhaps your group can work on two issues involving NPS sites:

        Litigate carrying capacities that have been Congressionally and judicially mandated since 1979. The NPS and all environmental organizations have ignored this since the Yosemite Valley Plan.
        Propose an amendment to the NPS Organic Act, changing the word “conserve” to read: “to PRESERVE the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein….”

        1. Michael Kellett Avatar

          Hi Chris,

          Yes, these are important issues.

          We need a serious overhaul of the NPS, which has been starved for funds, cowed by political pressure, and lacking in bold leadership. This overhaul is needed to address the serious challenges of the 21st century, to provide more resources for the agency to do its job, and increase independence from political winds.

          It may also be time to make the NPS a separate agency such as the EPA, which has been proposed in the past.

          Legislation to revamp the NPS could address the issues you are raising as well as a host of others.

          An overhaul and strengthening of the NPS is important, not only to improve management of existing parks, but also to accommodate the future expansion of the National Park System.

  10. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Perhaps a separate Department encompassing all federal lands agencies to create economies of scale, purpose and policy, not one just for the NPS. The NPS already operates within DOI as though it were special, seen through budgeting, an organization culture that dismisses the rest, and an organization that even dismisses Congress and the Judiciary re: carrying capacity legislation and decree.

    Short of reorganization, carrying capacity legislation that would limit infrastructure and resultant incremental budgeting already exists and needs enforcement. Further, legislation to change a single word (conserve to preserve) would be both easier to reform the NPS and the discussion quite telling.

  11. Jeanie Krichbaum Avatar
    Jeanie Krichbaum

    Thank you Geroge for your honesty, scientific research on this terrible slaughter that seems to be okay with everyone. Is there any group that is advocating for the voiceless bison?

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Jeanie; Perhaps you missed reading the last two sentences of George Wuerthner’s Greater Yellowstone bison article: “Several groups that advocates for bison include Roam Free Nation and Gallatin Wildlife Association. Those interested in preserving wild bison should join the Wild Bison Coalition.”

  12. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Wonderful News! .. The Blackfeet Nation in northwest Montana has just released a small herd of wild FREE ROAMING bison to their vast lands. These bison are not going to be fenced, and they will be able to roam, if they choose, all the way into Glacier Nat. Park to the West and into Canada to the North.


    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Oh fantastic! See, broad generalizations cannot be made. Some of all people no matter their background will treasure the bison, others will not, or put their own interests first.

    2. Rich Avatar

      Thank you Ed for sharing the article on releasing a wild herd of bison in Montana. If only the Native Americans killing Yellowstone National Park bison would understand the importance of preserving nature and encouraging restoration of bison to the grasslands surrounding the park. Unfortunately their focus is on mining and destroying America’s only truly wild bison herd of its members and robbing the herd and the world of the hereditary genetic DNA critical to the survival of the herd. The tribes responsible for the irresponsible, selfish, horrific killing of bison at the park boundary should demonstrate their claimed sacred and thoughtful relationship between the people and nature by being a little more respectful of nature and our bison.

      1. Kirsten Allen Avatar
        Kirsten Allen

        Rich, tribes are not responsible for the management decisions of theNational Park Service and Montana Department of Livestock, including Montana’s decision to regulate bison as livestock instead of wildlife.

        George’s article is missing KEY context – Native American Tribes did not set the number of animals to be culled from the Yellowstone herd; government officials did. I don’t like it either, but the animals were going to be culled one way or the other: Tribal hunts or slaughterhouses. Read this for more context about the hunt: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/04/science/bison-hunt-yellowstone-native-americans.html

      2. Edward Loosli Avatar
        Edward Loosli

        It may just be a coincidence, but it is interesting that the new Executive Director of the Buffalo Field Campaign is a Nez Perce tribal member, who lives on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho. To my knowledge, the Nez Perce have no tribal hunting treaty rights in the Yellowstone area, and yet, it is the Nez Perce “hunters” who are responsible for much of the bison slaughter taking place when the bison try to migrate across the open un-fenced boundary of Yellowstone National Park. In the past, the US Forest Service has closed the Beatie Gulch killing fields area (near Gardiner, Montana)to hunting to protect residents and tourists from flying bullets – and the Forest Service should do the same thing right now, and make the No-Hunting-Zone PERMANENT.
        James Holt
        Executive Director

        James Holt Buffalo Field Campaign Board of Directors

        I was born in Lewiston, Idaho and raised in Lapwai, Idaho on the Nez Perce Reservation, where I reside today.

        1. Ed Loosli Avatar
          Ed Loosli

          I did not intend to include the name of the Buffalo Field Campaign Ex. Director …. Sorry for that – my apology! Ed Loosli

          1. Ed Loosli Avatar
            Ed Loosli

            This is the way my last post was meant to read: It may just be a coincidence, but it is interesting that the new Executive Director of the Buffalo Field Campaign is a Nez Perce tribal member, who lives on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho. To my knowledge, the Nez Perce have no tribal hunting treaty rights in the Yellowstone area, and yet, it is the Nez Perce “hunters” who are responsible for much of the bison slaughter taking place when the bison try to migrate across the open un-fenced boundary of Yellowstone National Park. In the past, the US Forest Service has closed the Beatie Gulch killing fields area (near Gardiner, Montana)to hunting to protect residents and tourists from flying bullets – and the Forest Service should do the same thing right now, and make the No-Hunting-Zone PERMANENT.

  13. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Oh what a great photo too, the bison hurrying out of the trailer, led by the little calf. Does my heart good! 🙂


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