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Greater Yellowstone Bison
Greater Yellowstone Bison

An Indian Buffalo Hunt for Yellowstone

 

One brisk fall morning before sunrise I set off from my camp outside Gardiner Montana to photograph elk at Swan Flats in Yellowstone National Park. Up before the coffee shops opened I was swizzling my second can of iced Starbucks Double Shot while Ian Tyson’s “The Gift” blared from my speakers as I enjoyed the predawn glow on the Hoodoos south of Mammoth as I wound my way up the mountain.

Eagerly anticipating a great day of wildlife photography, upon cresting the hill at Golden Gate just past Rustic Falls, to my surprise I saw three tepees pitched east of the road along Glen Creek. As I surveyed the scene for photo opps I noticed up ahead, crossng the road, a band of Indians, horseback, in buckskins, packing quivers of arrows and carrying spears. Cool, this must be a movie set but where is the film crew.

I hurried down to the nearest turnout so I could photograph them as they moved trough Swan Flats as the light crept down the face of Electric Peak to the west. As I was setting up my tripod, to my delight and surprise the indians broke into a gallop chasing a small herd of bison who moments before were peacefully grazing but now were running for their lives.

This timeless scene hasn’t happened for a hundred and fifty years nor did it during this fictional flight of fancy. That said it should! With the reintroduction of the wolf from Canada in 1994 the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was believed to have become the most intact wildland ecosystem in the lower-48 states. All the species that roamed here when Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872 has returned except one, the Native American.

Native American’s have called Yellowstone home over 11,000 years. Throughout the  Cheyenne, Kiowa, Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and Crow’s ancestral memory is found a common theme, the sacred nature of the land first called "Mitzi-a-dazi," or the "River of Yellow Rocks" all had an ancient compact between the two-legged and four and all apart of the earth that provides. The vast, pine-covered plateau now known as Yellowstone National Park has been lived in traveled through by these indigenous people since time immemorial.

It is still possible to see the remnants of old camps and deep-rutted trails over which these ancients crisscrossed their treasured hunting grounds. The Treaty of Fort Laramie gave Indians hunting, fishing and foraging rights in the region but those rights were reneged on upon the creation of the Yellowstone National Park.

The Bannocks or Sheepeater Indians were the only full time residents of Mitzi-a-dazi, they lived an isolated existence and were sheltered from the world around them. The mountain ranges surrounding Yellowstone, and its pristine valleys provided a buffer from the more war like nations surrounding them. Many other tribes spent much time seasonally in Yellowstone hunting and harvesting obsidian for their spear points and arrowheads.

After acquiring horses in the early eighteenth century, the Indian nations of Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana quickly ran out of local buffalo.  Soon thereafter the use of the Bannock Trail through Yellowstone increased because it was a safer route to the buffalo grounds of the Great Plains than the riskier route down the Yellowstone River which the Blackfeet seemed a little over protective of. Before Euro-Americans arrived, members of the tribes would be gone for months on buffalo hunting trips east of Mitzi-a-dazi from their homelands to the west.

Lawyer/adventurer/painter George Catlin journeyed west five times in the 1830s to paint the Plains Indians and their way of life. A painter of low regard in the east Catlin figured his opportunity might lie in the western frontier. Catlin fell in love with the west and its Aboriginal people and spent most of the rest of his life advocating for them. Convinced that westward expansion spelled certain disaster for native peoples, he viewed his traveling exhibit of paintings the “Indian Gallery” portfolio as a way "to rescue from oblivion Native American primitive looks and customs." Catlin was the first to call for a "nation's park" where tourists could see Indians "in their classic attire, and living in a natural way. In the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, preservationists abandoned Catlin's idea for a national park inclusive of both Indians and nature because the tourists feared them.

In a book by historian Mark Spence: “Dispossessing the Wilderness,” Spence points out American national parks often created innocent "wilderness" through a sometimes violent and underhanded policy of Indian removal.  And Indian-free wilderness first became evident shortly after the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. In the late 1870s, park officials and the U.S. military produced "wilderness" by driving Indians off the park landscape in Yellowstone. Spence writes that Indian removal in Yellowstone stands as the "first example of removing a native population to 'preserve' nature." Conversely, some national parks including Glacier, Yosemite, Mesa Verde, and Grand Canyon, has had successful long-term relationships with American Indian groups even as it has sought to emulate Yellowstone in other aspects of national park administration and policy.

Today, National Park Service policy calls for restoring native species when: a) sufficient habitat exists to support a self-perpetuating population. Sadly this policy doesn’t include the native species (endemic homo sapiens) that inhabited the land since the end of the Pinedale Glaciation.

A native species that has been restored to great success is the prey of the Native Americans of Mitzi-a-dazi, the Yellowstone Bison. When bison approached extinction because of market hunting, Salish-Kootenai tribal members transplanted bison from east of the Continental Divide into the Flathead Valley of Montana. Those bison later became the seed herd for the Moiese National Bison Range and also supplemented the remnant herd of twenty-one animals that remained in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley under a tenuous, ineffectual park protection.

The Buffalo Culture considered the bison the sacred provider of physical and spiritual sustenance. Buffalo furnished almost everything the Native Americans needed in material culture: food, clothing, tepees, tanned hides, fur robes, bedding, rawhide, leather for parfleches, saddles, bridles, canteens, horn for spoons, and hooves for glue. Native Americans speak nostalgically of when the human beings and the buffalo were as one, and how the buffalo is an ancient relative.

As Yellowstone matured as a preservation entity, fearing bison extinction, the park imported bison from two private herds, as foundation stock for a bison ranching project at the Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. By the 1920s, some intermingling of the introduced and wild bison had begun. With protection from poaching, the native and transplanted populations increased. In 1936, bison were transplanted to historic habitats in the Firehole River and Hayden Valley.

In 1967 the Park Service issued a new management plan that called for managing bison to be truly wild, free-ranging bison population subject only to the influences of natural regulatory processes and they thrived. The new management approach saw bison populations burgeon from 397 in 1967 to 2,500 in 1988 and approximately 4,300 in 2012.  There are now to many bison for Yellowstone to sustain. The target population of 3,000 animals is rarely attained because this prolific species multiplies exponentially  when given the opportunity and a bison reduction plan has proven impossible to draft.

This overpopulation of Yellowstone’s Bison is an emotional issue with many special interests. When the park gets overpopulated many bison migrate out of the park. Although a migration out of the park is celebrated by environmentalists who would love to see the bison reclaim the Great Plains, the ranchers that own the Great Plains have a problem with that. Politicians and wildlife managers are caught between the two disparate groups. Managing the bison that wander outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park has a long and checkered history, pitting environmental, wildlife and agricultural interests against each other. The controversy centers on the fact that bison carry brucellosis, which can cause pregnant cattle to abort their unborn fetuses.

Today, Montana and Wyoming have limited bison hunts all met with great protest. There is a limited capture and slaughter program where the bison meat is donated to food banks many oppose this also. As is everything "Yellowstone," there is no magic bullet for the bison over population problem. A consensus on such a divisive issue as any national park animal by interests as diverse as the cattleman's association and the Buffalo Field Campaign is a logistical impossibility and fraught with political fallout for decision makers.

In 2006, the state of Montana granted permission to several tribes of Montana, Oregon, and Idaho to hunt bison that wander out of the park onto federal lands outside the park boundary. This is a great step forward for cultural continuity or restoration of the Native American community, but it falls short of an effective population control plan for Yellowstone.

Considering this, wouldn't it be a great opportunity and learning experience for all to institute an anthropologically correct bison hunt for the Aboriginal people of the Yellowstone region to be conducted as they were in the 1700's inside Yellowstone National Park. Conjure this, the Griswold's family vacation to Yellowstone entering the Hayden Valley while watching for moose, elk, and grizzly bear they happen upon a real live Native American bison hunt. Imagine, Bison running across the ridge above Elk Antler Creek with a contingent of Shoshone indians in hot pursuit, some reaching for arrows and others readying their spears. What an anthropology lessen and photo opportunity that would be for the Yellowstone visitor.

Native Americans hunting a species, bison, which were nearly extinct 150 years ago, now so numerous that they have to be culled in a politically correct way. What could be more politically correct than natives reviving their cultural heritage that has been practiced since the last ice age except for the rude interruption imposed by the interloping, egocentric, Euro-Americans. The advantages are numerous, Native Americans gain an opportunity to practice their historical culture; tourists get to experience a real time anthropology lesson. If the bison hunts were established after the elk rut it could attract many more visitors to the park during a slow season, and the 3,000 bison target could be achieved without divisive capture and slaughters, and boundary stakeout hunts. An anthropologically correct hunt would exclude guns eliminating the danger of a stray shot going awry. And who could argue that Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres isn't enough territory for a "fair-chase" hunt. Although I’d love to see such a cultural event maybe the hunts could be restricted to the Upper Pelican Valley, the Upper Lamar, or Slough Creek, out of view of those who chose to believe meat comes from a cellophane wrapped package and might be offended or appalled by a reality show so far from their television.

Yes the National Park Service clause that states: “restoring native species when: a) sufficient habitat exists to support a self-perpetuating population.” Is problematic because the premise of the clause is restoration of species and the caveat states “sufficient habitat exists to support a self-perpetuating population” The goal of instituting a bison hunt isn’t to establish a self-perpetuating population of aboriginals, but to allow an endemic predator passage through ancestral territory to cull an out of control self-perpetuating population for the dual purpose of controlling the population of the bison as well as a cultural rebirth of a noble people.

Tom McDonald, Fish and Wildlife Division manager for the Salish-Kootenai Tribes stated about the bison hunts along Yellowstone’s periphery: “It's very culturally and spiritually an innate fabric of our members,” “Hunting bison again has rekindled songs, a sense of place. Talk about a self-esteem booster, it's been amazing.” Bison are revered among Indian Tribes as a gift from the Creator and thus were hunted with respect and appreciation around traditional ceremonies and practices.

Legendary western painter Charlie Russell depicted the Indian Buffalo Hunt more than any other subject. He was fascinated by this legendary contest between man and animal, and he realized it represented, more than anything else could, the spirit of the wild frontier that was gone forever. Why does Charlie Russell have to be right? In my short time on earth I have seen many species come back from the brink of extinction, we have the ability when we acquire the will. We need the will to help restore Native American culture by enabling the core of the culture to revive.

There’s plenty of talk about keeping bison and wolves in the nation’s flagship national park as we have come to understand the importance of Keystone Species’, Grizzlies again are abundant in Yellowstone National Park. The howl of the wolf can be heard from the heart of every valley, but few people realize that American Indians were evicted from the area to make way for tourists, nature-lovers, and wildlife. Yellowstone Park could achieve comprehensive completion if our Native Americans could again roam the park at will. The American Indian is a Keystone Species, is it not?

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Daryl L. Hunter

4/6/19