Ignorance must be such sweet bliss for anyone who visits Yellowstone National Park and thinks the wildlife they see there represents fully recovered populations of some of North America’s most endangered species. Sorry to say, one park does not a recovered species make. For all its size, spectacularity and relative biodiversity, Yellowstone is little more than an island in an anthropogenic wasteland to much of its megafauna.
If ranchers and hunters had their way, wolves and grizzlies would be restricted to the confines of the park. Ranchers already have such a death-grip on Montana’s wildlife that bison are essentially marooned and forced to stay within park borders, battling snow drifts no matter how harsh the winter, despite an instinctual urge to migrate out of the high country during heavy snow winters.
Though Yellowstone is synonymous with the shaggy bovines, bison would prefer to spend their winters much further downriver, on lands now usurped and fenced-in by cowboys to fatten-up their cattle before shipping them off to slaughter.
Yellowstone’s high plateaus are on average well over 5,000 feet in elevation and can hardly be considered prime habitat for the wild grazers. Much of the park actually sits within the caldera of one the world’s largest active volcanoes. Any sizable eruption could release enough toxic gasses to kill off all of Yellowstone’s bison—the last genetically pure strain of the species now left on the continent.
People driving through cattle country on their way to Yellowstone often have no idea just how sterile the open plains they’re seeing really are. Gone are the vast bison herds that once blackened them for miles on end—killed off by hide-hunters, market meat-hunters or by “sportsmen” shooting them from trains just for a bit of fun. Gone are the wolves and plains grizzlies adapted to that arid habitat. And nearly gone are the prairie dogs as well as the ferrets, kit fox, plovers, burrowing owls and a host of others who depended on them for food or shelter.
Part of the reason I wrote Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport was to remind people about the wild species who once called so much of this continent home. No one’s going be able to claim ignorance on my watch; if I can’t go through life blissfully then neither can anyone else.
The following is an excerpt from one of the book’s two chapters on bison:
Selfless and protective, bison develop lasting bonds in and outside the family, not only between cows, calves and siblings but also between unrelated individuals who grew up, traveled and learned about life together. Juveniles help mothers look after the youngsters and will gladly lend a horn to keep potential predators away from the calves. I have witnessed cooperation among bison families often in the years I’ve spent observing and photographing them. I’ve also seen them put themselves in harm’s way to defend elk from hungry wolves, and even mourn over the bones of their dead.
But in a ruthless act of rabid backstabbing, 1600 bison—who had never known confinement or any reason to fear people—were slain to appease Montana ranchers during the winter of 2008. More than half of Yellowstone’s bison were killed in what was the highest body count since the nineteenth century. 1438 were needlessly and heartlessly shipped in cattle trucks to slaughterhouses (those nightmarish death camps where so many forcibly domesticated cattle meet their ends), while 166 were blasted, as they stood grazing, by sport and tribal hunters. Two winters prior, 947 bison were sent to slaughter and 50 were shot by hunters.
Instead of making amends for the historic mistreatment of these sociable, benevolent souls, twenty-first-century Montanans are still laying waste to them. Spurred on by industry-driven greed for grazing land (veiled under the guise of concern about brucellosis, a disease with a negligible risk of transmission that has never actually been passed from wild bison to cattle), the state of Montana sued to seize control of bison ranging outside Yellowstone. Now their department of livestock has implemented a lethal policy and the US National Park Service is facilitating it. Since the dawn of the new millennium, nearly 4000 Yellowstone bison have been put to death.