Bison Transfers Threaten Wild Buffalo


Winter weather frequently drives wild Yellowstone bison out of the park seeking forage, where they are captured or killed at the park border. Photo George Wuerthner 

Recently news media announced the transfer of 141 of Yellowstone’s bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Most of the media and many conservation groups hailed this as “restoring” bison to the plains. What is not said is that this transfer to the tribe, and all other previous transfers are destroying the wild bison genome.

The second issue is the failure of the federal government to protect it Public Trust obligations.  Yellowstone’s bison belong (if one can suggest wildlife belongs to anyone) to the American people. Yet they are being given to tribal reservations that are essentially private lands.

Yellowstone’s bison are of international significance in part because they have been the least domesticated buffalo in the West. They are an evolutionary heritage that is priceless. Preservation of their wild genome should be preserved, not treated as trading cards in political machinations.

Yellowstone bison have survived harsh winters, droughts, natural predators, and other evolutionary processes. Photo George Wuerthner 

They have been subject to native predators, harsh winters, droughts, had natural selection in breeding and free to migrate—until they reach the border of the Park.

Domestication is the biggest threat to wild bison. And nearly all government and private policies are eroding the wild bison genome. I believe the various interest groups—state, federal, and tribal governments all want to avoid a long term solution that protects wild bison. The tribe makes some of these previously public bison available for canned hunts.

The bison transferred to Fort Peck will be held in a 13,000 acre “ranch”. Since 2019, the Yellowstone Bison Conservation Transfer Program has transferred 414 bison to Fort Peck. A record 116 animals were transferred this February: 108 males, four females and four calves.

Bison will suffer from domestication. Animal social networks are disrupted, bison may be fed and artically breed, age structure changed, and other factors that cause loss of wild genome. Photo George Wuerthner

These animals are likely to be artificially fed; perhaps selectively bred and killed, disrupting natural population dynamics. Since they will be held in a small enclosure (13,000 acres is nothing to a bison) they may lose the tendency to migrate which is perhaps their greatest evolutionary adaptation to an unpredictable environment.

All these non-Yellowstone herds are too small to avoid inbreeding depression and random genetic losses.

In short, on-going bison transfers and slaughter of bison at the park border will continue the erosion of Yellowstone bison wildness and they will be domesticated.

Though proclaiming bison transfers are “saving” bison simply do not understand basic biology. It is like promoting fish hatcheries and asserting we are “saving” wild salmon. In fact, numerous studies have documented that hatchery production is contributing to the decline of wild fish.

Some may suggest that transferring bison to tribal lands is a good solution to the on-going controversy over Yellowstone bison. However, there are several issues that are not discussed.

The first is that bison are largely confined to Yellowstone due to policies promoted by the Montana livestock industry. They argue that bison can transmit brucellosis to cattle. Brucellosis is a disease that can cause abortion in infected animals. However, there has never been a case of wild bison infecting cattle, though there are numerous instances of elk transmission of the disease to cattle. But we don’t keep elk bottled up in Yellowstone Park.

Second, when bison are transferred from the park or killed on the border, it removes the biomass from the ecosystem that would otherwise be consumed by scavengers and predators. It also reduces competition between individuals making it more likely they will survive and are in better condition, thus more difficult for predators like wolves and grizzlies to kill them.  And bison removed from the ecosystem is essentially taking food from the mouths of ecosystem animals from magpie to wolves.

Third, due to the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, the Federal government is not obliged to adhere to the state’s prohibition against restoration of bison on public land in Montana. The federal government can legally promote migration of wild  bison to the Custer Gallatin NR and other federal holdings around Yellowstone.

Bison slaughtered near Yellowstone Park border by tribal members.Such hunts may be illegal. Photo George Wuerthner 

The federal government could prohibit the annual slaughter of Yellowstone bison by tribal members due to a clause that negates treaty “rights’ if necessary for conservation purposes. But none of the fake conservation groups like Greater Yellowstone Coalition that support bison transfer or so called “treaty hunts” never review whether there are legal rights to kill bison wandering from the park. They merely accept the assertions of the tribe and state (which wants to keep bison bottled up in the park) that hunts are legal for tribal members.

If there are “excess” Yellowstone bison, at the very least they should be transferred to public lands, not privatized. Establishing several other “wild” herds will preclude the loss of this genome if there were a disease outbreak or some other factor contributed to the loss of Yellowstone’s bison herds.

Missouri River in Charles M. Russell NWR, Montana combined with adjacent BLM lands and perhaps American Prararie Reserve lands  is one location large enough to sustain a wild bison herd. Photo George Wuerthner

The Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, and adjacent BLM lands like the Missouri River Breaks NM and perhaps the American Prairie Reserve combined offers a superb opportunity to establish another free-ranging bison herd. There are other lands in Wyoming and Idaho that are also suitable for bison recolonization and large enough to maintain evolutionary processes like the Red Desert, Upper Green River, and Birch Creek/INL lands in Idaho.

However, I think nearly all the interest groups do not want a resolution to the bison issue. The state is obsequious to the livestock industry and continues to thwart bison recolonization. Conservation groups want a continuing controversy so they can raise money “saving bison” by promoting domestication of the animals.  The tribes want to continue killing bison on Yellowstone’s border and obtaining America’s bison for their reservations.

I believe (but have no proof) the Biden administration doesn’t want to rock the boat by creating a controversy that pits the federal government interests against the state’s policies. They probably fear it might hurt the reelection chances of Senator Tester. Plus, Sec of Interior tends to support policies that favor tribal interests over the public interest.

Due to all these factors, wild bison are the ones harmed. And we are allowing their wildness to be destroyed by domestication because of flawed policies.

Wild bison deserve a better future than being turned into domesticated livestock. We don’t have to accept the current policies. We should and can demand that Yellowstone bison be permitted to migrate beyond Yellowstone borders without being slaughtered, as well as establishing several other herds that are subject to evolutionary processes. Groups promoting wild bison restoration including Free Roam Nation, Yellowstone Voicies, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Montana Wild Bison Council, and Alliance for Wild Rockies. Help these groups promote restoration of wild bison.


  1. Martha Hall Avatar
    Martha Hall

    Readers might find it interesting to read what The Nature Conservancy says about its work to transfer Yellowstone Bison to Tribal lands. I heard about their last transfer of bison to my state, WA, through their newsletter. According to the article, these bison will be slaughtered in the coming year and the meat will go to tribal members and their friends. How they are killed and how they are held until slaughtered is not explained very well. These bison certainly were not “saved” to roam free and be wild bison. Our state prohibits the farming of wild species like elk but of course this does not apply to reservations.

    These programs are really misleading. I was very shocked when I read this info.

    American Buffalo Return Home to Tribal Lands

    The Nature Conservancy › community-led-conservation
    Oct 3, 2023 — Through our partnership with the InterTribal Bison Council (ITBC), we’ve transferred over 1000 bison to Native Nations to restore their …
    ‎Watch The American Buffalo… · ‎Bison Homecoming · ‎Did You Know?
    Missing: WA ‎| Show results with: WA

    Hundreds of Buffalo Return Home to Indigenous …

    The Nature Conservancy › en-us › newsroom › buffalo-ret…
    Oct 19, 2023 — More than 800 buffalo will head home to Indigenous communities, transferred in a large collective effort to restore this keystone species who …

    1. Michael Sauber Avatar
      Michael Sauber

      Some call them “Nature Conspiracy”. Always misleading when it comes to ranching custom and culture. On the Gila River in S. New Mexico, they wanted to get an allotment to help “save” the Gila river and Gila Wilderness which it was in. Rather than reducing the cattle numbers to get them off the riparian, They had plans to draw and pump water from the river through pipelines up to a newly built tank IN THE WILDERNESS.

  2. Megan Avatar

    Our policies need change! I think electing environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as president would lead to tremendous improvements.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      When did he become an “environmentalist”? All I’ve ever heard about him was his anti-vax views.

      1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        He’s not anti-vax, that’s establishment propaganda. He just wants the truth about vaccines, because there ARE some issues with them.

        RFK, Jr. was the head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which despite being a rather conservative environmental group did do some good work. THAT’s what makes him an environmentalist.

        1. Megan Avatar

          He also founded River/Water Keepers international one of the largest environmental organizations in the world, filed hundreds of lawsuits against polluters, became head of Children’s Health Defense which looked hard at mercury in vaccines (he had become a mercury pollution expert through examining fish kills and degradation in the Hudson)so was knowledgable about mercury when asked by mothers of autistic children to get look into this, also knows disease prevalence from pollutants (pesticides) in food, etc. he became a licensed wildlife rehabilitation at a young age.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Terrible! I foolishly was under the assumption that the bison on tribal lands would be allowed to roam freely, as in the past.

    I wonder if this group can be taken to court over it? Misleading their supporters on the fate of these animals. I don’t support The Nature Conservancy and I certainly won’t now.

  4. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    GW says “fake conservationists,” still parsing “good” v “bad,” again ignoring the very concept of preservation as the definition of “good.”

    GW just can’t bring himself to say we should be preserving bison, their genome and habitat, never promoting preservation as a much needed moral sidebar for any environmental discussion.

  5. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    Another piece of excellent scholarship and investigative reporting by George.

    I long ago proposed the acquisition of land through the wheat belt from Canada to Texas for free-range bison and ecosystem restoration, expanding over time.

    What I got for my trouble was a snubbing from the exploding population of yellow-bellied grantsuckers, a nest parasite of “certified” eggspurts.


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