There is a growing movement in the world today to empower Indigenous peoples — who safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity of plants and wildlife on only 5% of the world’s land mass; and, to redress the gross injustices of colonialism, which are still systemically perpetuated in many ways, such as grinding poverty on tribal reservations and exploitation of the Global South. The Biden Administration is to be commended for being more progressive in this regard than any previous administration.
Biden appointed our first Native American secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo and a 35th generation New Mexican. Our National Park Service director, Chuck Sams, is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. Haaland just announced $25 million will be spent on building new bison conservation herds and forging new bison management agreements with Tribal Nations, just part of an ambitious program to develop co-stewardship agreements with Tribes to repair their broken and severed relationships with sacred lands, waters, and wildlife species. “This holistic effort will ensure that this powerful sacred animal is reconnected to its natural habitat and the original stewards who know best how to care for it,” Haaland said in announcing the new initiative. “By acknowledging and empowering Tribes as partners in co-stewardship of our country’s lands and waters,” according to Haaland, “every American will benefit from strengthened management of our federal land and resources.”
Nowhere are the traumas and injustices of the past pogroms against Indigenous Americans more evident today than in the severed sacred relationship between Tribes and America’s last wild buffalo. Because of the overweening political influence of Montana’s livestock industry, Yellowstone bison are regularly trapped, shipped to slaughterhouses, and prevented from accessing 85% of their natural habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In effect, they’re treated as cattle, confined to a “national zoo” called Yellowstone National Park. It’s a national disgrace to treat our national mammal as something other than cherished wildlife.
In a cynical ploy to avoid further political embarrassment, Montana’s Department of Livestock now pits Yellowstone’s treaty Tribes against one another by severely limiting both the herd size and the “tolerance zones” where bison are allowed to roam on National Forest lands outside Yellowstone National Park. Tribes were cut off from their aboriginal food source for more than a century. Given the chance to harvest bison once more, they’re placed in competition with one another and with state hunters in a cruel spectacle managed by the Department of Livestock in full public view just outside the park. Montana is only too happy to let Tribes take the heat from animal rights groups and buffalo lovers for the culls Montana’s ranchers demand.
This chronic mismanagement of Yellowstone bison is what led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing Yellowstone bison for protection under the Endangered Species Act. A quarter of the population has been wiped out this winter alone, threatening genetic diversity.
Clearly, the Yellowstone bison management system is broken. It is now in the best interest of wild buffalo, conservation herds, and the grassland ecosystems that depend on them, for the Tribes to assert their inherent jurisdiction over Yellowstone buffalo by cooperating with one another — rather than competing in Montana’s “zero sum” game — and by assuming shared responsibility with our federal land stewards, as the Biden administration is encouraging.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there is room for at least 70,000 buffalo in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. According to the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, states cannot lawfully interfere with the Tribes’ exercise of off-reservation treaty rights on National Forest lands. And according to the world’s leading scientists, empowering Tribes to get buffalo back on the (500M acre) Western Savannah is critical to reversing global warming. Allowing Bison bison to restore grassland ecology has the potential to sequester twice as much carbon dioxide as we currently emit.
Both American Indians and the American Buffalo are, against all odds, still here. As a country, America is big enough to acknowledge the sins of our past. And Montana’s “Big Sky” country is big enough to accommodate wild buffalo. By managing our national mammal as wildlife, everyone wins.
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