Yellowstone National Park has produced an DEIS on bison management. The Park Service is accepting comments until October 10th. You can read the DEIS and make your own comment here: Attached are the detailed comments of the Wild Bison Restoration Council, however, if you want to make your own comments here are some brief points.
- Yellowstone Bison are unique and of international significance.
- Alternative 3 is the best option, but it has numerous problems.
- The transfer of brucellosis to livestock from bison is exaggerated.
- The removal of bison by hunting, test and slaughter and transfer to tribal lands has real ecological and evolutionary impacts on Yellowstone Bison.
- The underlying assumption of the management proposal rests on the assertion of treaty rights by tribes. This assertion has not been independently verified by the NPS, but a reading of treaties suggests there is NO LEGAL RIGHT to kill bison north of Yellowstone Park in Beatty Gulch.
- Yellowstone bison belong to all Americans, and it behooves the NPS to manage bison for all Americans. If bison are transferred from Yellowstone they should be sent to other public lands like the Charles M. Russell NWR, and other locations under federal management.
- The current proposals all manage bison for the benefit of tribal hunters, not the bison. What is good for bison should be the main focus of any decision.
We, the Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition (WBRC), offer the following comments on Yellowstone’s DEIS on bison management.
We commend Yellowstone NP for recognizing the unique character of Yellowstone bison.
We support Alternative 3 as a step in the right direction, but we have many concerns about the underlying assumptions of the document, and the lack of full ecological and evolutionary accounting that bison removal has on the Yellowstone herd and its impacts on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Yellowstone bison are the least manipulated remnant of wild bison that once roamed much of the West. They have been largely influenced by natural evolutionary processes like harsh weather, predation, natural breeding selection, and climate variability.
They are a globally significant population where protection and preservation should be given priority in any decision. Any management default position should be in the bison’s favor.
We recognize that bison management is political and the difficult political situation the NPS must negotiate. Nevertheless, the legislation that created Yellowstone provides a clear statement of the NPS mission to preserve and protect the park’s wildlife, including bison.
To quote Yellowstone Protection Act, the NPS “shall provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition.” And leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
By last count 1471 Yellowstone bison were culled or killed during 2023. However as reported in the DEIS, the tribes do not consistently report numbers, ages, and sexes of ungulates harvested under these permits to federal and state biologists so this should be considered a minimum count of tribal kill.
When transfers and slaughters are considered, the number rises to 1781 or approximately 40% of the northern herd was removed from the Yellowstone Park ecosystem. Approximately 64 were killed by Montana hunters, but the majority of all bison kill (1059) was due to tribal members. It should be noted there is no final 2023 count that we are aware of, so totals could be higher.
We believe this has serious implications for the ecological integrity of the bison and the Yellowstone Ecosystem, which by law the NPS must prioritize in all decisions.
While this loss of bison occurred primarily outside of Yellowstone NP, it behooves the Park Service, in its obligation to “preserve and protect” Yellowstone to bison at least object to such losses. According to NPS Chris Geremia during the NPS zoom August 28th 2023 noted that no more than 400 bison could be removed without affecting the herd’s biological viability.
The management proposal is based on the premise that tribes have treaty rights to hunt near Gardiner. The NPS has never investigated these claims. Instead, it has deferred to the state of Montana, which also has not fully investigated claims, relying primarily on tribal assertions of treaty rights, instead of independently validating these claims.
While it may not be critical to the issue of Yellowstone bison management, the common “story” repeated by the DEIS under its American Indian Tribes and Ethnographic Resources section that white commercial hunting led to the demise of western bison is at best an exaggeration. Assuming that tribal hunters will practice “conservation” in hunting is not supported by historical or even present day behavior.
By the 1840s bison were essentially extirpated from Idaho, northern Utah, SW Montana and Wyoming west of the Continental Divide. By 1850 they were gone from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota. This was all before there was any significant white settlement or bison hunting.
Indeed, most commercial hunting by white people did not occur until the 1870s and later after the railroads enabled easy transport of hides. By that time, bison were extirpated from much of their historic range in the western US.
There is abundant evidence that tribal hunting was a leading cause of bison extirpation, particularly after the advent of the horse and gun. The idea that somehow tribal people are “conservationists” is not supported by the evidence.
Here’s one link to an article in the New York Times.
And several other articles that discuss the same topic.
Clearly tribal people are quite capable of overkill.
A commentary on the Wildlife News addresses some of the treaty rights claims. It is hoped the NPS will review it.
Bison migrating towards lower snowfall. Photo George Wuerthner
TRIBAL TREATY RIGHTS
The NPS document suggests they will rely on tribal hunting (and other state hunting) outside of the park to limit bison movements and numbers.
On page 36 of the DEIS, the NPS says:” In other words, tribal fishing and hunting rights include more than just the right to attempt to harvest wildlife; tribes need to be able to obtain a share of the actual harvest of a resource (Puyallup Tribe v. Department of Game of Washington, 391 U.S. 392 (1968), 414 U.S. 44 (1973), 433 U.S. 165 (1977)). By completely restricting bison migration onto unoccupied lands adjacent to the park, the NPS would be adversely affecting the exercise of reserved treaty rights by several tribes.”
However, we believe the tribes have no treaty rights to hunt adjacent to Yellowstone Park at Beatty Gulch.
Dead bison killed by tribal hunters at Beatty Gulch this past winter.
There are three major assertions made by tribal entities and their supporters which assert treaty rights—but a close reading of the treaties themselves and subsequent legal decisions suggest that no treaties authorize hunting in this location.
The three most cited and misinterpreted treaty claims are the “Common Hunting Ground” of the 1855 Lame Bull Treaty, ceded lands common in most treaties and upheld by Herrera vs Wyoming, and the phrase “Usual and Accustomed” referring fishing rights in Columbia River tribal treaties. As we hope to demonstrate none of these provide valid legal rights to hunt bison adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.
Almost all the treaties of the specific tribes claiming a right to hunt just north of Gardiner refer to reservation boundaries as well as “ceded” lands. The ceded lands phrase is important and critical as to whether tribal hunting by Gardiner is legal.
Tribes and tribal advocates usually refer to the phrase in many treaties that suggests hunting on “unclaimed and open” lands. In practice these lands are determined to mean National Forest or BLM lands WITHIN the ceded lands as open to off-reservation hunting.
In other words, tribal hunting is limited to specific lands, usually determined by the specific lands ceded to the federal government in treaties.
Why would the treaties even bother to define “ceded” lands if it didn’t matter? They defined them because the government agents wanted limits on where tribes could hunt, and the tribes wanted definitive boundaries off the reservations where they knew they could continue to hunt. So both sides had a reason to put geographical, legal descriptions of the “ceded areas” into words.
For instance, here’s the description of the Nez Perce’s ceded territory. Note that the Nez Perce ceded lands end at the Bitterroot Divide on the Idaho-Montana border.
The said Nez Perce tribe of Indians hereby cede, relinquish and convey to the United States all their
right, title, and interest in and to the country occupied or claimed by them, bounded and described as
follows, to wit: Commencing at the source of the Wo‐na‐ne‐she or southern tributary of the Palouse
River; thence down that river to the main Palouse; thence in a southerly direction to the Snake River,at
the mouth of the Tucanon River; thence up the Tucanon to its source in the Blue Mountains; thence
southerly along the ridge of the Blue Mountains; thence to a point on Grand Ronde River, midway
between Grand Ronde and the mouth of the Woll‐low‐how River; thence along the divide between the
waters of the Woll‐low‐how and Powder River; thence to the crossing of Snake River, at the mouth of
Powder River; thence to the Salmon River, fifty miles above the place known [as] the ” crossing of the
Salmon River;” thence due north to the summit of the Bitter Root Mountains; thence along the crest of
the Bitter Root Mountains to the place of beginning.
Why is this important? Because none of the tribes have ceded lands north of Yellowstone. Here’s a map produced by Judicial Review that shows all the ceded lands in treaties. Note that none of the lands near Gardiner and the northern portion of Yellowstone are “ceded.”
The white areas on this map, including the area by Gardiner are not within the ceded territory of any tribes.
HERRERA VS WYOMING
All tribes when they signed treaties that established reservations gave up a larger piece of their original claimed territory known as “ceded lands.” In most instances, tribes retained the right to hunt, camp, etc. on ceded lands. The specific boundaries of ceded lands are described in the individual treaties, and no ceded lands exist for any tribe near Beatty Gulch.
The reference to “ceded lands” was a critical issue in the Supreme Court case Herrea vs Wyoming.
The Herrera vs Wyoming Supreme Court case was primarily about whether treaty rights were extinguished at Wyoming state hood, or continued, the courts recognized that the treaty allowed tribal members to hunt off reservation on “ceded” lands. This does not give the tribe the right to hunt anywhere, including lands they may have occasionally visited. It only allows hunting on lands specifically “ceded” in the treaties. The Crow “ceded” lands do not reach the Gardiner area but lie east of the Yellowstone River.
Here’s a summary from the Native American Legal Fund; https://narf.org/cases/crow-hunting/
In May 1868, the United States and the Crow Tribe (Apsáalooke) signed the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie. In the treaty, the Tribe ceded a large piece of its reservation lands to the United States. However, tribal leaders reserved the right to hunt on those lands, even though they were no longer part of the reservation. The treaty clearly states that the Tribe could continue to hunt on the ceded lands, as they always had done, so long as the lands remained unoccupied by settlement and the Tribe maintained peace with the United States.
Here’s the relevant section of the Crow treaty. Note under hunting rights on “ceded land”.
[Hunting Rights on Ceded Land]
The Indians herein named agree, when the agency-house and other buildings shall be constructed on the reservation named, they will make said reservation their permanent home, and they will make no permanent settlement elsewhere, but they shall have the right to hunt on unoccupied lands or the United States so long as game may be found thereon, and as long as peace subsists among the whites and Indians on the borders of the hunting districts.
The following refers to tribes in Washington State but provides some insights to court decisions regarding hunting on ceded lands.
Geographical scope of off-reservation hunting rights
In State v. Buchanan (1999), the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that this right extends to 1) the lands formally ceded by the tribes to the United States as those lands are described in the Treaties; and 2) other areas where it can be shown that those areas were “actually used for hunting and occupied [by the tribe] over an extended period of time.”
Significantly, in State vs Buchaman, the Washington Supreme Court has held that “open and unclaimed” land language of the Point Elliot Treaty applied only to land within a tribe’s “ceded areas under the treaties or other traditional areas.”
It is a stretch for any tribes in Washington or Oregon (Yakima, Cayuse, Nez Perce, etc.) to claim they hunted and occupied the area around Gardinier for an “extended period of time.” This is essentially true since the acquisition of the horse was a recent phenomenon for tribes west of the Bitterroot Mountains (Nez Perce, Yakima, etc.) and tribal use of bison on the plains was sporadic and relatively short-lined.
USUAL AND ACCUSTOMED
Some tribes claim that the treaties of Columbia Basin tribes which possess a provision that they can fish at unusual and accustomed sites gives them the right to hunt near Gardiner. But a closer reading of those treaties suggests this this provision pertains to specific locations such as waterfalls where tribes historically caught salmon and other fish.
For instance, the 1855 Treaty with the Flathead reads: “The exclusive right of taking fish in all streams running through or bordering the reservation is further secured to the said Indians ; as also the right of taking fish at all the usual and accustomed places, in common with the citizens of the territory.”
It is important to note this reference to usual and accustomed, a reference to fish at specific locations like waterfalls, not hunting. Photo George Wuerthner
It then goes on to say as is found in other treaties, “Erecting temporary buildings for curing ; together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses and cattle upon open and unclaimed land.” Open and unclaimed land has been defined as Forest Service and BLM within the “ceded territory”. It is not the privilege of hunting on any public lands anyplace.
In lawsuits since the original treaties, the courts have found that tribes must show that they occupied sites for extensive periods of time, and to the exclusion of other tribes. While this obviously may pertain to fishing sites like waterfalls, it clearly can’t be demonstrated for bison hunting which required following highly mobile animals.
These treaties say the tribes could FISH off the reservation at the “usual and accustomed places”. First of all, this is clear from all the law and legal discussions since the treaties that this only applies to fish. You can read quite a few of these legal wranglings, but the basic idea is that tribes used to fish at waterfalls, etc. and wanted to ensure they could continue to do this. But these are “specific” locations. These tribes’ treaty rights do not confer the privilege of fishing anywhere on any Columbia system river. They are restricted to specific locations.
This goes into great detail about hunting off reservations in Washington based on a case where a Noonsack tribal member killed two elk out of season and off from his reservation but claimed he had a treaty right to hunt anywhere in Washington. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/court/wa-supreme-court/1410983.html
Here’s a quote from the state: “The State argues that the hunting right reserved by the treaty was limited to the right previously exercised-that is to the ceded lands or to lands upon which the Nooksack Tribe traditionally hunted. ”
The scope of a tribe’s off-reservation hunting rights is generally found in an Indian tribe’s aboriginal use of or title to land and its reservation of the right in a treaty, or by agreement, executive order or statute. See generally Felix S. Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law 41-46 (Rennard Strickland & Charles F. Wilkinson eds., 1982). Mr. Nye explains the origin of the right as follows:
To determine the existence of original Indian title to land, and the right to hunt and fish following from that title, courts have generally required a showing of actual use and occupancy over an extended period of time. In Mitchel v. United States [34 U.S. (9 Pet.) 711, 9 L.Ed. 283 (1835) ] the United States Supreme Court said:
Indian possession or occupation was considered with reference to their habits and modes of life; their hunting grounds were as much in their actual possession as the cleared fields of the whites; and their rights to its exclusive enjoyment in their own way and for their own purposes were as much respected, until they abandoned them, made a cession to the government, or an authorized sale to individuals.
In claims against the United States based upon original title, a requirement of exclusive use and occupancy has been satisfied by a showing that two or more tribes jointly or amicably hunted in the same area to the exclusion of others․
Thus, regards to hunting, these same treaties had a limitation that is ignored by tribal advocates. It states that hunting off-reservation and outside of “ceded lands” are only those places where the tribe “occupied” for an extended period of time.
None of the Columbia River tribes can make the case they exclusively “occupied” the Gardiner area for any time, much less an extended period of time. They occupied the Columbia Basin, not the Yellowstone River ecosystem.
Furthermore, when they did cross the mountains to hunt bison, they usually went out to the plains via Rogers Pass and the Blackfoot River or sometimes other routes from Missoula that got them to the plains for hunting. I.e. they did not bother to hunt by Gardiner, and they certainly did not “occupy” the area.
LIMITATION OF TREATY RIGHTS FOR CONSERVATION
A further decision by non-other than Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas, held that hunting or fishing treaty rights were not unlimited. That state or federal agencies could limit the take of species in the interest of conservation.
The United States Supreme Court has held that the treaty right to hunt, like the treaty right to fish, may only be regulated by the state “in the interest of conservation, provided the regulation meets appropriate standards and does not discriminate against the Indians.”
This is from the final paragraph of the Puyallup 1973 decision, a unanimous opinion of the Court, written by Justice William O. Douglas:
“We do not imply that these fishing rights persist down to the very last steelhead in the river. Rights can be controlled by the need to conserve a species, and the time may come when the life of a steelhead is so precarious in a particular stream that all fishing should be banned until the species regains assurance of survival. The police power of the State is adequate to prevent the steelhead from following the fate of the passenger pigeon, and the Treaty does not give the Indians a federal right to pursue the last living steelhead until it enters their nets.”
We believe one could make the assertion that removing 40% of the Yellowstone bison is harming the bison, and in the interest of bison conservation, the NPS should exercise its obligation to protect bison from overharvest.
COMMON HUNTING GROUND OF 1855 Lame Bull Treaty
Some tribal hunting advocates cite the “common hunting ground” clause of the Lame Bull Treaty. The 1855 treaty with the Blackfeet, among other clauses, defined a “common hunting area” for tribes west of the Continental Divide. The only signatories to this treaty from west of the divide were the Flathead and Nez Perce. No other tribes from the Columbia Basin were signatories to this treaty.
Nevertheless, the terms of the Lame Bull Treaty were specifically terminated after 99 years. I.e. 1954. Thus, the common hunting area does not exist.
Furthermore the 1855 Treaty limited the Blackfeet ceded lands to an area north of the Missouri River, clearly not anyplace near Gardiner. Nevertheless, the 99-year extirpation of the treaty even makes this a moot point.
The 1855 Lame Bull Treaty has a defined common hunting ground that some tribal advocates suggest gives tribes the right to hunt by Gardiner. A couple of points must be considered. First, the “common hunting ground” may not include Yellowstone NP as it defines the boundary as the “North” branch of the Yellowstone.
Furthermore, the treaty had a 99-year termination. I.e. the common hunting ground was extinguished in 1954. Moreover, the only signatories to the treaty from west of the mountains were the Flathead and Nez Perce tribes. Tribes like Yakima, Umatilla, etc. were not part of the treaty.
Here’s the original treaty information. Note the 99 year termination.
Blackfoot territory recognized as common hunting ground.
The Blackfoot Nation consent and agree that all that portion of the country recognized and defined by the treaty of Laramie as Blackfoot territory, lying within lines drawn from the Hell Gate or Medicine Rock Passes in the main range of the Rocky Mountains, in an easterly direction to the nearest source of the Muscle Shell River, thence to the mouth of Twenty-five Yard Creek, thence up the Yellowstone River to its northern source, and thence along the main range of the Rocky Mountains, in a northerly direction, to the point of beginning, shall be a common hunting-ground for ninety-nine years, where all the nations, tribes and bands of Indians, parties to this treaty, may enjoy equal and uninterupted privileges of hunting, fishing and gathering fruit, grazing animals, curing meat and dressing robes. They further agree that they will not establish villages, or in any other way exercise exclusive rights within ten miles of the northern line of the common hunting-ground, and that the parties to this treaty may hunt on said northern boundary line and within ten miles thereof.
Provided, That the western Indians, parties to this treaty, may hunt on the trail leading down the Muscle Shell to the Yellowstone; the Muscle Shell River being the boundary separating the Blackfoot from the Crow territory.
No settlements to be made thereon.
And provided, That no nation, band, or tribe of Indians, parties to this treaty, nor any other Indians, shall be permitted to establish permanent settlements, or in any other way exercise, during the period above mentioned, exclusive rights or privileges within the limits of the above-described hunting-ground.
Vested rights not affected.
And provided further, That the rights of the western Indians to a whole or a part of the common hunting-ground, derived from occupancy and possession, shall not be affected by this article, except so far as said rights may be determined by the treaty of Laramie.
Also the hunting ground defined here does not include the Upper Yellowstone. The treaty describes what was the main hunting trail for buffalo hunters coming across the mountains to the plains. The usual route started at Hells Gate which is the Clark Fork by Missoula, then up the Blackfoot River and over Rogers Pass to headwaters of the Musselshell which is near White Sulphur Springs and Little Belt Mts. From the Musselshell the treaty says thence to the mouth of Twenty-Five Yard Creek which is the Shield’s River by Livingston (https://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/7094/31762101682753.pdf;sequence=1)and then along the Yellowstone to its “NORTHERN” SOURCE.
We suspect reference to the “Northern Source” means up the Shields River to the Rockies (i.e. like the Big Belts, etc.) and back to Hells Gate. In other words, even if there were not a 99 year termination, it would not include the Yellowstone area as best as I can determine from the treaty wording.
This is especially true if you know the usual route that tribes traveled to hunt on the plains. They did not go south to Yellowstone. They wanted to hunt on the plains between the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.
Furthermore, I have another map that shows the “ceded’ territories and no tribe has ceded territory in SW Montana. This was judicially determined in 1978 and is from the Library of Congress.
DIRECTIVE FOR CO-MANAGEMENT.
We are also concerned that the NPS decision to give tribal entities greater oversight, collaboration and management is contrary to the Constitution. It creates a special category of people based solely on race.
For instance, the DEIS suggests: “The NPS has collaborated with several tribes associated with YNP and the ITBC through agreements and other avenues to benefit their interests. These collaborations have included involving tribes as partners in the management of Yellowstone bison; coordinating with tribes that hunt bison on National Forest System lands adjacent to the park to reduce the effects of capture operations on hunting opportunities; and expanding the BCTP to identify more brucellosis-free bison and transfer them to tribes for restoration on their lands. The NPS would continue to collaborate with tribes and the ITBC on these issues, as well as the composition and distribution of bison captured for the BCTP, the processing of bison killed at Stephens Creek Administrative Area, the creation of new quarantine and terminal pastures for Yellowstone bison, the testing of bison in the BCTP to improve effectiveness and shorten timelines, the involvement of tribal interns in bison management, and the implementation of lower-stress handling techniques with captured bison to reduce trauma. These collaborations may be implemented through cooperative agreements or other appropriate avenues.”
While this is perhaps beyond the scope of this document, the assertion that tribal governments should be given any special priority over federal land management may be illegal. Such a proposal is based on race and would seem to be against anti-discrimination laws.
The Custer Gallatin NF in its forest plan suggests the tribes have treaty rights to hunt on the CGNF. However, when queried by the Gallatin Wildlife Federation FOIA on the Forest Service acknowledges that they could nothing justify the hunting of bison.
The FS wrote:
No records were found for data that records which tribes took bison, when they were taken, and the total number removed. And there were no Executive Orders empowering the tribes to hunt.
No records were found or statures other than treaties that empower tribes to hunt.
No records were found of the number of tribes authorized to authorized by YNP to hunt Yellowstone bison.
Finally, no records were found that “prove” rights to hunt. The CGNF acknowledge and approve treaty rights, however, they do not have any evidence that such treaty rights exist for the area around the Gardiner basin.
However, the FS, apparently like YNP, has not independently attempted to determine whether tribes have a treaty right to hunt just outside of Gardiner.
TRIBAL CULTURE AND NEED QUESTIONED
While beyond the scope of this document, WBRC believes that the excuse given by the tribes that the slaughter of Yellowstone bison sustains their culture is disingenuous. We know it is risky questioning someone else’s values, but given that tribal members arrive in expensive pickups, use ATVS, high powered rifles, stay in hotels, etc. the argument that merely killing bison sustains their “culture” is questionable.
Similarly, the idea that any tribe has to kill bison, much less Yellowstone bison which are globally significant, can also be disputed. There are plenty of other opportunities to kill bison on private ranchers, and existing tribal bison herds. Plus, hunting of other wildlife like elk on ceded lands and on existing reservations also provides sources for killing wild game.
In other parts of the world, where existence is far more tenuous than in the United States, countries have outlawed the slaughter of wildlife (gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, etc.) even though local native people traditionally killed them.
It would behoove the United States and in particular, the premier federal agency (NPS) to begin to articulate why Yellowstone bison deserve protection from all sources of human mortality.
ECOLOGICAL AND EVOLUTIONARY IMPACTS OF BISON REMOVAL
The WBRC is concerned that the DEIS fails to fully disclose the continued and potential risks to Yellowstone bison and the ecological integrity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
WBRC is pleased to see that the NPS and the CGNF recognize the need and desire to establish free roaming bison on other federal lands (USFS). 2015). The Custer Gallatin National Forest recently issued a Land Management Plan that allows for expanded tolerance of bison on the national forest, including a desired condition to have a self-sustaining population of bison on the forest year-round (USDA, USFS 2022). Allowing bison to occupy more public lands would create new opportunities for hunting, bolster tourism, and enhance conservation.
However, this is nothing more than lip service if the tribal hunting and other removal programs are continued.
The NPS is shrinking its duties to protect Yellowstone’s bison by washing its hand of any control over what happens to bison if they leave Yellowstone Park (page 14). “ However, the NPS would continue to have no authority or jurisdiction over when, where, and how hunter harvests of wildlife occur outside the park.”
While the NPS may have no authority and we even question this assumption, it can voice its objections.
For instance, back in the 1990s there were plans to develop geothermal projects outside of the Park, but the NPS objected, arguing that such development may jeopardize the park’s thermal features. The NPS made similar objections to a proposed gold mine outside of Cooke City, Montana.
An argument could be made that the way bison are killed outside of the park jeopardizes the ecological integrity of the park. More on this later, but killing bison removes the biomass from park carrion and predators. It may have genetic implications over time. It short circuits the cultural knowledge of migration by removing those bison more likely to colonize other lands.
In addition, per statute and policy, the NPS does not manage for minimum numbers of wildlife but, rather, to sustain populations in their natural condition, which was defined as “the condition of resources that would occur in the absence of human dominance over the landscape” (USDOI, NPS 2006a; 16 USC 21 et seq., 17 Stat. 32; 54 USC 100101a,b).
Thus, to the extent feasible, the NPS would allow bison and other wildlife to move freely and unpursued within the interior of the park, with their behaviors, movements, reproductive success, and survival primarily affected by their decisions and natural selection (White et al. 2013a; White 2016).
As recognized in this document, the NPS suggests that bison should be allowed to survive in the absence of significant human manipulation. But the hunting outside of the park conflicts with this goal. The NPS cannot simply ignore these impacts.
CARRION AND ENDANGERED SPECIES
In its DEIS the NPS did not evaluate the impact on endangered species of bison removal. For instance, in the DEIS, the document reports that 25% of the diet of wolves is bison. Similarly, a grizzly coming out of hibernation and finding a bison carcass is like winning the lottery. Wolverine, fox, coyote, raven, eagle, and other wildlife also depend on this food source. Obviously, removal of 40% of the bison has serious impacts on prey for wolves, grizzlies and other wildlife in the park ecosystem.
WBRC is pleased to see the NPS acknowledges that it should maintain natural sex ratios, and sufficient numbers to maintain genetic diversity.
The NPS appears to be relying on Hedrick 2009 for genetic principles.
A geneticist consulted says the 2009 paper is obsolete and out of date. Much has occurred with regards to genetics and minimum population requirements since 2009. I have consulted several geneticists who feel that a minimum population of 3000 bison as desired by the NPS may be too limited.
One authority recommended 10,000 bison should be the long-term goal in or adjacent to the Park (i.e. a breeding population) and another said, there is no minimum as all these bison have incredible genetic value due to their long term influences of evolutionary pressures. I’m not an expert on genetics, but it might be a good idea for the NPS to solicit a few more genetic studies.
We believe the NPS should do a new review of genetics and ideas about minimum population.
As far as can be determined the NPS has failed to review the impact of hunting and other removal techniques on migration. Migration is culturally learned. However, every year, the bison most likely to migrate are removed from the population. Loss of migration impacts the long term “wildness” of bison which the NPS is supposed to preserve.
We agree with the document’s ecological goals, but I feel that the hunting outside of the park boundaries may jeopardize these goals.
The goals as stated are:
“The NPS would manage for the following ecological objectives:
Sustain the Role of Bison as Ecosystem Engineers: To the extent feasible, the NPS would allow bison to move unfettered in the interior of YNP so they can fulfill their ecological role. When bison roam without human constraints, they begin to engineer the landscape as described by Geremia et al. (2019, 2022).
Maintain Functional Grasslands: The NPS would strive to maintain functional grassland and sage-steppe communities. Plant communities would vary widely in their appearance and composition depending on differences in soil and weather conditions, land use and management histories, and historic and current grazing intensities. Many communities would include invasive plants due to their previous spread. Ungulates would graze some areas intensely and others lightly, thereby providing a mosaic of conditions across the landscape to support a variety of plants and animals. However, each community should still maintain plant productivity, soil organic matter, and functioning energy, nutrient, and water cycles Geremia and Hamilton 2019, 2022).
Sustain Bison as a Meaningful Component of the Food Web Influencing Energy and Nutrient Transfer through the Ecosystem: To the extent feasible, the NPS would manage bison with minimal intervention in the interior of YNP, so bison continue to provide a key food source for species ranging from wolves to magpies to beetles and bacteria in the soil that redistribute nutrients across the landscape (Wallen et al. 2015a). Bison carcasses contribute to nutrient surges that greatly enhance the productivity of nearby plants. Carcasses of bison dying from injuries or malnutrition could continue to provide about 25% of the meat wolves eat during winter. This scavenging has reduced predation on elk during winter from about 18 elk per wolf per year (based on kill rates during winter) to about 12 elk per wolf per year (Metz et al. 2020a,b).”
However, we do not see how the NPS can achieve these goals when tribal and other hunting is removing such large numbers of bison from the ecosystem. And I do not see any stated mechanism that would ensure that these goals are maintained.
The NPS needs to provide a mechanism that supports these goals. Killing and removing much of the Yellowstone bison herd either by agency actions or through tribal hunting does not protect these valuable ecosystem and evolutionary goals.
In addition, the NPS needs to do more research on the long term genetic impacts of continuous bison removal. Bison, are, a tournament species with a small number of bulls doing the majority of breeding. What is the long term consequences of continuous population decline and bison removal? In the DEIS the NPS suggests the Park could sustain 10,000 bison. Perhaps a better measure might be how many bison are necessary to sustain long term genetic viability. This could be accomplished if there were other small herds on public lands that were part of a meta population.
YELLOWSTONE BISON BELONG TO ALL AMERICANS
Page 23 The document suggests it will continue to transfer brucellosis free bison to Fort Peck. This is essentially a privatization of public property. These animals belong to all Americans. Once on reservations, the American people no longer have any control or ownership of these bison.
We maintain the NPS has an obligation to keep public bison public!
Has the NPS seriously reviewed the potential for transfer to other state and federal lands? I.e. Charles M. Russell NWR, Little Missouri National Grasslands/Theordore Roosevelt NP, Red Desert, Wyoming, and elsewhere within the historic range of bison.
The Federal government has the authority to override state regulations or prohibitions. Shipping Yellowstone bison to tribal lands without fully exploring the opportunities for transfer to other federal lands where the American people would have full access to the bison is needed.
The NPS proposal Alt. 3 is an improvement over current policy. WBRC supports Alt. 3, but has reservations about some of the underlying assumptions, in particular, that any tribes have a “treaty rights” to hunt by Gardiner, Montana.
We feel the NPS needs to articulate in greater detail and forcefulness the ecological and global significance of the Yellowstone bison herd. These are not just any old bison but are among the least manipulated bison in the United States. As such EVERY single bison has ecological and evolutionary value.
Furthermore, Yellowstone bison belong to all Americans. Transfer to Indian reservations or permitting significant slaughter by Indian tribes is not protecting and preserving Yellowstone bison for all Americans.
While the NPS articulates all the valuable ecological and ecosystem functions that bison perform or create, the proposed plan, by relying on removal of significant numbers of bison outside of the park whether through removal to reservations or by killing near the Park boundaries is counter to the expressed goals of maintaining these evolutionary and ecosystem values.
The DEIS is deficient in that it fails to analyze the long-term ecosystem harm caused by continuous bison removal either by agency action (i.e. slaughter, test or tribal transfer) as well as human slaughter on park boundaries. Merely articulating that bison have ecological and ecosystem value is not the same as expressing how the NPS will preserve these values.
George Wuerthner, President
Wild Bison Restoration Council
P.O. Box 5317, Bozeman, MT 59717
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
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