Bison Transfer: A Crime Against Wild Bison

Yellowstone bison are part of the global wildlife heritage. Photo George Wuerthner

A week ago, 116 bison captured in Yellowstone National Park were transferred to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation as part of the Bison Relocation Program. Since 2019, 414 Yellowstone bison have been transferred to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes at Fort Peck. Many of these bison are later distributed to 26 Tribes in partnership with the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

This process of removing public wildlife and privatization to tribes has gotten little review or opposition from wildlife advocates. But there are reasons to object to the process.


Bison wander through the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

Yellowstone bison are the least manipulated buffalo in the West. They are subject to natural selection by ecosystem processes like predators, harsh winters, natural breeding patterns, and social patterns.

These bison are an international treasure. The fact that they are regularly killed when they leave Yellowstone National Park and their removal from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a national tragedy.

Yellowstone bison are part of the nation’s patrimony and heritage. These animals belong to all Americans and are of international significance.

Most people celebrate the transfer of bison, and perhaps it is better than the other option of allowing the Montana Dept of Livestock and tribal people to slaughter bison that wander out of Yellowstone National Park. However, in many cases, the bison that ultimately end up on a reservation may be and are sometimes killed anyway.

For instance, the Fort Peck Tribe bison are housed on a 15,000 acre “ranch” (yes they call it that) that does not permit bison to move freely and exercise natural tendencies like migration.

The tribe also advertises that one can kill a bison for $3500. These are bison they get from Americans for free and exploit for profit. But that is not the greatest problem faced by bison.


The transfer to tribal reservation is not “saving” bison. It is a domestication program. Again, no one is willing to admit this. I continuously hear from the media and so-called conservation groups that tribes are “saving” bison.

No evidence exists that tribal management on reservations is geared toward preserving and enhancing bison wildness. Indeed, the opposite is apparent.

All deceptively named “conservation herds,” including bison on Indian reservations or private ranches, are being artificially manipulated to one degree or another. Bison are regularly fed in the winter; native predators are killed to protect the animals; animals are selectively bred; overly aggressive males are often removed (the very animals that would protect wild bison); and inbreeding issues are due to small populations and other issues.

These transfers are justified based on cultural preservation or to atone for past injustices suffered by tribal people. An inconvenient truth seldom acknowledged that tribal hide hunting in the 1800s led to the demise of bison across much of the West.

However, cultural preservation does not preserve wild bison. Cultural preservation is about people, not about what is best for bison. These policies promote an injustice against bison nature.

The domestication of bison on reservations and elsewhere is no different than the building of salmon hatcheries to increase fish run to give the delusion that wild salmon are being “saved” as they continue to decline, partly due to interbreeding with hatchery fish.

Bison calves in Yellowstone where bison are subject to natural evolutionary processes. Photo George Wuerthner 

A further problem is that these bison are public property (if there is such a thing as wildlife being the property of anyone). The current bison transfer policies are in effect a privatization of PUBLIC wildlife. Indian reservations are essentially private property. The transfer of public animals to reservations (or any other private individuals or organizations) is a giveaway of valuable wildlife.

For instance, Ted Turner received some Yellowstone bison in 2010. Ironically the tribes opposed that transfer.

Would most people accept transferring the trees in Yellowstone to private timber companies or relocation of grizzlies and wolves out of the park? I suspect not.

The Missouri River in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

If bison are to be transferred anywhere, these public animals should be placed on other public lands like the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, Upper Green River and Red Desert of Wyoming, and the Birch Creek Valley of Idaho, to name a few locations.


And this gets to the heart of the matter. Bison transfer allows everyone to avoid the elephant in the room. It is a violation of the public trust.

Migration is one of the major adaptations of wild bison–an adaptation being eliminated by domestication and the killing/caputre of bison near Yellowstone’s border. Photo George Wuerthner 

Wild bison in Yellowstone should be permitted to migrate onto other public lands surrounding the park without being slaughtered or at the least be placed on public holdings elsewhere in the West. There is plenty of bison habitat on national forests surrounding Yellowstone that could serve as additional habitat for wild bison.


However, the use of those lands is presently blocked by questionable legal assertions by the state of Montana that prohibit untested bison (for brucellosis) from wandering into the state. The state of Montana has no authority to block bison from other federal lands due to the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

Ranchers use an excuse for the brucellosis infection to keep bison bottled up in the park. Brucellosis can cause abortion in cattle, but thus far, there is not one documented infection of any cattle herds surrounding Yellowstone resulting from wild bison. There are numerous examples of elk infecting cattle herds—yet elk are not bottled up in Yellowstone and are free to migrate from the park.


The second barrier is the “lead fence” created by tribal gunners who wait for any unsuspecting animals to wander over the imaginary line that separates Yellowstone from the Custer Gallatin NF lands beyond the park boundary.

Bison near Gardiner are subject to slaughter by both tribal members as well as a few non-Indians. Photo George Wuerthner 

Last year, more than 1100 bison were killed by tribal members. I do not refer to them as hunters. In this brutality, tribal people are doing the dirty work of the livestock industry. If they were not slaughtering bison, the livestock industry would be forced to kill the animals, and the resulting bad publicity is something the ranchers wish to avoid. Thankfully for them, there are some tribes (not all tribes support the bison kill) quite willing to slaughter bison, saving the industry from the black eye that would invariably result.

The tribes argue they have treaty rights to kill bison. Others have questioned that assertion.

It is worth noting that none of the so-called conservation groups in the area, like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), has condemned the slaughter and has not bothered to do an in-depth analysis of the presumed treaty rights. You can learn more here.

In fact, GYC in effect is facilitating the capture and transfer of bison by donating money for a larger holding pen.

Beyond the issue of whether the tribal bison slaughter is illegal, both tribal groups and groups, like GYC, do not denounce the carnage. See the video here to see what they are unwilling to condemn.

Both the tribes and organizations like GYC, Yellowstone Forever, Buffalo Field Campaign, and other organizations are unwilling to call out tribal bison massacre and fail to articulate the multiple ways that killing bison harms the wild bison genome. I detail more of this here, but the fundamental issue is that killing roaming animals destroys the tendency to migrate, which is one of the significant ecological adaptations of wild bison.


If you care about wild bison, you should support the  Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition (I am a board member), Roam Free Nation, Yellowstone Voices, Alliance for Wild Rockies and the Gallatin Wildlife Association. All of these organizations, in one way or another, condemn the unnecessary killing of Yellowstone’s wild bison and support the creation of other public lands bison herds.


  1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    As usual, I agree with George, with the following nitpicks:

    “A further problem is that these bison are public property (if there is such a thing as wildlife being the property of anyone).”

    No, there isn’t. The bison belong to themselves and no one else. Reminds me of when people would ask, “is that your horse?” My response was always, “no, he’s his own horse.”

    “This process of removing public wildlife and privatization to tribes has gotten little review or opposition from wildlife advocates. But there are reasons to object to the process.”

    The problem is the removal of native wildlife. What’s done with the bison after that is totally secondary. The bison should be left alone, period.

    “Indian reservations are essentially private property.”

    No, they’re not. The Natives here had no concept of land ownership until the colonizers brought that mental disease here. I can see why someone from the colonizer culture thinks this way, but be careful not be ethnocentric.

  2. Martha S Bibb Avatar
    Martha S Bibb

    Oh how depressing. Is there no safe place for our native animals

  3. Martha Hall Avatar
    Martha Hall

    I just heard this year that the Nature Conservancy is helping with transfer of bison to a reservation in NE WA State that once hunted wild bison. An article in a recent Nature Conservancy Newsletter said that these bison are then used by the tribe for food for themselves, and some of the meat is shared with others. This article all of the bison would be killed during the next year for this use. The Nature Conservancy thought it was great that they are helping with this. When I tried to talk with this organization, they defended this treatment of wild Yellowstone bison and said it was important to work with the tribes. I told them that I will no longer donate money to the Nature Conservancy because of this misguided program. I love the wild bison and I believe they have a right to roam free on our public lands. Splitting up bison families and treating bison as farm animals to be killed for meat is not respecting and honoring the wild bison that once roamed freely across much of the west.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      That’s not a bit surprising. The Nature Conservancy is one of the most sellout environmental groups around. Glad you’re going to stop donating to them. The Rewilding Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, and whatever group Captain Paul Watson is now heading are all MUCH better uses of your donations.

    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I don’t blame you, I will not donate to any group that supports this. This is certainly not what I thought would happen for the ‘care of our bison’. Turned into a trophy hunt! Or maybe it is what I was deeply afraid of.

      We almost lost them once, and I don’t want to see that happen again.

      1. Martha Hall Avatar
        Martha Hall

        When these Yellowstone bison go to Native Americans, too many are being managed as farm animals. They are trucked to new locations and kept in fenced pastures until they are killed for their meat. These bison do not deserve this lack of respect and honor. That this is happening when these bison are given to Native Americans is especially disturbing because of the propaganda we hear about Native Americans. I’m sure that all of the Tribal Nations and/or their members are not on the same page on this issue. My government often does things I do not support. But for bison, the bottom line is how they are being treated. I once donated to the Buffalo Field Campaign too because of their efforts to prevent bison deaths on the highway near West Yellowstone. Many overpasses and other safe crossings are needed. However they too will not speak up and oppose this bison program. Same with Yellowstone Forever which raises money for this program. It is hard to understand how people in these groups can live with themselves and not speak up about this program. I know they care about bison too. This program could change if there was enough opposition and a lack of funding for how it is currently run.

        1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          In politics (and often if not usually in life too), your priorities are more important than which side you’re on. If your priorities are wrong, you’ll switch sides and end up on the wrong side of issues. That’s what happened to the Buffalo Field Campaign regarding this issue: they prioritized liberal politics over wildlife, simple as that.

          The vast majority of humans are human supremacists, aka anthropocentric. They will always choose humans over other forms of life, regardless of which humans that turns out to be. Apparently, the Buffalo Field Campaign people are not Earth First!ers, where we say that ALL species have an equal right to life.

  4. sherry collisi Avatar

    Same as the wildhorses. Public property and being taken to slaughter.Our Congress will not abide by the law. We have no rights tour wildlife or lands. Our rights are taken daily. The Whitehouse should burn to the ground. My Opinion

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Well, we have the best government money can buy, and the rich bought it a long time ago (though that’s gotten a lot worse over the past 40-50 years). I was taught in Political Science 101 decades ago that the ruling class runs things, and the politicians merely do their bidding. For public lands, that means fossil fuel, mining, logging, ranching, and concessions operators, to name the main ones.

      And you’re right, we DO need a revolution in this country to totally reverse this. We’re never going to get anything substantial and good from the corrupt and rigged electoral process. But consider what the priorities are for the large majority of people, and you’ll see that we’re in a very small minority. If a revolution were to happen in the U.S., it would almost certainly be from something like the hardcore anti-environment Sagebrush Rebellion jerks, not from people like us. Sorry, other than people evolving mentally and spiritually (NOT religiously), I don’t have a solution for this.

  5. Anotherview Avatar

    Hmm – mixed feelings on the bison transfer. I agree that I would prefer the bison get a chance to roam outside YNP. However, the bison were decimated by colonizers and the restoration of their lands with wild bison is just and beneficial to the landscape. Tribal nations deserve bison with wild genetics. How many places can you get them? If they had to wait for natural repopulation to occur, that would take decades and their lands would further degrade. Now, instead of shooting them, they should ban the cull hunt and relocate smaller numbers to manage genetic diversity for the larger population.

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Why do tribal nations deserve bison with wild genetics? Are they some kind of higher being or god? Especially since they are killing them off, not protecting them, no different now than European colonists with the same view of wildlife – disposable and only of use.

    Driving them off cliffs, or the if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em for buffalo hides really isn’t very admirable either. We humans are all the same.

    The bison genetics need to be protected, yes, first and foremost, from us, all of us. The country is not what is was even 200 years ago.

    1. Martha Hall Avatar
      Martha Hall

      I just don’t understand why anyone who really cares about wild bison herds is supporting this program. Some transfers maybe have been used as a way to establish wild, free-roaming herds, but too many others are not. Are there not enough lands where bison can roam free for the bison who become part of this program?

      I know a couple when to the Yakima Nation in my state. Why? It is unlikely that bison herds will again roam freely in that part of WA State. Our state has a hard time keeping elk herds because of development and ag lands cover most of the winter habitat. Our state feeds some of the elk in the winter to keep elk from ag lands. The bison sent to NE WA are not farmed animals waiting to be slaughtered for meat over the next year for tribal and non-tribal friends. This plan makes me wonder if this Tribe will get another shipment with the help of nature Conservancy next year, and yearly. Where are the available lands where bison can really roam free and evolve in a natural way?

      I’ve also seen how bison families are as attached as our own and those of wolves. The kids often stay with mom for a long time. Mom is quick to tell older offspring what to do, sometimes the two and three year-olds. Bison groups share and transmit a culture and a knowledge of how to survive and deal with different challenges such as safe migration routes. I’ve seen older bulls chase wolves away from a calf they have killed and pay tribute to a fallen family member. Respecting their way of life and their culture does not seem to matter. Like always, this is all about human rights to do whatever we want. Many tribes and states in the U.S. and in Africa had slaves and this worked well. Europe had serfs. Bison politics seems to be all about respecting the rights of one group of humans over those of another group of humans and over those of non-humans who are always the losers in these battles. It bothers me a lot that so many people and groups refuse to be honest and tell the truth. Pretending this is about respecting bison adds another problem.

      1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        As to habitat, in Earth First! we always prioritized that. If there’s no or insufficient habitat, there’s no wildlife. But between agriculture and gross human overpopulation, there’s relatively very little native habitat left. We need to greatly lower our population, which would take hundreds of years even with a global one-child-family policy, eliminate animal agriculture — which is what destroys most natural lands, between the animals and the feed grown for them — and stop eating so damn much meat (two or three times per month is plenty). THAT’s how we could restore native habitat so that large animals like bison can have an adequate amount of room to live. Anything short of that is just playing games.

        As to people pretending to respect and/or love wild animals while doing harmful things to them, I fully agree. If you’re killing an animal to eat it, just be honest about doing that, and don’t call the members of the species your cousins or any other such BS. We all have to kill to eat, whether it’s plants, animals, mushrooms, or whatever, and we don’t need to apologize for that or pretend that we do so out of respect for what we’re killing. We’re just killing to survive. That doesn’t mean that we can’t love and respect the species in a certain way also, but none of what I’ve heard from Natives feels right or even honest about this.

      2. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Isn’t that something. When I visited Yellowstone I saw that the bison seemed to be very gentle with their young. Just a little nudge of the head.

        I wasn’t sure if it was male or female, because they both have horns, and I think only the females are with young?

        It’s dismaying that people don’t allow for this or want to recognize it in other life.

        But what a beautiful place, and we need to value these magnificent animals.

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Dream on, is what I say – for all of this trying to return to some idyllic time in the past. It can’t be done. We have to work with what we realistically have in the present, and there isn’t much left.

    People don’t seem capable of understanding that extinction is a very real possibility for much of our wildlife, and without laws for protection, I am not optimistic that their minds can ever be changed. I was very worried that well-meaning but naive people would inadvertently make things worse. This is a prime example.

    I do support trying to fix the many wrongs of the past where possible, but no give-away programs for wildlife, ever.

    1. Anotherview Avatar

      I get what you’re saying to a point. But the tribes don’t kill all the bison… they are establishing and enlarging their herds, returning them to the prairie where they can fill their ecological niche. Would they harvest some? Of course. I think the bison can sustain the land, and help sustain their people and other wildlife, including predators. If they respect that dynamic, I can support their cause. Certainly a better and more natural alternative than cattle. We are probably not going to agree on this, so I’ll leave it at that.

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I certainly hope this will be the outcome. At one time I probably would have agreed with you (with a nagging at the back of my mind.)

    But people are all individuals, and I am starting to see that it isn’t turning out quite the way we thought, (or actually did think but tried to be optimistic about it). At this point in time, the bison’s and other wildlife’s welfare should be the top priority, not yet another human problem that will never be resolved in reality.

    This all certainly does benefit the cattle ranchers too. If they were against transferring the bison to native lands, it never would have happened. I can’t believe it out of the goodness of their hearts.

    Speaking of predators, why can’t we just let them do their jobs?

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