Back in the day, tens of millions of American bison, or buffalo, roamed the North American plains. By the turn of the 20th century, they numbered in the mere thousands.
So it comes with great pride and relief that the buffalo herd in Yellowstone National Park, which once fell to as low as a few dozen, now numbers more than the previous total North American buffalo population.
In fact, the number of buffalo roaming Yellowstone—some 4,900—has grown so large that the federal government has undertaken an annual culling to control the population. This year, government agencies plan to kill at least 600 to 900 animals in order to keep numbers manageable, a process that involves both killings by hunters and capturing for slaughter.
This can be a gruesome affair, and in recent years officials have prevented the public, including journalists, from observing and documenting the process. This does not sit well with a number of parties, not least of all animal rights activists, and in late January a journalist and a wildlife advocate asked a federal court to temporarily block the culling and slaughter of the buffalo, which is slated to start on Feb. 15.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and two constitutional law professors filed the federal lawsuit on the behalf of journalist Christopher Ketcham and wild bison advocate Stephany Seay. Ketcham and Seay are demanding access to the trapping operations that lead up the the slaughter, arguing that the First Amendment "guarantees citizens and journalists reasonable, non-disruptive access to the publicly funded national park."
According to the group, to replace the policy allowing members of the public to witness the operation, the Park Service is now proposing to offer only three supervised tours through the Stephens Creek Capture Facility, where the bison are held in pens, tested, and eventually transported to their slaughter.
A park spokesman said the restrictions on access are necessary to protect park workers and the public because moving the bison can be dangerous.
Those filing the lawsuit contest that any part of the operation qualifies as a valuable use of government resources.
“No one wants their federal tax dollars to be used by Park Service rangers to abuse and kill the very animals the service is responsible for protecting,” said Seay in a statement. “The Park Service doesn’t want the public to see these shameful activities.”
According to Seay's organization, the Buffalo Field Campaign, the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), responsible for overseeing the culling, has used the banner of "disease risk management" to kill nearly 9,000 buffalo since 1985 in an effort to prevent the buffalo from transmitting brucellosis to livestock. The Buffalo Field Campaign states that there has never been a documented case of a wild buffalo transmitting brucellosis—a non-fatal disease originally brought to North America by European cows—to livestock.
"Yellowstone is the last place where wild, migratory, un-fenced bison exist," Seay told me. "If the millions of people visiting Yellowstone every year knew what was happening at Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek bison trap, we would put an end to it."
There's also the issue of space, as the target goal of the IBMP is 3,000 buffalo. The more buffalo there are, the more they wander out of park boundaries in the winter and into their historically larger range. Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said in January that "the park would gladly reduce the frequency and magnitude of these operations if migrating bison had access to more habitat outside the park or there was a way to transfer live bison elsewhere."
Wenk said this could involve sending certain healthy animals to other public, private, or tribal lands.
In 2016, this may finally be starting to happen, as a plan has been approved to allow hundreds of bison to roam year-round on about 400 square miles of mostly public lands just west of Yellowstone in Montana.
"There is most certainly a way for the bison population to grow, for wild bison to restore themselves on the landscape, on their terms, and help recover not only themselves, but the prairies and grasslands they are such an intricate part of," Seay said. "The habitat is there, there’s plenty of room on public and buffalo-friendly-private lands. It is only politics that are stopping it from happening."
The recovery of the American bison from near extinction is one of the most powerful conservation success stories ever in America. For an animal that occupies such a prominent place in the history of the nation, and the culture of many people, it's promising that stakeholders may be rising to the challenge of nurturing these beasts even further back to life in the 21st century.