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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Buffalo Hunt

Air Date: Week of

Over the past three winters more than twelve hundred Yellowstone bison have been killed by Montana officials when they wander outside park boundaries. A coalition of forty-nine Native American tribes has proposed another way of managing the herd - featuring a buffalo hunt. Jane Fritz report.


CURWOOD: Under current rules, any buffalo that wander out of the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park and onto Montana state land run the risk of being shot. Some are, and others are caught and tested for the disease brucellosis. Any animals that test positive are sent to slaughter. Over the past three winters more than 1,200 bison have been killed by these methods to protect grazing cattle from contracting brucellosis, officials say. And while they figure out ways to manage the nation's largest free-roaming buffalo herd more effectively, a coalition of 49 Indian tribes has come up with its own plan. Jane Fritz reports.

(Elk bugling)

FRITZ: As winds blow the first snows across the dry, grassy valleys of Yellowstone, the elk and bison are moving down from the high country. A severe winter could drive these wildlife to forage for food outside the park's boundaries. It's there that the bison risk being killed.

LAROSE: The present plan allows for bison moving out to be slaughtered by the state of Montana, and we think that there could be a lot of other solutions to that problem, and slaughter is not one of them.

FRITZ: Louis Larose is a Winnebago from Nebraska and president of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative. At a recent meeting with Yellowstone Park officials, Mr. Larose presented a plan that he says is a saner and more respectful way of managing the herd. But it concludes with a surprising request: Allow the tribes that have treaty rights in Yellowstone to hunt buffalo again in and around the park.

[Bird song and bison growls]

LAROSE: Most tribes have a spiritual and cultural relationship to bison that's very important to them as people, and it's very important for them in their cultural and historical and spiritual practices.

FRITZ: Native people once used the buffalo for nearly everything they needed. For food, ropes for blankets and clothing, bones for tools, and hides for their skin lodges. Horace Axtell is the spiritual leader of the Nez Perce tribe.

AXTELL: Way back when I was a little boy, we used to have a lot of buffalo hides that my grandmother got. And they were all really soft and nice, and we used to, in the winter time, you used them for covers, when it got really cold. We'd wake up in the middle of the night and she'd be covering us with a buffalo hide.

FRITZ: Yellowstone was a traditional buffalo hunting area for the Nez Perce. But it's been well over a century since any tribes have hunted bison there. By 1902, illegal sport hunters had reduced the wild herd, a remnant of the millions that once roamed the west, to fewer than 50 animals. Michael Durglo is a tribal leader of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation. Although they have no buffalo today, he says his ancestors helped save Yellowstone's herd. Free-roaming bison from the Flathead Reservation were given to the park to help repopulate the species.

DURGLO: You know, I've heard before that we are the original managers. And I think that's true. We manage not by textbooks or, you know, degrees or anything like that, but we managed out of respect. I think that's what needs to happen.

FRITZ: This past May another tribe, the Makah, began hunting the gray whale again, for the first time in 75 years. Even though it stirred up a lot of controversy, John McCarty, an elder of the tribe, was glad the hunt took place.

McCARTY: The Makahs probably feel a lot more worth for themselves as being proud. Proud Makahs. Because I think this brought a great energy to the Makah nation by bringing that whale up the beach. And I think that will maintain, be maintained in the Makah village for who knows how long?

FRITZ: The Makah whale hunt has inspired some Yellowstone tribes to re-establish their connection with the park's bison. Salish-Kootenai tribal leader Mike Durglo believes resuming hunts for subsistence or ceremonial purposes would revitalize his people's health, cultural identity, and spiritual values. But that's not a good enough reason to hunt threatened wildlife in national parks, says D.J. Schubert. He's a spokesman for the Fund for Animals, the nation's leading anti-hunting group.

SCHUBERT: Things have changed. The society has changed. Societal values have changed, because of Yellowstone's unique significance, not only in this country but in the world, as the first and most famous national park. We need to protect this park, and we need to protect the wildlife that live in the park.

FRITZ: But Michael Durglo says that while he respects Yellowstone's purpose, wildlife don't exist just for the amusement or curiosity of tourists. Bison are part of the cycle of life and death. Humans are also part of that sacred circle, and he believes the buffalo understand that. But Mr. Schubert of the Fund for Animals doesn't agree.

SCHUBERT: I don't think this argument that bison are not complete unless they give up their lives for our subsistence and our survival is legitimate any more, because, you know, Native Americans, even if they were never allowed to ever hunt a bison again, for the most part they're going to be able to survive. They're going to be able to buy clothing or otherwise make clothing. They're going to have food on the table. So that the entire relationship from a practical standpoint has changed.

FRITZ: But for Michael Durglo it's more than just about food and clothing. There is a spiritual connection with the buffalo essential to maintaining his Native American heritage.


DURGLO: What's going to happen to our children and our grandchildren? Are they going to be able to see the things that we see, or understand those things? You know, I always think about my ancestors coming here to hunt, and how that was. It must have been a great thing, a great experience. And I think about the blood of the buffalo that sustained their life. Runs in my veins. And I know that, what's given me life. I gave them life; that's why I'm here.

FRITZ: Yellowstone officials say any decision to permit tribal hunting of the park's bison is out of their hands. It rests with the courts and maybe even Congress. For now, the buffalo are safe from tribal hunters, but not from livestock agents in the state of Montana. For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz in Yellowstone National Park.



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