If you have been to Yellowstone National Park, you would think they are the only animals in the park . . . them and elk. It seems everywhere you look there are bison . . . or what most people refer to as buffalo. You would never think by looking at their numbers in Yellowstone that they were nearly extinct by the end of the 19th century. It is thought that more than 30 million bison—some estimates range as high as 60 million—once roamed North America in colossal, nomadic herds. That is a lot of bison!
The bison were almost annihilated by the end of the 19th century as victims of a market for hides and meat . . . and, as a United States government plan that allowed the slaughter to continue as a means of undermining and controlling the Plains Indian tribes. “Let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo is exterminated,” wrote U.S. general Philip Sheridan, “as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance.” In annihilating the bison, the government was working on corralling the Indians by taking away their greatest resource for sustenance and survival.
It nearly worked. If one takes the time to read the history and the stories of the Indians, especially those tribes located in Montana, he or she would learn of the vital importance of the bison for the survival of these tribes. Take away the food and people starve . . . and, people die. The government’s idea was to force the Indians into submission by making them starve. With the bison gone . . . well, it does not take a degree in rocket science to figure out what would happen. The slaughter of the bison was a sad footnote in our nation’s history . . . one rarely spoken about, but borders on a near holocaust of a great and mighty animal and a people that once inhabited this beautiful land.
By the turn of the 20th century the bison herds were pretty much decimated. By 1902, Yellowstone National Park officials counted just 23 remaining genetically pure bison left in the park, the last known wild bison south of the Canadian border. Today, the herd numbers a little over 3,000 inside the park—3,000 genetically pure bison from the 30 to 60 million that once roamed our great nation. Driving around Yellowstone, one would swear that he or she has seen all 3,000 of them!
Though the bison were here first, it is cattle that are the big boss now on these pristine lands where bison once freely roamed. In fact, Yellowstone is not a natural habitat for bison; it is where they have been forced to go in order to survive. The bison is a prairie animal, Yellowstone is far from being a prairie. Cattle is boss now across the plains . . . including in Montana where there are more cows than people living in the state. Cattle is big business, really big business . . . the type of big business that one protects at any cost . . . including allowing the bison to move back into areas where they were once as common as the landscape. The cattle business fears the bison.
The culprit behind this fear is brucellosis. Brucellosis is a disease that some bison carry that causes cattle to abort fetuses. The cattle industry does not want the bison infecting their herds, which could happen according to them if the bison are allowed outside of the park. One of the ironic things about this argument is that there has never been a documented case of bison-fed brucellosis in cattle—never! All the documented cases of cattle being infected with brucellosis has come from that other seemingly abundant creature in Yellowstone—the elk. Elk are not treated for brucellosis . . . they have a pretty big lobby and bring lots of money to the area . . . thus, they have been pretty much ignored in this brucellosis argument even though they are the number carrier of the disease among cattle. Also, another irony, brucellosis was brought to North America by cattle imported from Europe.
In 1997 a project was started to bring the bison back to their natural habitat. Through the National Wildlife Federation and the InterTribal Bison Cooperative—which includes 56 tribes from 19 states—successfully proposed the construction of a quarantine facility where bison from the genetically pure herd in Yellowstone National Park could be monitored and tested. The goal was to transfer brucellosis-free bison to tribal lands. As a part of the project, animals that tested positive for the disease were killed . . . the idea was to have a disease-free, genetically pure herd to place on the reservations.
On a cold winter’s night in 2012, the Fort Peck reservation of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes received their herd from Yellowstone National Park. It is an opportunity of revival for the tribes. Historically the bison offered food, clothing, ritual and a sense of connectedness. One of the Assiniboine religious leaders stated, “The bison’s return represents a renewed celebration of who we are as a people.” It is with a sense of hope that the bison have been welcomed home.
It is a coming full circle . . . coming back to where it all began. It is a reconnection with roots and meaning of who a people are. The bison has always been a central character in the lives and history of the Indians—especially in Montana. It is an acknowledgement of a people’s existence. But, it is not coming easily. There is lots of opposition to the idea of returning the bison to their natural habitat . . . opposition that is being led by the cattle industry. The cattle industry does not want the bison returned to their natural habitat because a lot of that habitat is now cattle habitat . . . habitat under cattle for over a hundred years, and it would not be fair to put such a burden on those ranchers who have been ranching that land with cattle for over a hundred years. Never mind that the bison were there first. The cattle industry also doesn’t want the bison there because of the threat of brucellosis. Never mind the fact that there has never been a documented or verified case of it coming from a bison yet. Thus the modern day remedy of lawsuits is creating the barrier from fulfilling a dream of bringing the bison home.
Presently there is a lawsuit that is now in Montana’s State Supreme Court that is keeping the project from moving forward. There will probably be more lawsuits to come. Two other tribal reservations are ready to receive their own bison herds. The tribes at the Fort Belknap (Montana) and Wind River (Wyoming) reservations have made all the necessary preparations for the herds . . . done all of the things that the state and cattle industry have required . . . but, they now wait. They wait until the lawsuits are settled.
Until then the circle cannot be closed. One female elder at the Fort Peck reservation stated, “By bringing them back, we’re bringing back our identity.” Of course, it should never have been taken away in the first place . . . in the story of a holocaust of an animal and people there arises hope. Hope from 23 genetically pure bison in 1902 . . . the chain was never completely broken . . .
It is time to bring the bison home. It is time to do the right thing. Let us complete the circle. Bring them home!