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A Wildlife Tour Guide Speaks Out Against Destruction Of Yellowstone Bison

Conservationist Phil Knight Criticizes Treatment of America's Official National Mammal

There has not been a single documented case of brucellosis being transmitted from wild Yellowstone bison to cattle in Montana yet over 10,300 have been killed based on the mere possibility it could happen.  Photo by NPS / Jacob W. Frank
There has not been a single documented case of brucellosis being transmitted from wild Yellowstone bison to cattle in Montana yet over 10,300 have been killed based on the mere possibility it could happen. Photo by NPS / Jacob W. Frank
Last spring the state of Montana and National Park Service sent 748 Yellowstone bison to their doom at slaughterhouses. Another 453 of the charismatic, shaggy critters were killed by hunters on the Yellowstone Park border. That’s over 1,200 bison killed, the most since 2008—10,300 since the late 1980s. 

The silence over this wholesale slaughter of the United States’ recently-designated official  “National Mammal” has been deafening. And the slaughter is not over. 

Another 1,200 Yellowstone bison are to be destroyed in the spring of 2018 in an effort to bring the population down to the artificial carrying capacity of 3,000. That means nearly half of Yellowstone’s bison will be killed in less than two years, reducing the animals from 5,500 in winter 2017 to 3,000 in summer 2018.

There are going to be a lot fewer bison to see in Yellowstone. Yellowstone is the best place in the world to observe wild bison, but they are going to be harder to find. I work as a tour guide in Yellowstone and it is always a thrill to share the sight of bison herds hundreds strong roaming the Lamar and Hayden valleys, especially during the summer rut when the bulls roar and grunt and fight.


Bison belong on this landscape. Yellowstone is the only place in the world with bison, wolves and grizzly bears, all interacting. The bison make it a vibrant and wild and fecund ecosystem. I believe the ongoing slaughter and removal of large numbers of bison is impoverishing the ecosystem by eliminating hundreds of thousands of pounds of sheer biomass, never to return. 

Imagine how many bears and wolves and other scavengers all those bison could feed. We are worried about grizzly bears losing food sources like whitebark pine and Cutthroat trout, but what about bison? The first thing a grizzly looks for as it emerges from hibernation is a winter-killed carcass, and that is often a bison.

On December 22, 2015, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock approved an expanded tolerance zone for bison in Montana. While the governor’s decision has eased the hazing of bison on the Park’s western border and allowed some bulls to wander in the Gardiner Basin unmolested, the annual slaughter at Reese Creek over the invisible northern park line makes a mockery of this so-called tolerance.

The largest area of increased bison tolerance is the Taylor Fork drainage and the upper Gallatin River (see map). Nearly three years later, how many bison do you suppose are in that area? That's right, zero. The bison cannot get there on their own due to topography and deep snow. Meanwhile hundreds are being slaughtered to meet a population target set by an outdated, 2001 management plan.

Map showing lands where state of Montana agreed to allow Yellowstone bison more room to roam outside the national park.  Unfortunately, says Phil Knight, the full promise of the deal hasn't been realized. Map courtesy Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Map showing lands where state of Montana agreed to allow Yellowstone bison more room to roam outside the national park. Unfortunately, says Phil Knight, the full promise of the deal hasn't been realized. Map courtesy Greater Yellowstone Coalition
No doubt, brucellosis in bison is still a problem, even though there has never been a proven case of wild bison transmitting the disease to livestock. But bison can be and often are tested for brucellosis before being transported anywhere. Why are sero-negative bison not being trucked to the Taylor Fork?

The Taylor Fork is a huge drainage with vast meadows, no cattle and minimal human population. There are a few guest ranches offering horseback rides and guided hunts. It is designated as a bison tolerance zone. 

Imagine the hunting opportunities in the Taylor Fork once bison become established. It could be a real hunt for wild animals instead of the canned hunt that occurs near Gardiner.

Bison in Montana get a very raw deal. They are treated like livestock, when in fact they are native wild animals. The Interagency Bison Management Plan needs to be updated, bison should be transported to the Taylor Fork, and our National Mammal should get the respect it deserves.

Surely American Bison deserve far better than this. We pushed them to the brink of extinction in the wild, yet they persevere.

These are the wildlife that the U.S. Cavalry and National Park Service put 50 years into restoring to a self-sustaining population after we nearly lost the species.
Yellowstone bison photo by Phil Knight
Yellowstone bison photo by Phil Knight
These are the animals that sustained some of the most magnificent nomadic nations the world has ever seen – the Plains Indian tribes.

These are the megafauna that survived the great Pleistocene extinctions that wiped out such impressive beasts as woolly mammoths and giant short-faced bears.

These are the Thunderbeast of legend, shakers of the Earth with their vast herds once covering the plains with a brown, moving carpet that took hours and hours to pass.

These are Tatanka, sacred animals to entire nations of people who drove them over cliffs in chaotic harvests and built up deep layers of their bones.

These are the Buffalo, an irreplaceable part of the legend of the Wild West.

These are Bison bison, giver of life to an entire vanishing high plains ecosystem and benefactor of the prairie dog, ferruginous hawk, burrowing owl, swift fox, and black-footed ferret.

Bring back the buffalo, and let them roam free again.

Phil Knight
About Phil Knight

Phil Knight, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a conservationist for many decades. Besides being a leader in promoting protection of wilderness and old-growth forests in the U.S. and abroad, he is an avid outdoor recreationist, author of the book Into Deepest Yellowstone, and leader of nature tours.
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