Tribal Rhetoric-Bison Realities

Tribal bison carnage near Yellowstone NP border last winter. 

Last week, 11 tribes gathered in Fort Hall, Idaho, to discuss “stewardship” of Yellowstone bison. Representative tribes included Shoshone, Ute, Crow, Arapahoe, Northern Cheyenne, Cree, Nez Perce, and Lakota/Dakota. According to the Buffalo Field Campaign announcement, the tribes all supported the “sacredness” of Yellowstone’s bison and efforts to protect their “relatives.”

I encourage people to view this stream of blood video to see the tribe’s sacred attitude.

Tribal members loading dead bison into pick up trucks, “preserving their cultural traditions”. Photo George Wuerthner 

The tribes asserted the “right” of bison to roam freely, but all their policies and actions have the opposite effect.

Unfortunately, tribal entities and their advocates like the Buffalo Field Campaign put their human self-interest before that of the bison.  They display anthropocentric behavior instead of biocentric practices.

Last winter, tribal members slaughtered more than 1100 Yellowstone bison, not to mention other wildlife like elk and bighorn. Is this how you demonstrate “sacredness”?

Tribal advocates are more concerned about tribal presumed “rights” than the rights and welfare of Yellowstone’s bison. Remember that Yellowstone’s bison are the least domesticated of any bison in the U.S. They are of international significance. For this reason, they have been petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The killing of Yellowstone bison has numerous ecological impacts that tribal groups and their supporters, the Buffalo Field Campaign, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and National Parks and Conservation, among many other organizations, ignore.

Unlike natural predators, which primarily take the weak and young, tribal hunters slaughter entire family groups of bison that wander from the protective borders of Yellowstone Park.

Bald and golden eagles feeding on hunter killed carcasses are suffering from lead poisoning due to the lead bullets in the dead animals. Photo George Wuerthner

The removal of bison from the park’s ecosystem is taking food from the mouths of the Greater Yellowstone’s Ecosystem wildlife. Grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, and other wildlife feed on dead bison. Lead bullets left in carcasses are eaten by wildlife like eagles which are known to suffer from lead poisoning.

Coyotes feeding on dead bison. By removal of large numbers of bison through tribal hunting, fewer bison will succumb to starvation, disease or other evolutionary factors thus eliminating an important source of food for ecosystem wildlife. Photo George Wuerthner 

One could even argue that removing large numbers of bison harms grizzly bear recovery. A sow grizzly with cubs finding one dead bison carcass is like winning the lottery.

Plus, by reducing the population of Yellowstone’s bison, tribal hunters interfere with natural evolutionary processes that influence bison survival, such as harsh winters, starvation, native predation, and other evolutionary factors that would operate on bison populations.

They are also removing the ecological influence of bison herds on Yellowstone’s vegetation.

Mobility is a major evolutionary adaptation of bison for survival–tribal hunting by killng bison removes the bison most likely to migrate. Photo George Wuerthner 

Mobility is the bison’s more important evolutionary trait for survival, and tribal hunters are killing the animals most likely to migrate, removing that evolutionary trait from the population.

All of these factors are turning wild bison into “hatchery bison.”

Tribal ideas about stewardship are all about their self-interest.

Worse for the bison, the killing of Yellowstone bison is based on a flawed interpretation of treaties. I cannot go into details here, but tribes assert that treaties give them the “right” to slaughter Yellowstone’s bison. But carefully reading those treaties and legal interpretations raises questions about the presumed treaty authority to butcher internationally significant Yellowstone bison herds.

The tribal conference acknowledged that tribal treaties and aboriginal connections retain rights to hunt, gather, and fish on unclaimed or ceded land—but neglected to note that no tribe has CEDED LANDS by the North Entrance of Yellowstone by Gardiner.  You can read more on the Herrera Vs. Wyoming case which describes off reservation hunting on “ceded lands.”

Map showing “ceded” lands. Note the big white area north of Yellowstone Park where no tribe has treaty ceded lands.

Tribes try to side-step this by asserting that treaties allow them to hunt in the “usual and accustomed” locations. But this only applies to Columbia River tribes, and count decisions limit this to off-reservation fishing sites. It also requires that tribes be able to show they had exclusive use of the sites for an “extended period of time.”

No tribe can show they have hunted bison near Gardiner for exclusive use and extended periods of time.

Finally, the 1855 treaty with the Blackfeet and several other tribes had a 99-year termination, meaning those treaty terms no longer apply. See my article here for more details about court rulings and treaty wording.

Heads of slain bison. Photo George Wuerthner

Tribal slaughter implements the state of Montana’s irrational bison policies that treat bison as persona non gratis, saving the state’s livestock industry from the public outrage that would ensue if the state were to slaughter more than a thousand Yellowstone bison.

The tribes suggest in their announcement that they support the “rights of free-roaming wild buffalo.” Still, in slaughtering nearly every bison that leaves Yellowstone Park, they are doing precisely the opposite.

Instead, the selective evolutionary pressures tribes impose on bison is a form of domestication. It thwarts free-roaming by bison and subjects them to numerous artificial selective practices that destroy “wildness” in bison.

Tribal behavior fails to live up to their rhetoric, and the reality for bison is horror.

To support free-roaming bison organizations, please join Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition, Roam Free Nation, Yellowstone Voices, and Gallatin Wildlife Association.


  1. Selina Sweet Avatar
    Selina Sweet

    So what can I do?

  2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Makes sense to me! The idea that only the bison that feel the need to migrate are being slaughtered? How much of our wildlife does that pertain to? Wolves, grizzlies, coyotes – not only predators – caribou, elk – so the ones who have the natural urge to migrate – to move to a better habitat, to find a mate outside of their own genetics? THESE are the animals that are being eradicated. Domesticated? – no – dominated!!!
    This has changed my feelings for the Buffalo Field Campaign. I believe that caring for the Buffalo means more than changing who slaughters them!

  3. steve kelly Avatar
    steve kelly

    U.S. government (still) ‘owns’ the land….. “plenary powers”… See: 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh

    “The Vatican March 30, 2023 statement on the Doctrine of Discovery heightens awareness of the roots of the patterns of domination found in the Vatican papal bulls that were adopted into United States law in the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh, two hundred years ago this year. Evidence of those religious domination patterns is found in the distinction made in the Johnson ruling by Chief Justice John Marshall between “Christian people” and “natives, who were heathens,” and in his claim of United States “ultimate dominion” [domination]” over “heathen” Native nations and their lands. The U.S. Supreme Court has made the 15th century claims of a right of domination foundational to U.S. federal anti-Indian law and policy, and the claim of the “plenary power” of Congress over “Indians.” This must be changed if there is to be any rightful relationship between the descendants of the colonizers and Indigenous nations and peoples today.”
    See: Revoke the Papal Bulls – ORIGINAL FREE NATIONS

  4. Mary Avatar

    These details are so sad to know. Anyone who read the New York Times this year saw a story about the native people’s Bison slaughter.

    “Unlike natural predators, which primarily take the weak and young, tribal hunters slaughter entire family groups of bison that wander from the protective borders of Yellowstone Park.”

    Wouldn’t it make more sense if this ‘historically cultural’ activity was done in a historically cultural way: using historically cultural weapons and transportation, and without GPS, telephones, etc.?

    Since family groups are being killed in this manner, doesn’t it makes sense to impose a rule that weak and sick animals of non-breeding age be killed?

    Since the dead bison provide food for other predators in the ecosystem, should ecological study determine what the acceptable number of weak, sick, and nonbreeding animals may be killed each year?

  5. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    So this is how these tribes treat “sacred” animals? This isn’t even fair chase hunting. It’s senseless slaughter, period. And I have lost all respect for Buffalo Field Campaign for supporting this morally bankrupt bloodbath. Yellowstone’s bison deserve to be treated with reverence and respect. Neither these tribes nor BFC seem to know the meaning of these words. Indeed, these so-called hunts are disgraceful, despicable, and reprehensible.

  6. Glenn Monahan Avatar
    Glenn Monahan

    The “HUNT”:

    A bunch of dudes show up in expensive, tricked out, late model pickups.

    They go into Gardiner and get hotel rooms, where they comfortably spend each night in a warm bed before going out for the “sacred”, “traditional” hunt.

    They eat breakfast and dinner in restaurants run by colonialists.

    After shooting a bison at point blank range, they stand around and watch it writhe in agony as it bleeds to death – no bullets wasted on a coup de grace.

    Use snowmobiles, ATVs, or horses to drag the dead bison to the tricked out pickups, many of which are equipped with high tech winches for hauling away the sacred meat.

    Drive back to the res in expensive, tricked out, late model pickup, and commiserate about how good things were back in the old days.

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    We don’t live in the same world anymore, we can’t go back to the past. Hunting methods are far from traditional, as others have mentioned, and not every Native person holds to the same traditional values, which isn’t their fault, of course, due to colonialism’s influence.

    But this is the problem with this way of thinking. I can’t even comprehend killing more than 1,100 animals these days. It’s a total disaster. Doesn’t anyone consider science in the equation? Bison are or should be sacred to every American, our own native animals.

    Anyone who has abandoned their core values like this I will not support. High Country News, Buffalo Field Campaign, etc.

    It’s obvious that not allowing bison to migrate would be in the best interest of cattle ranchers too.

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I should say that it is the broad, sweeping generalization of the Native American being the natural stewards of the land that isn’t always true, and what used to be dismissed as a stereotype by Native people back in the day.

    But for some reason has made its way back again. In trying to make up for the past, the wildlife will be the losers, again, when we put the needs of humans first.

    Some tribes do and have done a fantastic job, others do not. We shouldn’t just make a broad generalization.

  9. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Is anyone looking into verifying/challenging the treaty rights if they are in question? You know that if it did not benefit the ranchers, they’d be all over it.


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.

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George Wuerthner