By Nicole Rivard

When an escaped herd of bison was shot dead last Friday near Albany, N.Y., members of the public were disgusted. Unfortunately these animals were doomed anyways—they had escaped from Gem Farms in Schodack, where they were being raised to be slaughtered to end up on someone’s dinner plate, in an EPIC “nutrition” bar or in a Blue Buffalo bag of dog food. 

But the sad truth is the 4,000 wild bison who call Yellowstone National Park home, the last remaining wild herds considered to be genetically pure, aren’t treated any better than the 15 creatures, including two calves, who had a brief taste of freedom, before they were gunned down in upstate New York. 

Every winter and spring, snow and ice cover the Yellowstone wild bison’s food, and hunger pushes them to lower elevations across the Yellowstone Park boundary into Montana. When they cross this arbitrary line, the buffalo enter a zone of violent conflict with cattle ranchers. Because of the controversial Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), each year hundreds of bison are slaughtered under the guise of population control and “disease risk management,” even though there has never been a documented case of a wild bison transmitting brucellosis—a bacterial disease that affects livestock and wildlife—to cattle.

In 2014, 653 bison were slaughtered, and back in the winter of 2007/2008, the largest scale wild buffalo slaughter, claimed the lives of 1,631 animals. At the turn of the 20th century, similar reckless behavior nearly drove bison to extinction. 

That’s why Friends of Animals (FoA) and the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) have joined forces to not only raise awareness about the plight of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo population, but secure protection for the herds. FoA’s future efforts will include working with the BFC, along with Western Watersheds Alliance, to obtain Endangered Species Act protection for the remaining bison of Yellowstone.

Just this past winter, as migratory bison were being captured inside Yellowstone National Park’s Stephens Creek bison trap as the result of the park and other entities working under the IBMP — BFC and FoA filed a lawsuit Jan. 15 against the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for allowing the horrific roundup to proceed. The lawsuit also addressed the agencies failure to respond to an emergency rulemaking petition filed Sept. 15 by the two groups to protect the genetic diversity and viability of the bison of Yellowstone National Park.  

In their rulemaking petition FoA and BFC requested that the NPS and USFS undertake a population study and revise the IBMP to correct scientific deficiencies, make the plan consistent with the best available science and follow the legal mandates the U.S. Congress has set. Until then, the groups requested that the capture, removal or killing of bison at the Stephens Creek area of Yellowstone National Park and the Horse Butte area of the Gallatin National Forest be prohibited.

“We want to make sure that each herd has a viable population number so that we are not starting to degrade the species,” said Mike Harris, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “Right now they are managing the numbers based largely upon misinformation regarding the genetic viability of the herds. They are using data that doesn’t match up with what is the actual status of the herd populations in the park. The petition asked that the federal agencies responsible for protecting these animals make an effort to establish stronger scientific criteria to protect the viability of the remaining Yellowstone herds, and to stop slaughtering the last 4,000 genetically pure bison left in the United States.”

The IBMP was designed to be an adaptive management plan allowing for greater tolerance for bison as new information becomes available and conditions on the ground change, but no such tolerance has been afforded to the bison. 

“The IBMP currently is heavily weighted in favor of protecting the profits of the livestock industry at the expense and peril of our nation’s only continuously wild bison population,” said Dan Brister, executive director of the BFC. “Slaughtering wild bison is the livestock industry’s way of eliminating competition and maintaining control of grazing lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park and across the west.”

To learn more about the Buffalo Field Campaign, read our article in Action Line.