In March, more than 60 pure strain bison were moved from Yellowstone to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, but a judge halted further transfers when local ranchers complained.

Native Habitat for America's Last Wild Buffalo Is Guaranteed by Treaty, Tribes Say

Terri Hansen

Can this country restore the last genetically pure wild buffalo penned in at Yellowstone National Park (YNP) as wildlife? James (Jimmy) St. Goddard, hereditary chief of the Blackfeet Nations, believes so.

Behind St. Goddard are the eleven member tribes of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council (MT-WYTLC): Salish & Kootenai, Little Shell, Shoshone-Bannock, Eastern Shoshone, Blackfeet, Chippewa Cree, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, and Crow. They’ve passed a resolution requesting protection for the 3,700 wild American buffalo that live in or near the park.

These wild buffalo, also known as bison, have special significance to the tribes, and they want them restored as wildlife, St. Goddard says. They want the U.S. government and State of Montana to recognize their trust responsibility to Treaty obligations to provide for viable populations of wild, migratory buffalo in their native habitat. They’ve asked Montana to immediately cease their harassment of them. And they said as much in a May 1 letter to Montana’s Governor Brian D. Schweitzer.

“Our treaties are older than the U.S.,” St. Goddard says. “Our rights are older than the country.” Multiple treaties exist between the member tribes and the United States, and could be tested, St. Goddard says.

Just two centuries ago, more than 30 million buffalo roamed throughout North America. Buffalo have lived in the Yellowstone region since prehistoric times. Tribal peoples rounded up some of the last buffalo to save them, establishing the base for the Yellowstone herd. Yellowstone’s wild buffalo is the last population that still follows its migratory instincts, and they are the remaining few with no cattle genes. But the park has a carrying capacity of 3,500 buffalo. Excess numbers are dubbed ‘overpopulation buffalo.’

“These are the purest, most ancient buffalo in the world,” says St. Goddard. “The last of the wild buffalo in the whole U.S.”

Heavy snows force the wild buffalo to lower elevations beyond park boundaries to forage. They seasonally migrate into parts of southwestern Montana, and the tribal leaders want Montana and federal agencies to let these migratory animals to return to their summer ranges by following their own instincts in their own time, as do migratory elk. In 1997, the harsh winter essentially sent droves of foraging buffalo to their death. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand hungry bison were slaughtered by YNP, which has a policy of killing buffalo that stray off its lands.

In that same winter, the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) was founded to fight the gruesome practice. Today, BFC says many of the same factors that have contributed to past mass buffalo slaughters are still in place, including heavy snowpack, buffalo population size, and continuing intolerance on the part of Montana farmers and ranchers for migrating buffalo.

Why kill buffalo? The slaughter stems from a fear that brucellosis, a bacterium that can cause a cow to abort her calf, might spread to cattle near the park’s boundaries. About half of the park’s wild buffalo have tested positive for brucellosis in past years, and ten percent are infectious. In past years federal and state agencies have sent hundreds of wild buffalo off to slaughter whether they carried the disease brucellosis or not. BFC tallies that 6,927 buffalo have been slaughtered since 1985. BFC habitat coordinator Darrell Geist says this year’s mild winter has spared the buffalo from slaughter.

The state’s ranchers and state veterinarian do not want to risk a possible transmission of brucellosis from wild buffalo to their herds, and use that as justification to prevent wild buffalo from utilizing their winter range, says BFC, although no cattle range in the bison’s winter range corridor. BFC and the National Wildlife Federation say there have been no confirmed cases of bison spreading the disease to domestic livestock. Migratory elk, which can be hunted, also carry brucellosis but do not face slaughter. “Montana’s ranchers and farmers, they’re all Republican. Nobody wants to stand up to them,” says St. Goddard. “There’s so much they don’t understand about our culture.” BFC views the tribe’s resolve, “as a very important step by the tribes and critical to the buffalo’s survival,” says Geist.

Scientists say buffalo occupation can help restore the native grasslands, sagebrush steppes, and prairie ecosystems that are considered to be some of the most endangered habitats in the world.

Montana has recognized the treaty hunting rights of the Umatilla in Oregon, the Shoshone-Bannock, and the Nez Perce in Idaho, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana to hunt wild buffalo that migrate from YNP, although Tom McDonald, Fish and Wildlife manager for the Salish-Kootenai told reporters that federal and state officials haze the buffalo back into the park but not into hunting areas.

A federal district court judge granted the Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ request for a temporary restraining order May 14 to halt helicopters hazing of wild buffalo back into YNP. The Alliance argued that the low-level over-flights harassed grizzly bears in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

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husbandofmoonlight's picture
Submitted by husbandofmoonlight on
"IF" ("is the middle word of life") "The People" (Native America) ever have their treaties honored by the dominate power the USA---or they continue in their present state; where the US Government mocks the treaties, except of course when it benefits THEM the true difference will be in the "enforcement". Presently the USA is involved in three illegal wars of aggression, which is only three of all of the other wars they have 'started', except for WW2 (and that could have been avoided with a "declaration of neutrality" which many urged and few sought) where the USA never won any of those wars. Just one example: This "author" was one of those "fools" who even though he was exempt from the draft during the "illegal war of aggression upon Vietnam"; volunteered as a US Marine so that the "could earn his place in the whiteman's world"--we were actually conditioned to beleive such nonsense by our "elders" many of whom had served in other wars--most often exceptionally honorably. The USA must be "made, forced, or manipulated" into compliance with the treaties that they "brought to the tribes" after initiating illegal wars of aggression--while maintaining their "manifest destiny". They did not win those wars anymore than they won any of the others; and the only reason they won WW2; was their immmense manufacturing base; which they have now "oustsourced to others"----- Being in illegal possession of "property" (in the case 60% of their geographic territory) makes the USA a criminal nation ---populated with a major citizenry compiled of mostly "criminals" (the "war on drugs" just one examle; if so many "Americans" were not determined to violate their own countries drug laws---in order to supply their appetites for illict drugs; there would be NO DRUG WAR---THAT THEY ARE LOOSING LIKE AAAALATHE OTHER WARS THEY STARTED---. That the USA has not kept a single treaty they have signed with any of ther North American Tribes (and one must also include Hawaii since that "territory was illegally taken as well"----)should reveal to the entire world that the USA in its current "manifestation"---does not deserve to exist. Until more of the "peopel" (us, Native America) are willing to go to whatever lengths are needed to force the USA into compliance with their treaties----there will always be the present conditions of "waiting for Uncle Same to find his conscience---and act upon it". One hundred and fortyfour years ago (1868)one of my own Comanche ancestors was a signatory to the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty---"brought to them by the US Government" just three years after they had finished their most bloody war to date; against themselves, over the right of one human being to own another human being; where they had killed off almost 10% of the most valued population; their 'adult white males-- They have still not complied with the treaty---and as long as theey are allowed to by the "signatorys descendants"----they will continue in the same path------illegal possession of territory they do not have rightful claim to (after all---our ancestors had been fighting each other over the same territory for thousands of years before the "Europeans even knew the Earth was "round"--------) and will continue to exercise that control---no matter what the entire world may say about it. Indeed it appears that the United Nations is starting to realize the criminal nature of the USA with their recent declarations (look em up---it may surprise you). As for the Buffalo---they were here for at least since the end of the last Ice age---(11K years or so ago) they will be here long after the rest of "us" are "dust in the wind"--------- By the way, Brucellousus is a disease the Europeans brought with them along with so many many others ----including "stupidity disorder" which seems to have "infected most of the American population" . "If the USA were any other criminal nation, the 'Americans' would invade the USA to keep the world safe; and they would be justified."

husbandofmoonlight's picture
Submitted by husbandofmoonlight on
I need to apologize for the unedited version here---a power surge caused the system to "blink"----and I "nodded"---so bear with me please; thank you. I hope the message was clear; to "my people"; Native America----we are prisoners of war in our own country----but only as long as we accept it. Only WE can make the needed changes; and we must be "united" to do so. Thank you for your valuable time. Husband of Moonlight