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Hope for Wild American Buffalo?

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Hope for Wild American Buffalo?

[Ed. Note: Videos - Bison Hazing, Bison Slaughter Facility.]

By Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign
April 2012

Stephany Seay is the Media Coordinator with Buffalo Field Campaign. She has spent fifteen years working to help wild buffalo, nine seasons in the field on the front lines with Buffalo Field Campaign, and she will not stop until wild buffalo roam free again.

Threatened with Extinction, Abused by Government, Yet Still Migrating...

It’s a story nearly everyone knows: once upon a time there roamed 30 to 60 million buffalo in North America, thundering across the plains as far as the eye could see. Spanning in all directions upon Turtle Island, the mighty buffalo represented the largest concentration of land mammal in North America. They fed, sheltered, clothed and gave spiritual meaning to great Nations. Buffalo, indeed, represent the sovereignty of the land herself.

For over 800,000 years buffalo evolved in over twenty distinct ecosystems on theNorth American continent, from the giant Bison latafrons and Bison antiquitious to the “small” one-ton gentle giants, Bison bison, we know today. It makes my heart sing to know that the recent ancestors of today’s buffalo once walked with woolly mammoths. Buffalo inhabited 1/3 of the North American landmass – more than two billion acres, with the heart of hearts of the buffalo’s homelands in the grass-rich Great Plains.

For thousands of years, the Great Plains, the largest single ecosystem in North America, was maintained by the buffalo. By their sheer numbers, weight, and behavior, they cultivated the prairie. It is said that their thundering hooves danced on the earth as they moved by the millions; their steps resounded in the vast underground water system, the Ogallala Aquifer, stimulating its health and seeding the prairies. ~ Winona LaDuke, Buffalo Nation (Sierra May/June 2000)

For tens of thousands of years, First Nations buffalo cultures coexisted in a respectful and meaningful way with the buffalo, enabling a sacred relationship and reverence for life to flourish between human and non-human. The buffalo and the people were one. This we know.

Then pre-history, the time before European invaders, suddenly and harshly became “history,” bringing with it the sad, shameful story repeated in so many books. Buffalo were nearly wiped off the face of Earth forever… By 1830, buffalo were lost east of the Mississippi River. As Europeans conducted their westward invasion, hammering the earth with railroad tracks across the heart of the land, the great herds of the Plains became permanently divided. As the invaders pressed on the buffalo perished at an alarming rate. The 1870s and 1880s, in particular, were the bloodiest years for the buffalo, and by the end of the century they were nearly sentenced to extinction. This we know.

Over the decades since, various efforts lead to the existence of a variety of populations of buffalo, which has also led to the false boasting that buffalo represent one of the"greatest conservation success stories" ever known. This is a lie.

While it is true that there are nearly 400,000 animals in buffalo shape throughout the country, the vast majority of these animals are managed as livestock and raised on ranches for meat, just like cattle. Others tell it true and say these ranched herds are “game farmed” like deer and elk sadly are. And they reside in private ownership, just like cattle. Most of these herds can be called “beefalo,” as they are contaminated with European/Asian cattle genes. Of the 20,000 or so buffalo that exist in public herds, managed by state and federal agencies, the majority of these, too, are contaminated with cattle genes and also managed under livestock models, not much better than their domesticated beefalo cousins.

“Less than 1.5% of bison are genetically Bison bison.” (Freese).

"Current management of private, state and Federal bison herds is leading towards domestication of bison that threatens their wild character and limits important natural selection processes." Position Statement of the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society on Wild Bison in Montana

These buffalo-like herds have given the harmfully false impression that buffalo are plentiful and doing just fine, thank you. Make no mistake: Wild – self-willed and free moving - American buffalo, Bison bison, are ecologically extinct and their identity as a wildlife species, as well as their evolutionary potential is absolutely threatened.

The extensive prevalence of cattle genes in bison populations (Polziehn; Ward; Halbert), habitat fragmentation, loss of natural habitats and isolated populations (Boyd), limited range and population sizes, artificial selection, intensive management, unnatural confinement to fenced ranges, absence of predators, introduction of non-native disease (Freese) are some of the risk factors of ecological extinction that threaten the identity of American bison as a wildlife species.

Standing out as the unique population – the last continuously wild buffalo in North America – are the so-called Yellowstone buffalo herds. These are not “Yellowstone” buffalo, as ranchers who would see them held prisoner in the Park like to claim; they are the last remaining continuously WILD American buffalo. At the edge of extinction on the sunset of the 19th century, 23 individual buffalo were found existing in what is now Yellowstone National Park. These buffalo had escaped slaughter by seeking refuge in Yellowstone’s remote Pelican Valley. Today, their descendants number fewer than 3,700 animals, and their vulnerable fate is at the nefarious hands of Montana’s livestock interests and the state and federal government agencies – including Yellowstone National Park - who participate in their abuse and slaughter under the infamous Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). The IBMP aims to defend the interests of Montana’s livestock producers and, since its signing in the year 2000, the IBMP has been responsible for the deaths of nearly 4,000 wild buffalo.

"The Bison of Yellowstone National Park are unique among bison herds in the United States, being descendants, in part, of the only continuously wild herd in this country." Dr. Margaret Mary Meagher, retired Yellowstone National Park bison biologist

A more recent report by National Park Service scientists Dratch and Gogan suggests for the first time that only the Yellowstone bison population retain their wildlife identity.

Why aren’t wild bison protected under the Endangered Species Act? Some efforts have been made – sadly unsuccessfully – to gain the wild bison of the Yellowstone region protection under the Endangered Species Act. The government, specifically the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, points to a “lack of evidence” and has so far refused to shelter these last wild herds with federal protection. In fact, outrageously and completely irresponsibly, Yellowstone National Park is telling people who write with concern for the buffalo:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports there are well over 400,000 bison in the United States, with over 20,000 in conservation herds. Repeated attempts to have bison listed as an endangered or threatened species have been rejected due to lack of evidence. (Yellowstone National Park in an email to a wild buffalo advocate, February 23, 2012)

But, just ask the wild buffalo that remain. What is their perspective? What more evidence does one need?

The presence of the buffalo/beefalo herds that exist on ranches, in private hands, and in poorly managed public herds lead people to believe that buffalo are everywhere and that there is no threat to their existence. This is the so-called “conservation success” : domestication. But, instead, the stark reality is that the last continuously wild populations existing in the Yellowstone region are threatened with global extinction and yet all is severely mismanaged by governments serving the economic interests of livestock producers.

There is so much evidence and documentation that outlines the dire straights of these last wild herds, and yet the government agencies in charge act contrary to their own information, manipulating facts to serve their own interests and economic greed. Montana, who holds a zero-tolerance policy for wild buffalo refuses them year-round habitat and initiates government programs which kill and abuse these sacred, gentle beings, yet recognize buffalo as such:

Within Montana, bison are designated with an S2 ranking, defined as: ‘At risk because of very limited and/or potentially declining population numbers, range and/or habitat, making it vulnerable to global extinction or extirpation in the state….’ The Montana Comprehensive Fish and Wildlife Conservation Strategy (MCFWCS) identifies bison as a Tier One Species. In the MCFWCS , a Tier One Species is a species considered in greatest conservation need.

And yet, Montana’s Department of Livestock (opposite of wildlife) has authority over these sacred ENDANGERED beings when they cross the meaningless manmade line from Yellowstone into Montana, and enlists the help of Montana’s wildlife agency, Fish, Wildlife & Parks, along with the federal government – including Yellowstone National Park, USDA-Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (the federal livestock overseer) and the National Forest Service – in conducting forced removal of buffalo from their chosen ground using horsemen, helicopters and law enforcement; conducting invasive research experiments, including proposed birth control; enlisting hunters to shoot wild buffalo along Yellowstone’s borders when they enter Montana; capturing buffalo in magnified livestock corrals to torture them with testing and shipment to slaughter; capturing calves and yearlings to be raised in domestication settings to create “clean” herds; tagging, testing, vaginal implants, bull rape, collaring, and other horrendous forms of disrespect that suffer the buffalo to be treated as vermin .

The centuries-old buffalo wars rage on, and yet, against hundreds of years of persecution, against all these odds, wild buffalo still remain! They are in peril, and we must act. They still exist and we must celebrate! Year after year, in the winter and spring on the edge of Montana, the buffalo still come. They come to their traditional winter range and ancestral calving grounds. They come meeting danger, and are refused access to the lands that are their birthright. But, still they come. Like the tides and the rivers, they cannot be stopped. And this persistence, resistance, endurance… this is the stuff of hope.

For the buffalo, we stand strong, and we are here working in their defense. For the buffalo, we act and we visualize until we realize:

Let us restore their sovereignty, so they may flourish, giving their gift of abundance to the people who love them, and let them return to heal the wounded land.

Here on the front lines with the last wild buffalo, as we attempt to change the course and ensure their future, we come to the understanding and continue to be reminded that it is not us saving the buffalo, but the buffalo teaching us to save us from ourselves. And, as you read this, in just a few short weeks from now, buffalo mothers-to-be will begin bringing forth the next generation!

ROAM FREE!

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