|Betreff: Sacred Buffalo, Holy Cow: The Struggle for the Western Range|
|Datum: Sun, 06 May 2007 17:31:35 -0700|
This piece was first published online at the Buffalo Field
old website which was, in turn, hosted by the Alliance for the Wild
Rockies. Although it is now eight years old, it remains a thorough
synopsis of the history of the slaughter of the buffalo and the
deliberate genocide of first nations' peoples. For more recent
information on this issue, see the Buffalo Field Campaign's current
website (link at bottom).
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, speaking in 1873: "I
would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from
our western plains, in its effect upon the Indians. I would regard it
rather as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the
products of the soil and their own labors."
Sacred Buffalo, Holy Cow: The Struggle for the Western Range
by Dan Brister
"We said no to bison slaughter for more than a hundred years, but they
keep on killing. The genocide against the bison was part and parcel of
the genocide against Indians. The recovery of the bison population in
Yellowstone was to us a portent that our spirituality and traditional
way of life could be rediscovered.
The extermination of American Bison from the Great Plains is widely
viewed as an unavoidable consequence of the advancement of European
civilization. Migratory bison on the plains and Native Americans who
depended on them stood in the way of the white man and his encroaching
civilization. Eradicating the buffalo cleared the prairie of both
buffalo and Indian, opening the West to the European settler and his
The slaughter, precipitated by Nineteenth Century world views and
conditions, is seen as a closed chapter in the history of the West. It
is viewed from the standpoint of the Twentieth Century as a necessary
but somewhat regrettable evil. Most of all, it is considered a
completed event, something that had to be done once and for all but is
completely done. The Indians were put on reservations, the bison on
ranches; end of story. Or is it?
This struggle, between white and Indian, between cattle and bison,
between two strikingly dissimilar ways of life, is alive and strong
today. The extirpation of the herds in the last century and the
current slaughter taking place outside Yellowstone National Park are
closely related and fueled by many of the same economic motivations,
personal fears, and misunderstandings. The bison were exterminated as
a means of creating and maintaining the dominance of the cattle
culture across the Great Plains and the West. On the eve of the
Twenty-first Century, many of the same forces are still in place.
The primary focus of my research has been on the bison/cattle conflict
and the way this conflict has affected relations between the
government and the Indian tribes. As I conducted my research I
discovered striking parallels between the prevailing views of
yesterday and those of today. In 1876, while the buffalo were being
killed by the millions, General Nelson Miles predicted the future:
"When we get rid of the Indians and buffalo, the cattle will fill this
country (Brown, 98). His prophesy, which he helped to create, proved
The bison/cattle conflict remains strong today. The Yellowstone herd
is the only herd descended from continuously wild buffalo in this
country (Meagher, 1). Lee Alley is Chairman of the U.S. Animal Health
Association (USAHA), a government body whose actions have spurred the
Yellowstone slaughter. In 1998 he said if it were up to him, "the herd
would be depopulated, the animals destroyed. All of them." In the past
decade alone, more than 2000 Yellowstone buffalo have been
killed--more than half of them during the winter of 1996-1997. I will
discuss the current bison slaughter and the forces behind it in
further detail starting on page thirteen. But first, some historical
background is needed.
Buffalo once ranged from the eastern seaboard to Oregon and
California; from Great Slave Lake in northern Alberta to northern
Mexico. Although no one will ever know exactly how many bison once
inhabited North America, estimates range from twenty-five to seventy
million. William Hornaday, a naturalist who spent considerable time in
the West, both before and during the most severe years of the
slaughter, comments on the seemingly infinite bison population and the
impossibility of estimating their quantity:
It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of
leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at
any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870
(quoted in Rifkin, 74).
The great herds were not decimated overnight. The slaughter was a
gradual process, reaching full momentum in the 1870s. It started with
the Indians, who had relied upon and hunted buffalo for thousands of
years. Without the arrival of the whites--and with them the gun, the
horse, and the market for bison--the Indians probably could have lived
in perpetuity with the bison. But with horse and gun--which plains
tribes received from their southern neighbors who, in turn, received
them from the Spanish--the Indians were able to kill buffalo with
greater ease. As the market for buffalo, particularly their hides,
emerged in the 1820s, the bison population began to decline.
By the end of the 1850s, with the demand for the hides increasing, the
number of bison killed in a single year had reached the millions.
According to F.F. Gerard, a Cree interpreter and trader who worked for
the American Fur Company in the upper Missouri country, nearly a
million and a half buffalo were killed in 1857 alone (Dary, 78).
The westward advancement of the railroads in the 1860s played a
crucial role in the buffalo's demise in four major ways. First, the
railroads, penetrating the great herd on the plains, split the bison's
range in two. Trains provided easy access to the hunters while
simultaneously facilitating the shipment of hides to markets in the
East. They also created a new American "sport," shooting bison from
the windows of passenger cars. In the January 1869 issue of Harpers,
Theodore Davis romanticized this new pastime:
It would seem to be hardly possible to imagine a more novel sight than
a small band of buffalo loping along within a few hundred feet of a
railroad train in rapid motion, while the passengers are engaged in
shooting, from every available window, with rifles, carbines, and
revolvers. An American scene, certainly (cited in Dary, 88).
Certainly. Second, buffalo meat provided a cheap and plentiful means
of subsistence for the railroad workers, creating increased demand for
the animals which made buffalo hunting a more lucrative endeavor.
William Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill, made his name and
fortune in this capacity, contracting with the Kansas Pacific Railroad
who fed its construction crews bison meat.
Third, the railroads, by promoting excursions into and romanticizing
the buffalo country, stimulated demand for buffalo robes in Eastern
markets. People in the East, hearing tales of adventure in the buffalo
land, wanted robes of their own, as symbols of the excitement and
freedom to be had in the West and as practical items. Robes were used
as covers on sleighs, wagons, buggies and other forms of open
transportation in winter months. They were used as blankets on beds
and made into coats as well (Dary, 88).
Finally--and most pertinent to this discussion--
an economical means of shipping Texas cattle to markets in the East.
Previous to the railroad, it was very difficult for ranchers to
connect their cattle with the markets in the North and East. While a
few adventurous ranchers did make the journey from Texas to Illinois
and Iowa on foot, it was a long and dangerous trip up the center of
the continent. Facing raids from outlaws, natural calamities, and
weight loss on the arduous trek, the animals were often in rough shape
by the time they'd reached market (Rifkin, 70).
When the railroad reached Kansas, enabling cattle to be shipped to the
Eastern markets, hundreds of thousands of cattle, sometimes in herds
of 10,000 or more, were moved north from Texas to the railroad depots.
The now famous Chisholm trail--which linked Texas with the railroad
depot of Abilene, Kansas--supported a steady stream of Texas longhorns
throughout the 1870s. In 1871 alone, 700,000 longhorn steers were
shipped east from Abilene's depot (Rifkin, 71).
The railroads set in motion forces that spelled doom for the buffalo.
The emergence of the livestock industry, combined with the increased
demand for buffalo as a commodity and the ease with which prospective
settlers could reach the West, contributed to the buffalo's demise.
But it was the rise of the livestock industry as a powerful political
force, more than any of the other factors, which sealed the buffalo's
fate. Charles Wilkinson comments on the rapid ascension of the
There were probably no more than 3 or 4 million cattle in the West,
mostly in Texas, in 1865 when the war ended. Two decades later, the
figure was 26 million, along with nearly 20 million sheep. The
diminished range resource, coupled with excessive hunting, drove out
the buffalo, the main competitor for forage (Wilkinson, 1992).
In the years following the Civil War demand for beef, hides, and
tallow skyrocketed as the North began to rebuild its economy and
expand its industrial base. (This increased emphasis on
industrialization simultaneously increased demand for buffalo hides,
which provided a strong yet elastic material from which to make belts
to drive machinery.) The growing middle and upper classes had a nearly
insatiable appetite for beef, and the postwar economic boom gave them
the buying power to satisfy it. Texas alone could not feed the demand.
In response ranchers turned to the western plains, a vast area that
had already demonstrated its ability to sustain large and healthy
populations of ungulates.
But first, the plains' inhabitants-
be removed . This fit in well with the U.S. government's agenda of
"civilizing" or assimilating the Indians. Their nomadic way of life,
dictated by the migrations of buffalo, deer, and elk, did not lend
itself to the European notion of private property ownership and flew
in the face of white attempts to fence and segregate tracts of land
for individual use. Cattlemen formed alliances with the U.S. Army, the
railroads, and eastern bankers to rid the western range of both the
buffalo and the Indian (Rifkin, 73).
The establishment of reservations was an attempt to tame the Indians
of their nomadism and to establish clear boundaries between Indian and
non-Indian lands. Some treaties "protected" the Indian's right to hunt
buffalo in perpetuity, so long as the buffalo remained. The Treaty of
1868, which established the Great Sioux Reservation was one such treaty:
In consideration of the advantages and benefits conferred by this
treaty, and the many pledges of friendship by the United States, the
tribes who are parties to this agreement hereby stipulate that they
will relinquish all right to occupy permanently the territory outside
their reservation as herein defined, but yet reserve the right to hunt
on any lands north of North Platte, and on the Republican Fork of the
Smoky Hill River, so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such
numbers as to justify the chase (Geist 85).
"So long as the buffalo may range." This clause created a clear
incentive for the eradication of the bison.
As the availability of public lands for livestock grazing and white
settlement increased--through the signing of treaties--the fate of the
Indian became inextricably linked to the redistribution of public
lands. Senator Henry Stuart Foote, speaking before Congress in 1849,
made this clear:
What two things can be mentioned more closely connected than our
Indian policy and the policy of the public lands? We claim the fee
simple title to all the lands on the continent possessed by the
various Indian tribes; we only recognize them as having a usufructuary
interest, and some immense span of territory is every year or two
falling into our hands by some treaty effected with them
(Congressional Globe, March 3, 1849).
Much of the public domain land, intended for disposal under the
Homestead Act, proved to be unproductive and incapable of supporting
agriculture and grazing. Congress, under pressure from ranchers and
"given" to the Indians--repeatedly adjusted and readjusted reservation
boundaries and opened these lands to cattle grazing and homesteading.
These were lands that had supposedly been "reserved" for the Indians
in perpetuity. During the peak period of such acquisitions, between
1853 and 1857, 174 million acres of Indian lands were either
redistributed or sold (Danz, 4). When these lands had all been
transferred, ranchers and other powerful whites lobbied Congress for
passage of the Allotment Act, which penetrated the reservation
boundaries and provided for private, non-Indian ownership of lands
The large blocks of land set aside for the Indian tribes initially
posed problems because the reservations were off-limits. The cattle
ranchers ran stock on Indian lands anyway. Finally, the cattlemen,
with the help of other interest groups, achieved the passage of the
General Allotment Act of 1887. The Dawes Act, as it is also called,
resulted in the sale of 90 million acres of the 140-million-
Indian estate and allowed low-cost grazing leases on the remaining
reservation range lands (Wilkinson, 84).
Not only did the Dawes Act open reservation lands without claim or
title to homesteading by white settlers, it made it possible for
whites to purchase lands within reservations from tribal members. This
was desirable to the whites, who believed it necessary for Indians to
adopt European notions of private land ownership and capitalist
principles. While increasing the amount of land available to
non-Indian settlers and ranchers, the Act also served the related
white agenda of "civilizing" the Indians. In the words of Missouri
Senator Parker in 1874,
The solution of the Indian problem is to confine these Indians upon as
small a tract of land as possible, and if possible to make it a
necessity for them to learn to labor and to get a sustenance from the
soil as the white man does, and not depend upon the rivers and the
plains to furnish them their fish and their game (Congressional Record
The settlers were threatened by the nomadic ways of the plains
Indians, who for thousands of years had lived migratory lives
following the great herds of buffalo. To these people, the buffalo was
the ultimate resource. It provided not only food, clothing, and
shelter but nearly every material need. Because the Indians of the
plains depended so much on the bison for their existence, their very
religions were centered around the buffalo. This interdependence
between Indian and buffalo is exemplified in the beautiful words of
John Fire Lame Deer:
The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing.
Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket,
our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive,
holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened
us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted.
His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle.
His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women's awls and
needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs
were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles.
His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred
altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka
Iyotake--Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed
the Indian--the real, natural, "wild" Indian (Fire, 130).
In the 1870s, more buffalo were killed than in any other decade in
history. The three years of 1872, '73, and '74 were the worst.
According to one buffalo hunter, who based his calculations on
first-hand accounts and shipping records, 4.5 million buffalo were
slaughtered in that three year period alone (Mayer, 87).
Influenced by forces discussed above, the U.S. government pursued a
policy to eradicate the buffalo and thereby extinguish the Indians'
very sustenance, forcing them onto reservations. The following speech,
recounted by John Cook--a buffalo hunter, was delivered by General
Phil Sheridan to the Texas legislature in 1875. The legislature, as
the story goes, was discussing a bill to protect the buffalo when the
General took the floor in opposition:
These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in
the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire
regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the
Indians' commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing
its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them
powder and lead, if you will; but for a lasting peace, let them kill,
skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your
prairies can be covered with speckled cattle (Cook, 164).
This testimony, spoken by an Army leader in the Indian wars, spells it
out: The buffalo and the Indian were obstructing the march of
civilization. Kill the buffalo and not only would the Indian wars be
won, but the vast tracks of public land would be opened for cattle.
This belief, that the U.S. government willfully drove the bison to the
brink of extinction, is not embraced by all. Dan Flores, a historian
at the University of Montana, says he's been unable to locate a record
of Sheridan's speech before the legislature and he believes it to be
apocryphal. According to Flores, the notion of a conspiracy has become
fact through repetition (Robbins). Dr. Drew Isenberg, an assistant
professor of history at Princeton, concurs: "I don't think there was a
conspiracy by any means. The army was happy to see hide hunters, but
they were not commanding them to kill bison" (Robbins).
Whether the hide hunters were "commanded" or not, and whether or not
Sheridan actually made the speech attributed to him is irrelevant. The
evidence weighs heavily in favor of a government policy to eradicate
the bison. Whether such a policy was overt or covert, the end results
were the same. The buffalo were driven to the brink of extinction and
the Indians confined to reservations. The following statements, made
by high ranking government officials and those with the power to
create and carry out policy, attest to a concerted campaign to clear
the western range of buffalo.
Frank Mayer hunted buffalo in the 1870s. In Harold Danz's book, Of
Bison and Man, Mayer is quoted as follows:
The buffalo was hunted and killed with the connivance, yes, the
cooperation, of the Government itself. That this will be denied I have
little doubt. (Danz, 115).
In Mayers' own book The Buffalo Harvest, he comments on the
government's role in the extirmination:
Army officers in charge of plains operations encouraged the slaughter
of buffalo in every possible way. Part of this encouragement was of a
practical nature that we runners appreciated. It consisted of
ammunition, free ammunition, all you could use, all you wanted, more
than you needed. All you had to do to get it was apply at any frontier
army post and say you were short of ammunition, and plenty would be
given you. I received thousands of rounds this way. (Mayer, 29).
Mayer tells a story in which he has just obtained free ammunition from
a high ranking Army officer. As the two share a cigarette, the officer
explains why the army is giving away ammunition:
Mayer, either the buffalo must go or the Indian must go. Only when the
Indian becomes absolutely dependent on us for his every need, will we
be able to handle him. He's too independent with the buffalo. But if
we kill the buffalo we conquer the Indian. It seems a more humane
thing to kill the buffalo than the Indian, so the buffalo must go
Eradicating the buffalo as a "humane" alternative to killing the
Indian directly was a prominent theme in the 1870s and '80s (see
congressional discussion of buffalo preservation bills below). Leaders
held fast to the belief that killing the buffalo would bring peace to
the frontier. Cook, the buffalo hunter responsible for preserving the
famous Sheridan speech, reflects the prevailing attitude among the
Army officers he knew:
Then again I thought of what General Sheridan said, which every
old-time army officer with whom I talked sanctioned: destroy the
buffaloes and make a lasting peace" (Cook, 284).
As the testimony of Mayer and Cook illustrate, the Army--the governing
body with the most direct influence on the plains--had an articulated
agenda regarding extermination. Even if we discount Sheridan's Texas
speech, other officers expressed similar views. Colonel Richard Dodge,
without mincing words, made it quite clear:
Kill every buffalo you can, every buffalo gone is an Indian gone (Danz, 112).
These sentiments were also common in the nation's capital. Columbus
Delano, Secretary of Interior under President Grant, was perhaps the
one man most directly responsible for management of the public lands.
A personal friend and advisor to the president, Delano held
considerable political influence. In his 1873 Annual Report of the
Department of the Interior, he reported to Congress:
The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains
upon the plains....I would not seriously regret the total
disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect
upon the Indians, regarding it as a means of hastening their sense of
dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors (Dary,
That Delano impressed his point upon members of Congress is a matter
of public record. In a hearing held in the House of Representatives in
March of 1874, Representative Garfield and other members of Congress
referred to Delano and admitted that they shared his views. Garfield,
arguing against a bill to protect the buffalo, paraphrased Delano,
"The Secretary of the Interior said that he would rejoice, so far as
the Indian question is concerned, when the last buffalo was gone"
These sentiments, which held that all the buffalo should be killed,
continued to be prominent among high ranking politicians. In 1876,
Representative James Throckmorton of Texas expressed his belief that
the mere existence of buffalo posed a serious obstacle to civilization:
There is no question that, so long as there are millions of buffaloes
in the West, so long the Indians cannot be controlled, even by the
strong arm of the Government. I believe it would be a great step
forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of
peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence (Geist, 84).
Although there may have been no "official" government policy to
exterminate the buffalo, there didn't need to be. The sentiment among
politicians in Washington who made the laws and military officers on
the frontier who enforced them was that the buffalo should be killed.
Whether or not the army participated in or assisted with the slaughter
of the buffalo, it allowed the slaughter to take place--even when it
violated federal laws. Much of the killing occurred on lands
recognized by the government as belonging to the Indians. It was
unlawful for whites to trespass onto these lands without permission,
let alone hunt buffalo. Seeking information regarding Army enforcement
of the laws against buffalo hunters, David Dary concludes,
I have found no official records indicating that the government,
especially the military, stopped buffalo hunters or even tried to stop
them from intruding on Indian land, land acknowledged by numerous
government treaties as belonging to the Indians. It is probably one of
the few times that the US. government, and especially the Army,
accomplished what they wanted by officially doing almost nothing
By 1880 the entire southern herd had been decimated and most of the
northern herd as well. With their food source gone, the Indians were
forced to rely on government rations for survival. Ironically, these
rations consisted primarily of beef. In 1880, the government delivered
39,160,729 pounds of beef from western ranchers "to be delivered on
the hoof at 34 Indian Agencies in ten western states (Frink, 13). Not
only did bison eradication clear the plains of bison to make way for
livestock, it created a tremendous demand for beef in the process.
The buffalo were gone. A chapter in history, tens of thousands of
years in the unfolding, came to a sudden close in a very few short
years. Colonel Dodge, himself a player in the great extermination,
eulogized the bison:
Where there were myriads of buffalo, there was now myriads of
carcasses. The air was foul with a sickening stench, and the vast
plain, which only a short twelve months before teemed with animal
life, was a dead, solitary, putrid desert. (Rifkin, 74).
By the turn of the century there was only one wild herd of bison
remaining in the United States. Finding haven in the remote
backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, twenty-three buffalo escaped
slaughter. Ranchers, some hoping to cross-breed buffalo and cattle,
others trying to make money through the preservation of the species,
captured and bred buffalo in captivity. In 1902 the Federal Government
purchased twenty-one bison from herds in Montana and Texas and
released them into Yellowstone National Park (Meagher, 28). Over the
years, the herd swelled to as many as 4000 animals. Today's
Yellowstone herd of 2000--the only descendants of continuously wild
buffalo in this country (Meahger, 1)--traces its ancestry to these
In just the past five years 2,050 members of this herd have been
slaughtered as they leave Yellowstone, making the 1990s the bloodiest
decade for buffalo since the 1870s. Today's slaughter is driven by
many of the same influences which precipitated last century's near
extinction, namely the protection of the special interests of the
livestock industry and a continued attempt to disempower the Native
American population and keep it removed from its former strength and
way of life. In order to see who is responsible for the slaughter one
need only look at the name of the agency behind it: The Montana
Department of Livestock (DOL).
The ostensible justification for the killing, the one given by the DOL
in its statements to the press, is the presence of the brucellosis
bacteria in Yellowstone'
among cattle bordering the park, the state has adopted a zero
tolerance policy for bison leaving the Yellowstone. Bison are killed
as they enter Montana.
The brucellosis organism affects an animal's reproductive system. Cows
infected with brucellosis usually abort their first calf. They tend to
birth normally in subsequent pregnancies. Among cattle it is spread
through afterbirth or aborted fetal material. Recognizing that bulls,
yearling calves, and non-pregnant cows don't produce fetal material,
APHIS has classified them as "low-risk animals."
The ranching community has spent millions of dollars eradicating the
disease--a disease which, like the cattle, originated in Europe.
Montana is afraid that other states, fearing the spread of
brucellosis, will place sanctions on Montana livestock--making it more
difficult and costly to export cattle. Montana is also afraid of
losing its "brucellosis free" status, a designation it gained in 1985,
after eradicating the disease from its cattle herds. The Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the federal agency
responsible for granting such status, does not, however, have the
power to downgrade a state based solely on the presence of infected
wildlife. There must also be an outbreak among cattle.
The likelihood of such an outbreak is extremely remote. Bison and
livestock have shared grazing lands on numerous occasions without a
single transmission. According to one prominent wildlife biologist, in
Grand Teton National Park, where a greater percentage of bison are
infected with the disease--and where bison and cattle have shared
grazing lands for over forty years--the cattle have remained
brucellosis free (Ravndal, 1999). During the winter of 1988-89 when
569 bison were killed near Gardiner, Montana, DOL officials tested 810
cattle from 18 herds that had shared range with those bison and not a
single one tested positive for the disease (Keiter, 4). John Mack, a
scientist with the National Park Service, makes the point quite clearly:
There is no evidence of wild free-roaming bison transmitting
brucellosis to cattle. The state is saying this is a grave threat, and
here you had all these bison mingle with livestock and nothing
happened (Wuerthner, 39).
In a 1992 study, the United States Congress' General Accounting Office
(GAO) concluded that Yellowstone'
transmitting brucellosis to livestock (GAO 1992).
An investigation of the DOL's actions make it quite clear that
brucellosis is not the State's true motivation behind the slaughter.
Even APHIS thinks Montana's livestock department is going too far.
APHIS spokesperson Patrick Collins, in a December 16 article,
criticized the state for unnecessarily slaughtering the animals: "We
don't feel there's a need to kill every bison that comes out of the
park" he said (Kolman, 1).
Under current policy, Montana kills bison in one of two ways: they are
either shot in the field when they exit the Park or they are captured
live, corralled, and blood-tested for brucellosis. Buffalo shot in the
field are not tested for the disease.
Because brucellosis is a reproductive tract disease, all pregnant
females, regardless of how they blood-test, are slaughtered. Bulls,
cows, and calves (all "low risk" animals) testing positive are also
killed. The blood-test used to determine whether the buffalo are
positive or negative has been widely criticized for it inaccuracy.
According to Mary Meyer and Mary Meagher, two of the world's leading
experts on bison:
Although more than 50% of Yellowstone'
Brucella antibodies through blood tests, tissue culture
tests--ordinarily viewed as a more reliable testing protocol for
identifying active infection--indicate a much lower infection rate
(Meyer and Meagher 1995a).
Indeed, the difference between the results of blood and tissue tests
is striking. Ironically, the more accurate (and expensive) tissue test
is conducted only after the animals have been killed. Mac Carelli, a
slaughterhouse owner who subcontracts for the DOL, said that in a
shipment of 200 bison he slaughtered during the winter of 1997, only
two tissue tested positive for brucellosis (Mease). Both of these
animals were "low risk" bulls. During February of this year, when the
DOL had killed nineteen of the 94 buffalo it would kill last winter, I
called APHIS and asked for the result of the tissue test. Of the
nineteen buffalo slaughtered, only two had culture tested positive.
Again, both were "low risk" bulls incapable of transmitting the disease.
In the very improbable event of a brucellosis outbreak, APHIS has the
legal power to isolate the problem by subdividing the state for
brucellosis classification purposes. Thus, if a herd near Yellowstone
were infected, the entire state's brucellosis-
jeopardized. Yet the Department of Livestock and Montana Governor Marc
Racicot repeatedly defend their actions with the assertion that the
Yellowstone herd threatens the livelihood of all Montana ranchers.
Additionally, if a rancher's herd were affected, federal and state law
require that he or she be compensated for any loss incurred. It would
be much more efficient and effective to concentrate brucellosis
disease control efforts on cattle rather than on the current and
costly bison policy currently in place. Robert Keiter, having
conducted extensive legal and scientific research on the issue, agrees:
A comprehensive disease control policy would provide the regional
livestock industry with adequate protection against brucellosis in
wildlife while also acknowledging the national importance of
There are many inconsistencies in Montana's assertion that brucellosis
is driving the slaughter. West of the park, where all the killing of
bison has occurred in the past two winters, bison and cattle do not
come in contact with one another. Because of the severity of the
winters, cattle are only present on those lands from June to
September, by which time the buffalo have returned to their summer
range inside the park. Without any overlap, there is obviously no risk
Another glaring inconsistency is the presence of brucellosis in
don't raise the ire of the Department of Livestock. Again I draw from
the research of Bob Keiter, a professor of law at the University of
No provision is made for addressing the related problem of brucellosis
in the region's elk population (Keiter, 8).
An effective policy must address the disease in both bison and elk. A
policy directed solely at bison cannot succeed as long as elk carry
the disease and as long as the two species continue to congregate
annually in close quarters (Keiter, 3).
Why are the elk, who are acknowledged to have brucellosis, allowed to
range freely between Yellowstone and public and private lands
surrounding the park while the buffalo are killed for crossing the
invisible boundary? According to Louis LaRose, a member of the
Winnebago tribe, it all has to do with economics: Elk can cross the
boundary freely "because they represent an economic resource to the
state of Montana" (LaDuke). The state earns eleven million dollars
annually on the sale of elk hunting licenses. In the eyes of the
state, elk leaving the park and entering Montana bring money. Bison,
who compete with the cattle over limited grazing range, cost the
cattle producers. This, more than the threat of brucellosis, drives
the slaughter of Yellowstone'
Indeed the bison are discriminated against on federal lands bordering
the park, lands designated as "wildlife habitat." Buffalo find
themselves in a Catch-22 situation. Inside the park they are treated
as wildlife yet on their winter range in Montana they are routinely
rounded up and slaughtered like cattle. Many people are beginning to
wonder why the bison are treated so differently than deer, elk,
antelope, and other wildlife, which are allowed to freely migrate at
their will. Conducting research for the December 1997 issue of
National Parks magazine, George Wuerthner interviewed an official
working with the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish. The official,
who asked to remain anonymous, provides an answer to this question:
If the public gets used to the idea that bison, like elk and deer,
should be free to roam on federal lands managed by the Forest Service
and Bureau of Land Management, then it may lead to a reduction in the
amount of public lands forage allotted to livestock. That's what the
ranchers really fear (Wuerthner).
This fear, that bison will eat the cattle's grass, is strong among
ranchers. Additionally, notions of "civilization,
foothold in the West through eradication of the great bison herds,
have become entrenched in the American mind. Reluctant to relinquish
the idea that the western range was created for the cattle, the
livestock industry fears the vision of buffalo on lands outside the
Park. The words of Representative Conger, spoken on the floor of the
U.S. House of Representatives more than a hundred and twenty years
ago, reflect an attitude toward bison still prevalent today:
They eat the grass. They trample upon the plains upon which our
settlers desire to herd their cattle and their sheep. There is no
mistake about that. They range over the very pastures where the
settlers keep their herds of cattle. They destroy the pasture. They
are as uncivilized as the Indian (Rep Conger C.R. 2107).
This is at the heart of the issue. The successful recovery of the
Yellowstone herd, in the minds of the cattle barons, represents a
threat to the livestock industry. Buffalo, as they were in 1870, are
seen as an obstacle to be overcome. Unlike the cow, the buffalo is not
"civilized." He eats grass, after all! Nor do Buffalo respect the
barbed wire fence or respond well to domestication. There is no room
for such a creature in the white man's view of the world. Sentiments
like one above and the one to follow, spoken by the buffalo hunter
Frank Meyer, express the true motivations behind the slaughter:
The buffalo didn't fit in so well with the white man's encroaching
controlled or domesticated. He couldn't be corralled behind wire
fences. He was a misfit. So he had to go (Mayer, 27).
With the Yellowstone herd reaching 4000 animals by the mid 1990s and
threatening to re-establish itself on public lands surrounding the
park--lands designated as "wildlife habitat," the livestock industry
became alarmed. If bison were allowed--like deer, elk, and other wild
species--to roam freely across the park boundary, it would send a
message to a changing West: buffalo can survive outside the park.
Speaking with a DOL agent--who wouldn't tell me his name--last winter,
I asked him why the buffalo are being killed. "Because," he told me,
"They'd be swimmin' in the sea if we didn't kill them." To the vested
powers of the livestock industry--condition
was put on the public lands to feed livestock--this would be
The Gallatin National Forest abuts Yellowstone to the north and west.
The majority of bison exiting the park winter on the Gallatin. Most of
the buffalo killed in the past 5 winters were killed on the Gallatin.
Although the Forest Service, under the National Forest Management Act,
is charged with conserving biological diversity, none of the national
forests around the park have designated bison as an indicator
species--a move that would offer them significant protection.
Additionally, because the Forest Service is in charge of permitting
livestock grazing on lands under its management, it could regulate
grazing permits to eliminate any possible conflicts between bison and
livestock, including the potential transmission of brucellosis
(Keiter, 6). To date, the Forest Service has done neither.
In recent years the Forest Service has faced a barrage of criticism
for its mismanagement of public lands. According to a recent
investigative article in the San Jose Mercury News, the Forest Service
and the BLM only spent half as much money on restoring endangered
species as they lost on their grazing program (Rogers). The agency
often defends itself by passing the buck to the state wildlife
agencies, saying it is they who are responsible for managing wildlife.
Dave Garber, Forest Supervisor for the Gallatin, is a case in point:
"The public should not assume," he said, "that there is any wildlife
on the land we manage as wildlife habitat." His colleague, Rich Inman
clarified, "the Forest Service only manages the habitat, not the
The irony in these statements becomes even more apparent when you
consider the fact that thousands of bison have been killed on these
lands which carry the "wildlife habitat" designation. In fact, these
very lands were specifically set aside by Congress in the 1926
Gallatin Land Agreement to protect wildlife. The legislation was
make additions to the Absaroka and Gallatin National Forests, and the
Yellowstone National Park, to improve and extend the winter feed
facilities of the elk, antelope, and other game animals of Yellowstone
National Park and adjacent land (69th Congress).
According to the Gallatin's Forest Plan, the goals for management of
these lands are: "1. Maintain and/or enhance big game habitat. 2. Meet
grizzly bear mortality reduction goals as established by the
Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. 3. Provide forage for livestock
consistent with goal 1" (Gallatin National Forest, p. III-44).
The Forest Service is acting in a clear conflict of interest. By
buckling to pressures from the livestock industry and assisting the
DOL with the capture and slaughter of bison (a capture facility is
operated on Forest Service land near West Yellowstone at Horse Butte,
MT) the agency seems to be violating both the original intent of the
lands under its management and its own Forest Plan.
The Forest Service, so clearly violating its own mandate to protect
habitat, is betraying an influence with deeper roots than the
"scientific management" by which it is supposed to operate. In the
words of Native American activist Wanona LaDuke, "This is not a
'wildlife management issue.' It is a deeper spiritual issue that
connects [tribal nations] to the very fabric of who they are" (LaDuke).
Just like last century, the influence of the cattle baron is heard
loud and clear while the Native American voice falls on deaf ears. To
the western cattle rancher, the cow represents an economic interest
and a way of life barely a hundred years old. To Native Americans the
buffalo represents the essence of their social, cultural, and
spiritual identity and a relationship going back tens of thousands of
years. That the tribes haven't even been allowed to sit at the table
while the ranchers and politicians decide the fate of the buffalo
reflects both the lack of wisdom and the utter disrespect of those in
charge. No one has a closer relationship to the buffalo than the
Native American. Why are the tribes being left out?
Absent are the people who actually know the buffalo: the Nez Perce,
Blackfeet and Crow, and others whose treaties encompass part of
Yellowstone National Park, or the Winnebago, Ho Chunk, Lakota,
Anishinabe, Kiowa, Gros Ventre, Cheyenne, Shoshone Bannock and others,
whose spiritual practices, cultural practices, languages and lives are
entirely intertwined with buffalo. To us, the buffalo is the Western
Doorkeeper, the Elder Brother, the Great One (LaDuke).
Not only is the tribal voice being ignored--but as the actions of
policy makers and enforcers in the field attest--the religion and
culture of those who consider the buffalo sacred are being willfully
disrespected and insulted. The actions of the Department of Livestock
are not unlike the actions of their predecessors, the buffalo hunters
and Army officers who perpetrated the slaughter of the 1870s.
On March 7, 1997, during a winter when 1,084 buffalo were killed,
American Indian tribal leaders from around the country gathered near
Gardiner, Montana, to hold a day of prayer for the buffalo. The
ceremony was disrupted by the violence of gunshots. Lakota elder
Rosalie Little Thunder left the prayer circle to investigate the
shots. Less than two miles away, Department of Livestock agents had
killed fourteen buffalo. Walking across a field to pray over the
bodies, she was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. To Little
Thunder and other tribal members present there was no question of
coincidence: "They shot the buffalo because we were at that place on
that day at that time," she told me (Little Thunder).
The extirpation of the herds during the last century and the current
slaughter taking place on the boundaries of Yellowstone National park
are fundamentally one and the same. They are fueled, at a base level,
by many very similar economic motivations, fears, and misperceptions.
While last century's slaughter was motivated by fears of the
pre-cattle West, it might be said that the current slaughter grows
>from similar fears of a post-cattle West. In recent years there has
been an emerging vision of bison repopulating the plains. This vision
is encouraged and embraced by Native American and environmental
organizations (Ravndal). Bumper stickers saying "Bring Back the Bison"
and "Bison Belong" have sprung up. Scholars like Debra and Frank
Popper have developed and encouraged the idea of a "Buffalo Commons"
as a way to save the ailing economies of the Great Plains states. The
Intertribal Bison Cooperative, a group of some fifty tribes, is
working to restore buffalo to native lands and renew the cultural and
spiritual relationship with the buffalo. Bison numbers on Indian lands
have more than tripled since 1992 (Popper and Popper, 1998). These are
all hopeful signs of a healthy future. To get there we must come to
see the current slaughter for what it is. It is with this goal in mind
that I set out to write this paper. I hope that it has helped.
Brown, Mark and W. Felton, Before Barbed Wire. Henry Holt, New York, 1956.
Callenbach, Ernest. "Rangelands are Waiting for Bison." Defenders
Journal: Winter, 1995-96. Defenders of Wildlife.
Clawson, Marion. The Bureau of Land Management. Praeger Publishers,
New York, 1971.
The Congressional Globe. 43rd Congress. 1st Session. Part 3. 2105-2109.
Cook, John. The Border and the Buffalo. R.R. Donnelley and Sons,
Danz, Harold. Of Bison and Man. University Press of Colorado, Niwot, CO, 1997.
Dary, David. The Buffalo Book. Avon Books, New York, 1974.
Frink, Maurice. When Grass Was King. University of Colorado Press,
Boulder, CO, 1956.
Fire, John and R. Erdoes. Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions. Simon and
Schuster, New York, 1972.
Gallatin National Forest. Forest Plan. United States Department of
Agriculture. Forest Service.
Geist, Valerius. Buffalo Nation: History and Legend of the North
American Bison. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minnesota, 1996.
General Accounting Office. Wildlife management: many issues unresolved
in Yellowstone bison-cattle conflict. GAO Report RCED-93-2. Government
Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1992
Little Thunder, Rosalie. Personal Communication. 11/5/99.
Keiter, Robert. "Greater Yellowstone'
American Wildlife Conservation Achievement.
Management, 61 (1): 1-11. January 1997.
Kolman, Joe. "Feds pull out of bison talks with Montana." Billings
Gazette: Bozeman Bureau. December 16, 1999.
LaDuke, Winona. "Winter Comes to Yellowstone: Ushering in Another
Bison Kill." Indian Country Today, 12/13/99.
Mayer, Frank and Charles Roth. The Buffalo Harvest. Sage Books, Denver, 1958.
Meagher, Mary. The Bison of Yellowstone National Park. United States
Department of the Interior. National Park Service, 1973.
Mease, Mike and D. Brister. Buffalo Bull. A Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers
Video Documentary. August 1998.
Meyer, M. and M. Meagher. "Brucellosis in free-ranging bison in
Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Wood Buffalo National Parks: a Review.
Journal of Wildlife Disease, 31: 597-598, 1995.
Popper, Frank and D. Popper. "The Bison are Coming." High Country
News, 30 (2). February 2. pp. 15, 17.
Ravndal, Virginia. "Visualize Wildlife on Public Lands Designated as
'Wildlife Habitat': That May be the Only Way You're Likely to See
Any." Guest Editorial: Bozeman Chronicle, September 4, 1998.
Ravndal, Virginia. Personal Communication, October 1999.
Rifkin, Jeremy. Beyond Beef. Penguin Books, New York, 1992.
Robbins, Jim. "Historians Revisit Slaughter on the Plains." NY Times.
Rogers, Paul and D. LaFleur. "The Giveaway of the West: A Mercury News
Special Report." San Jose Mercury News. November 7, 1999.
69th Congress, 1st Session. U.S. House of Representatives: Report no 879.
Wuerthner, George. "The Battle over Bison." National Parks: November/
Wilkinson, Charles. Crossing the Next Meridian. Island Press,
Washington, DC, 1992.
Appendix: Interesting and Related Quotations
You people make a big talk, and sometimes war, if an Indian kills a
white man's ox to keep his wife and children from starving. What do
you think my people ought to say and do when they themselves see their
cattle [buffalo] killed by your race when they are not hungry?
--Cheyenne Chief Little Robe during a visit to Washington, DC, 1870s
We did not ask you white men to come here. The Great Spirit gave us
this country as a home. You had yours. We did not interfere with you.
The Great Spirit gave us plenty of land to live on, and buffalo, deer,
antelope and other game. But you came here; you are taking my land
>from me; you are killing off our game, so it is hard for us to live.
Now, you tell us to work for a living, but the Great Spirit did not
make us to work, but to live by hunting. You white men can work if you
want to. We do not interfere with you, and again you say, why do you
not become civilized? We do not want your civilization! We would live
as our fathers did, and their fathers before them. --Oglala Sioux
Chief Crazy Horse, 1870s (Geist, 83)
Ten years ago the Plains Indians had an ample supply of food....Now
everything is gone, and they are reduced to the condition of paupers,
without food, shelter, clothing, or any of those necessaries of life
which came from the buffalo.- Colonel Richard Dodge, Indian fighter,
1882 (Geist 85)
It may be possible in our mercy to the buffalo we may be cruel to the
Indian. It is the only possible objection which can be urged to this
bill (Rep Garfield, C.R. 2107).
There is just as much propriety in depopulating our rivers, in
destroying the fish in our rivers, as in destroying the buffalo in
order to induce the Indian to become civilized. We may as well not
only destroy the buffalo, but the fish in the rivers, the birds in the
air; we may as well destroy the squirrels, lizards, prairie-dogs, and
everything else upon which the Indian feeds. The argument, Mr.
Speaker, is a disgrace to anybody who makes it" (Rep Eldredge
Wisconsin C.R. 2107).
As well might you burn all the grass in the Indian country and around
it, kill every bird, dig up every root, destroy every animal, and take
away from the Indian the means of living, and in that way you will,
perhaps, be able to get them under your control, and be able to board
them at the Fifth Avenue Hotel and civilize them to you
to wipe out the buffalo in order to get the Indians upon reservations
(Rep Hawley, of CT C.R. 2107).
It will not do in this age of civilization and Christianity to attempt
to exterminate the Indians by starving them to death (Rep Lowe, Kansas
I do not believe that it is necessary to preserve them in order to
support and maintain and civilize the Indians. I believe that so long
as these buffaloes exist it will have just the opposite effect, so
long as you pursue the present Indian policy (Parker of Missouri C.R.
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