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

Native American leaders in Montana and Wyoming have issued a resolution stating that buffalo have a right to natural habitat because of treaty agreements.
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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.”

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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.