Sadly, as we all know, most of North America's buffalo (also known as bison) were hunted to extinction at the turn of the last century; but buffalo in Yellowstone National Park survived. At the end of the 19th Century, there were less than two dozen buffalo left in the area. They were some of the last of their kind in North America. And they were deemed so important that the U.S. Calvary was brought in to protect them.
Today the offspring of that lonely group are the last, original, free ranging herd of bison in the United States. The problem for bison is that the Park that proved to be their refuge does not have enough winter foraging habitat to sustain the herd's population. Bison thus migrate out of the Park at the close of winter to graze at lower elevations and so that pregnant females can give birth to their calves. All good, right? Nope.
Buffalo, like elk, can carry a disease called brucellosis. Cattle can also catch brucellosis and, if they do, it can cause cows to abort their fetuses. Not good if you're a rancher. Spurred by concerns that Yellowstone's bison herd might pass brucellosis onto grazing cows--and jeopardize Montana's "brucellosis free" cattle status--state and Park officials have had a longstanding policy of not allowing bison to leave the Park. When animals cross outside of the Park's boundaries they are hazed back in, and those that persist in their natural migration are captured and usually killed.
I could (but won't) go on about how dumb this policy is. For a full explanation, see NRDC's Buffalo campaign page here. But put the broader policy aside for a moment and consider this: there is one area, called the Horse Butte Peninsula, on the West Side of the Park where there are no cattle to infect. Moreover, the folks who own the Peninsula, which is used by hundreds of bison to give birth to their young, welcome the buffalos' presence. But has that stopped Montana from persisting in capturing and killing buffalo who try to migrate to Horse Butte? Nope. Inexplicably, they insist on killing bison who are trying to migrate to a habit, where there are no cows.
Yesterday, NRDC, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and Buffalo Field Campaign, hoping to do something about the slaughter at Horse Butte, sent an urgent letter to Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer (and administrators of several state and federal agencies with oversight of the buffalo) urging him to allow the migration onto the Horse Butte Peninsula.
NRDC also has joined an emergency petition to the Secretary of the Interior , prepared by the Animal Welfare Institute and the Buffalo Field Campaign, to prohibit the National Park Service from killing or participating in the killing of bison, or otherwise permanently removing bison from either population, when the population is reduced to 2,000 or fewer. This year, the kill numbers are so high (over 1,500) that they threaten the genetic viability of ht entire herd.
Why does this matter?
Tens of millions of American buffalo once roamed the North American continent, from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Bison are a keystone species, providing all manner of benefits to the prairie ecosystems that they inhabit. Among other things, bison unique grazing behavior alter the composition (and increase the growth) of plant life, thus boosting the diversity of animal species. They also create "wallows" by repeated rolling in specific spots; these wallows collect water, providing a unique habitat for wetland species and allowing fire and drought resistant plants to grow. Scientists have found that decomposing bison carcasses are even beneficial, providing food for larger scavengers and a significant source of nitrogen to prairie plant communities.
We need more bison in the West, not less. It's time to stop the slaughter.