Going to Buffalo
2021 - PRESENT
An ongoing series looking at hunting as a means of conservation and equity
I. Beattie Gulch
Each February trucks line the road up Beattie Gulch, a typical small Montana valley with one important, invisible feature: the boundary between Yellowstone National Park and less restricted public lands. Bison from Yellowstone graze and amble in the upper valley, safely ensconced within the National Park system. It would take an act of Congress to allow for the Native American men and women waiting in the valley below to shoot one of the animals. That's why the Native Americans who have come from as far as Wisconsin and Oregon mill around their trucks, drinking coffee, readying guns and waiting for the bison to unknowingly cross the prairie-grass rubicon.
But the bison never came. For 15,000 years, Native Americans stalked, hunted and survived on wild bison. Today, only a few herds exist outside Yellowstone National Park. I asked, Jeremy Wolf of the Umatilla Tribe if he feels frustrated watching bison safely graze in backyards of Gardiner, Montana. "It is what it is," he replies. "I'm more frustrated there are no bison on public lands that we can hunt." Aside from a loss of tradition, the protection big game animals have in National Parks is quickly becoming an ecological problem. With a herd that grows by roughly 10-17% each year, the landscape cannot support an unchecked population.
In addition to the bison, elk pose serious risk of brucellosis to cattle herds in the Teton-Yellowstone corridor. The invasive mountain goats asymptomatically carry pneumonia that can be transmitted to susceptible native bighorn sheep in Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks. The first volunteer hunting (aka culling) program was successfully implemented in the Tetons in spring 2020. In Grand Canyon, bison numbers are growing on the North Rim. Biologists estimate that the 400-600-head herd could reach 1,200-15,000 head in a decade if not properly managed. Volunteer hunting will begin for the first time in the park in fall 2021.
Finally, the new administration, with Deb Haaland leading the Dept of the Interior, promises a fresh look at resource management, especially as it relates to buffalo and Tribal involvement. Haaland, as New Mexico's Congresswoman, joined Alaska's Dan Young and Oklahoma's Tom Cole in 2019 to introduce the Indian Buffalo Management Act to Congress, which would grant more control and scope to the Tribal management of buffalo and buffalo habitat on native lands.
II. Blackfeet Nation, Montana
Sheldon Carlson sorts through the heads of slaughtered bison on the Blackfeet Nation outside Glacier National Park in Montana. For years, the National Park Service has killed hundreds of bison in an effort to thin the herd inside Yellowstone National Park. Sheldon and other members of tribes from across the Northwest have long advocated for their right to access their ancestral hunting grounds across the West. Ranchers, believing some bison carry brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can affect both livestock and humans, have resisted efforts to reintroduce bison across public lands.