Every winter for the last decade, Andrew Wildbill has driven 12 hours from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation to lead a bison hunting party on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. It’s a hit-or-miss hunt, dictated by the weather. Last year, it didn’t snow enough to push the animals north in search of forage, to where they could be legally hunted.
“We didn’t come home with anything,” said Wildbill, who serves as the reservation’s wildlife program manager. “But it’s always great just to return to where your ancestors went on an annual basis.”
This year was different. After back-to-back mild winters, the park’s bison population had ballooned to 6,000. When snow hit early, then kept piling up into the spring, bison streamed toward the park’s northern border. The result was the most successful hunt in more than a century, with tribal hunters taking home nearly 1,200 bison.
“Being able to provide bison back into our communities is great,” Wildbill said. “These foods are vital to our ceremonies…. These foods are celebrated. This hunt gives us that opportunity as Indian people to continue that relationship that was absent for over a century.”
Success has come at a steep cost. After taking federal culling and Montana state hunters into account, this year’s bison kill tops 1,600 ― among the highest since the federal government started rebuilding the park’s herd in the late 19th century from two dozen stragglers that had escaped the species’ near-extermination. Critics have raised a furor over both the death toll and the fact that most of it takes place in a narrow corridor, describing it as a “bloodbath” that threatens the future of wild bison. Billboards posted across Montana by a pair of environmental groups read: “There is no hunt. It’s slaughter!”
Mass bison killings are politically explosive events that occur outside Yellowstone during harsh winters. They routinely happen to avoid conflict with Montana’s powerful livestock industry, which fears the bison will spread disease to cattle.
But in the past, federal authorities have culled most of them. The biggest difference this year was that tribal hunters killed far more bison than slaughterhouses did. The change has left tribal hunters in the uncomfortable position of becoming the public face of a herd-thinning strategy they have long opposed.
“It was sight unseen. The same exact thing was going on, except now the tribes are exercising their treaty rights,” said Jeremy Red Star Wolf, the former wildlife chair for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. “Does that mean this is what we want forever? No. We would like to have animals out on the landscape.”
A Recurring Controversy
Bison once roamed across most of North America, with numbers as high as 60 million at the time Europeans first arrived. Today, America’s wild bison number around 20,000 ― less than a tenth of a percent of their former size. Yellowstone National Park holds the greatest concentration. (“Bison” and the informal term “buffalo” refer to the same species named Bison bison.)
Unlike virtually all other wildlife, Yellowstone’s bison cannot venture far beyond the park’s boundaries. The policy of caging them in the park is driven by fears that they’ll get close enough to cattle to spread brucellosis, a bacterial disease that causes weight loss and spontaneous abortion.
That dynamic causes major conflicts in years with heavy snow, which pushes the bison to amble off toward lower ground with easier-to-access food. To keep the bison and cattle apart, officials have for decades relied on the unpopular policy of culling.
The harsh winter of 1996-97 marked a major turning point. Like this year, bison steadily migrated out of the park. Officials killed enough of them to reduce the herd by more than two-thirds, to fewer than 1,100 by winter’s end.
The public outcry over the killings, along with a major court settlement with the state of Montana, led to sweeping changes.
Tribal governments began playing a greater role in managing the herd. Tribes historically connected to Yellowstone with treaties guaranteeing the right to hunt unoccupied lands worked with the state of Montana to reestablish bison hunts. And in recent years Yellowstone has increasingly trapped migrating bison, then live-shipped them to reservations, allowing tribes to build new conservation herds.
With Yellowstone’s bison confined to the park, federal and Montana authorities have historically culled with a heavy hand, removing about a quarter of the bison population during harsh winters at least three other times since 2008. They planned to do it again this year, according to Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, with the goal of returning the park to around 4,500 bison after calves are born in the spring.
That’s pretty much what happened. By the time it became clear in March that the unusually efficient tribal hunt might push the total kill over the planned limit of 1,500, Yellowstone staff corralled bison within the park’s boundaries, at one point holding back about 1,000 animals.
With winter over and most hunting seasons wrapped up, the final count overshot the mark by about 100 animals ― a figure that includes federal culling and about 75 bison killed by hunters holding tags issued by Montana.
“I get it that people don’t like how many bison have been taken out of the population in a single year,” Sholly said. “But keep in mind, had we hit our targets in the last two years, there would have been somewhere around 1,800 bison taken out of the population.”
“I think tribal hunting opportunities and state hunting opportunities are a good way to manage the population,” Sholly added.
Though planned, the number of dead bison ran far too high for many critics.
Jason Baldes, representative of the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Buffalo Program, worried that the scale of the killing could endanger a critical bison transfer program.
Adopted in 2019, the program has moved hundreds of Yellowstone bison ― prized for their nearly cattle-free genetics ― to tribal reservations across the country to start new herds. Before they can go, park authorities trap and isolate them to ensure they are free of brucellosis. About 60% of them test positive and are killed.
“It’s good that the tribes are taking animals and exercising their treaty rights, because a majority of those animals are going to die and are not going to end up in tribal communities,” Baldes said. “But we want to ensure that we can get that 40% out of the population alive.”
“If we continue down this path, the bison’s going to go extinct.”
– Dallas Gudgel, board member of the Buffalo Field Campaign
The Buffalo Field Campaign, a conservation group, views this year’s bison kill as an existential threat. A lawsuit from the group forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year to consider whether Yellowstone’s bison merit federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. One key element is whether the park’s two distinct herds have the genetic diversity to sustain themselves over the long term.
“If we continue down this path, the bison’s going to go extinct,” said Dallas Gudgell, a board member of the Buffalo Field Campaign.
The group’s executive director, Mike Mease, called the tribal hunts a “logistical nightmare.”
“The amount of buffalo getting killed in one square mile is insane,” he said.
Still, he didn’t see hunters or treaty obligations as the problem.
“The bottom line is that this is all at the behest of the state of Montana and its zero tolerance policy for bison,” Mease said. “If you want to point the finger, the state of Montana and its Department of Livestock are 100% the cause of this calamity.”
‘Fighting For Grazing Land’
The cattle industry and the state of Montana are the two major voices saying that Yellowstone isn’t doing nearly enough to squelch the country’s largest remaining wild bison herd. In a letter from February 2022, Mike Honeycutt, the executive officer of the state’s Department of Livestock, urged the park’s authorities to “commit every effort” to cleave the Yellowstone buffalo population in half.
The same month, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) insisted that Yellowstone’s bison population should never have passed 3,000, calling attempts to let the population grow beyond that “absurd.” He threatened to sue the National Park Service to make it happen, according to an NPS briefing statement recently made public under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Montana officials’ hostility toward the official national mammal stemmed mostly from brucellosis concerns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has the authority to summarily exterminate infected cattle herds, and an outbreak would threaten the state’s access to export markets for beef.
“They want somebody else to raise these bison in order to fulfill their fantasy. If you love the bison, go buy some land and raise some bison.”
– Gilles Stockton, Montana Cattlemen’s Association
Because most of the national forest land along the northern migration route is too high or too wooded to produce much feed for bison through the winter, free-wandering bison would gravitate toward the private land and ranches along Paradise Valley, said Gilles Stockton, eastern director for the Montana Cattlemen’s Association.
“What’s all this nostalgia about bison?” Stockton said. “I find the advocates for that to be incredibly selfish. They want somebody else to raise these bison in order to fulfill their fantasy. If you love the bison, go buy some land and raise some bison.”
Skeptics, including many tribal leaders, often point out that no such restrictions exist on the free movement of elk, despite the fact that they also carry the disease and have spread it to cattle in the area at least 17 times over the last two decades.
“It’s the same argument that has been told since settlement began,” Wolf said. “They’re fighting for grazing land. That’s all it is.”
At least 27 federally recognized tribes once lived in, traveled through or hunted the area currently known as Yellowstone National Park. Eight of them ― the Blackfeet, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, Shoshone-Bannock, Northern Arapaho, Crow, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Nez Perce, and Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation ― have reached agreements with the state of Montana allowing them to hunt bison there.
Tribal hunters prize the meat, both for its cultural significance and as an especially nutritious food in communities that often struggle with diet-linked disorders such as Type 2 diabetes.
“I’ve been to so many doors and left so much meat to different people,” Wolf said. “The smiles on the faces, the full bellies ― these are the things you cherish.”
Tribes that depended on bison also traditionally used the hide, bones, tail and other parts of the animal in religious ceremonies and artwork.
And traveling to the Yellowstone area for the hunt reestablishes a broken cultural link that many described as “returning home.”
“We as Nez Perce have traveled to places that contributed to our way of life,” said Erik Holt, the tribe’s fish and wildlife chairman. “To always have that connection to that place ― it’s deeply important to me.”
But the growing size of the hunt has also brought problems.
Most huntable bison funnel toward a small choke point on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest called Beattie Gulch, leading both tribal and state hunters to stack up there. The confined space and predictable bison migration in snowy years clashes with many observers’ idea of a fair chase hunt. Putting that many rifle hunters in one spot also presents safety concerns.
And this year added another glaring problem: bad optics.
Tragedy nearly struck when a bullet fragment hit a member of the Nez Perce tribe in the abdomen. The scale of the hunt left trails of blood, organs, spines and ribcages strewn across Beattie Gulch ― a spectacle described and photographed in a major piece for The New York Times, casting national attention on the hunt.
“This year was the worst of the worst,” said Bonnie Lynn, who lives next to Beattie Gulch and has emerged as the hunt’s most prominent critic, waging a years-long legal battle to halt it and force the National Park Service to evaluate the environmental impact of such concentrated bison killing.
“I’m not against their treaty rights and I’m not against them being able to have spiritual hunts,” said Lynn, a hunter. “They deserve better than this.”
Most agree the hunting grounds are far too small for so many kills.
“What Montana has set up for political reasons is this firing range,” Gudgell said. “It’s intentionally made to have the tribes look like the bad guy. If there were tribal co-management of the bison, there would be fair chase.”
One way to relieve crowding might be to allow tribes to hunt within the park, some said. The plain language of the tribal treaties used to gain access to national forest land ― all of which precede the Lacey Act, which banned hunting in Yellowstone in 1894 ― appear to allow it.
“I do believe we have a right to hunt in Yellowstone ― a right to hunt and gather and conduct ceremonies,” Wildbill said. “At some point, that needs to be addressed at the federal level. Tribes should be co-managers of the entire national park.”
“The treaties that tribes signed didn’t give us anything that we didn’t already have as aboriginal people,” Wildbill added. “We had title to the land, we had our access, we had our sustenance, our culturally appropriate medicines and foods. The treaties gave rights to non-Indians to settle among us.”
Superintendent Sholly said that he did not know how to interpret treaty rights but that the tribes themselves would have to start the process.
“In four and a half years, I’ve never received a request formally from any tribal leader to exercise hunting rights inside Yellowstone,” Sholly said. “When those requests come in, there’s a lot to look at there…. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to that point.”
Room To Roam
The irony of all this is that tribal hunters and the conservationists decrying this year’s bison kill want the same thing: more buffalo, with more freedom to roam.
Federal and state authorities have worked with environmental groups to retire grazing permits and expand “tolerance zones” in recent years, giving the bison more access to winter range.
The state of Montana isn’t likely to support more of it. Gianforte’s letter to park officials from last year made it clear that “any assumption of continued tolerance zone expansion presumes too much.”
For many, corralling a migratory species so intertwined with Indigenous history in an area too small to hold it provides an unsubtle reminder of the same history that wrenched the tribes from their land and consigned the survivors to reservations.
“It all goes back to white supremacy and settler colonialism, and the idea to remove buffalo and remove Native peoples to make room,” said Cristina Mormorunni, director of the nonprofit group Indigenous-Led. “Everything we’re dealing with today is the legacy of that. The tribes need to be put into a leadership, guardian position.”
In the “vast settlement era” of today, as Wolf puts it, the bison has been left with a tiny fraction of its habitat. But if it were up to tribal hunters to decide, bison would wander a lot more freely ― like elk, deer or pronghorn.
“When they tried to wipe out the buffalo, that was our food source and our life source ― our way of life,” said Holt, the Nez Perce fish and wildlife chair. “We want to see 5 million buffalo back on the landscape, not 5,000.”