Of bison and betrayal


Perfectly formed–just weeks from birth–a bison calf fetus still attached to the womb is discarded by treaty hunters and left with mom’s gut pile just north of Yellowstone. Buffalo Field Campaign photo; click image.

Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

Anyone who’s ever carried a wild bison’s heart into a governor’s office belongs to a small and select club. James St. Goddard, a Blackfeet spiritual leader from Montana, is the latest inductee, and–for all I know–the only member. Mr. St. Goddard appeared at the state capitol earlier this month to protest the latest twist in the ongoing injustice that passes for wild bison management in Montana: Tribal people, hunting under treaty rights, are conducting springtime hunts that kill pregnant bison carrying fully-formed fetuses. Dead moms mean dead babies–discarded along with mom’s gut pile. 

It’s a sad fact. Some tribal people have joined forces with state and federal government agencies to do the dirty work of Montana’s livestock industry–reducing the already-small population of wild bison to a politically-derived number (as low as 3000 animals) under the farcical guise of disease management. While I won’t speculate on their motives, one can’t help but observe that the tribes are also enthusiastically getting a piece of the slaughter action. Yes, not only are tribal people hunting bison into the springtime birthing season–they’ve also hauled captive animals directly from Yellowstone National Park to tribal slaughter facilities. Seems like an odd way for a sacred relationship to play out.

So how did such a stunning betrayal come about? Like everything else related to this complex and deplorable issue, easy answers don’t exist, and finding a way through the bureaucratic iron curtain sometimes requires a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. That’s where the bison defenders at Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) come in.

The road to slaughter starts at home

If there’s one word to keep in mind, it’s politics. Politics–not science–drives the management of bison in Montana via the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), an indefensible, rancher-serving plan based on control of brucellosis, a nonfatal disease that bison have never transmitted to cattle in the wild. The betrayal of America’s last pure, wild, and most genetically-diverse bison begins with the state and federal entities that signed on to the plan, including those directly charged with protecting them: employees of Yellowstone National Park. These public servants round up and herd their charges into a capture facility within park boundaries near the Gardiner, MT entrance and the tribes take it from there:

As I write this, two livestock trailers belonging to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are … hauling dozens of live buffalo to a slaughterhouse on the Flathead Indian Reservation. While we don’t yet know the exact number of buffalo in these trailers, we do know that in recent weeks the CSKT have slaughtered 37 buffalo and the Intertribal Buffalo Council (ITBC) has slaughtered 146. The majority of these slaughtered buffalo have been adult females, many of which [sic] were pregnant with what should have been this spring’s calves. ~Buffalo Field Campaign (full 3/7/14 report here)

Prior to this year–the first that tribes have conducted slaughter operations–IBMP partners exterminated some 4500 bison, snuffing out diverse and pure wild genes forever. BFC filed a FOIA with Yellowstone, learning that the park approached the tribes several years ago regarding a slaughter agreement–first meeting with the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a bison ranching collective of 56 tribes in 19 states. With the ITBC on board, CSKT perceived a turf war (not all tribes in the ITBC are buffalo cultures, nor did all traditionally use the Yellowstone area) and jumped onboard the slaughter train, as did the Nez Perce. When all was said and done, out of some 450 bison captured by Yellowstone, the ITBC had hauled 157 to slaughter; CSKT, 101. An unknown number was released, and others were taken hostage by USDA-APHIS to serve as research subjects for the chemical pesticide birth control GonaCon. Capture/slaughter activities ceased the day after a bison defender blockaded the road to the bison capture pen (video).

Hunted without habitat: a Montana tradition

When bison step over the invisible park boundary into Montana, they instantly become “big game animals” even though they’ve been tolerated only on a limited basis and without permanently-designated habitat by this livestock-dominated state. The state hunting season runs from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15 (read my account of monitoring the first reinstated bison hunt in 2005); this year, 31 bison were killed. Native American treaty hunts account for another 291 animals, and that number will continue to grow–and include the uncounted fetal calves who won’t live to see their world. While no one is disputing the fact that treaties must be honored,

When the tribes began exercising their treaty rights to hunt buffalo, we respected those rights, even agreeing to turn off our cameras when requested out of respect for the sacred nature of these hunts. But our job is to share the buffalo’s story with the world and when people begin to act irresponsibly or disrespectfully toward the buffalo it is up to us to speak the truth (Buffalo Field Campaign).


The little calf fetus is dwarfed by his/her mom’s gut pile. BFC photo.

The four tribes hunting bison (CSKT, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Shoshone-Bannock) set their own hunting dates “not with biology or science or population health/dynamics in mind, but with interest from tribal members. If more people are interested, more tags are issued. If more buffalo are on the landscape, more will be killed” (from BFC correspondence). CSKT is done hunting in January, but the other tribes take advantage of the late winter/early spring migration, leaving gut piles containing the next generation of Yellowstone bison. It was this late-season hunting that prompted James St. Goddard to carry the heart of a slain, pregnant cow to Helena, the state capitol. His act prompted angry words from the Nez Perce tribal chairman, who added that “although the killing of pregnant female bison is not his tribe’s preference, the Montana Department of Livestock wants to stop the spread of brucellosis to domestic cattle” (source).

Let’s be clear: The tribes are assuredly no more responsible for this wildlife debacle than are the state and federal IBMP partners. They’ve apparently been convinced (or have chosen to believe) that there are “too many bison”–for indeed, this slaughter looks more like a population cull than anything else–and that “disease management” is something more valid than a trumped up excuse to kill migratory wildlife.

It takes a strong heart to walk into a state capitol toting a bison heart and bearing a solemn message: Let this ancient buffalo herd regenerate itself. James St. Goddard has that heart. It takes a strong heart to block the road to slaughter with one’s body; it takes a strong heart to witness the tragedy of slaughter, document it, and tell the world. The buffalo defenders at BFC have that heart (please, please support this VERY grassroots organization with donations!).

Without doubt, it takes the strongest heart of all to withstand the rending of family, the death of herdmates, the indignity of capture, the terrifying ride to slaughter, and the terror of hazing–that particular hell is still to come.

It takes a bison heart.

  • Book: “In the presence of buffalo: Working to stop the Yellowstone slaughter,” here.
  • Read James St. Goddard’s appeal to all tribes for a bison hunting moratorium, here.
  • InterTribal Buffalo Council’s rationalization for participating in the slaughter, here.

7 Responses

  1. Montana Supreme Court decision is some qualified good news in this sorry saga…


    …but it won’t stop the capture/slaughter that Yellowstone undertakes; hunting pressure will increase, and it won’t stop the spring hazing. Oh, and bulls will be free to roam–but cow/calf families, not so much. See BFC’s latest update http://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org/media/update1314/031314.html

  2. The time has come to turn the tables on this morbid breed of human,their time is coming to an end and NO amount of money backing will save them..Yellowstone National Park: Manage Montana Ranchers, Not Bison!

  3. These pictures make me feel sick. I can’t understand how anyone could do that to an animal and not think it is wrong. Even if you were convinced this cull was necessary, why go about it so cruelly?

  4. […] See on animalblawg.wordpress.com […]

  5. […] bison and betrayal,” my post on bison politics, hunting, and tribal […]

  6. Blaming the tribes for exercising their treaty rights is not right. Treaty hunting rights have illegally been nearly obliterated. If anything, I’d rather see tribal hunters purposefully exercising their actual treaty rights outside the agreement of the State of Montana, the Parks Department and any other government agency trying to stand between them and their rights. Hunt in October, laws be damned. But the problem with that is the shit that will come down on the individual who does so, despite being well within their granted rights. The fight against would be expensive, time consuming and with no guarantee of a win. Some day there will be a Billy Frank Jr. of Buffalo, but that is for that individual to decide, hopefully with the support of their tribe, their neighboring tribes and anyone who supports a wild, free ranging buffalo nation in numbers great enough to sustain a true tribal treaty hunt.

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