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The annual mass hunt of Yellowstone bison has stirred up controversy once again, as 1,150 of these iconic creatures were killed. This event occurs every year within the Yellowstone National Park, with native American tribes and other groups seeking to thin the bison population before it becomes too large to manage. Yet, such a large-scale slaughter has raised questions and garnered criticism about the ethics surrounding this practice.
The hunt itself began late last year and ended in early 2021. During this time, different tribes and states were authorized to participate in the killing of bison. The largest number of bison, approximately 650, was killed by the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a group of 69 tribes in the western U.S. Other bison were killed by Montana hunters, who are allowed to participate in the annual hunt under a tri-state agreement between Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.
The reasons behind the bison hunt are twofold. Firstly, native American tribes consider bison as an important part of their culture and tradition. They are seen as a symbol of their history and heritage, and the bison themselves are used for food, hides, and spiritual practices. The slaughter of bison is done with respect and care, and the tribes have traditionally facilitated the management of bison populations themselves.
Secondly, Yellowstone National Park has a policy to control the size of its bison population. This is because, in the past, the overpopulation of bison led to the spread of a cattle disease called brucellosis, which can cause cows to abort their calves. The bison are also known to wander outside the park’s boundaries onto neighboring lands, which can cause damage to crops and private property, and lead to conflicts with people.
Yet, the means by which the hunt was carried out this year raised concerns. In particular, the high number of bison killed has led to criticism, especially from animal rights activists who argue that such a large slaughter is inhumane and unnecessary.
However, the relatively large number of bison killed is not unusual, as the annual hunt’s size is influenced by the population’s needs and the amount of available hunting licenses. In other years, the number of bison killed has varied and has been as high as 1,400 in 2018.
The hunt provides a unique opportunity for Montana tribes to participate in bison management under the guidance of the InterTribal Buffalo Council. These tribes are working to restore bison to their rightful place in the environment as a keystone species. The InterTribal Buffalo Council is an important partner in the larger effort to maintain and restore bison as an ecologically and culturally significant species on the landscape.
Another issue raised is whether the slaughter could have been reduced or avoided altogether. Some suggest that the bison could have been moved to other areas rather than being killed. However, this option faces several significant obstacles, including the financial and logistical challenges of transporting large numbers of bison, finding appropriate habitats, and the risk of spreading disease.
Others argue that Yellowstone should stop culling its bison population altogether and allow the bison to roam freely outside of the park boundaries. While this sounds like an equitable solution, it is not as simple as that. Ranchers and farmers in the area have been opposed to the unbridled spread of bison onto their lands, often seeing them as a threat to their livestock and crops. The potential for conflicts would be elevated without management. The basis of the tri-state agreement between Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho also requires culling of bison to manage the population.
The issue of whether to hunt bison should be a topic of ongoing discussion and engagement. It calls for an inclusive and participatory approach that takes into account the needs and interests of the native tribes, park management, state and federal governments, environmental groups, scientists, and the public at large. Balancing the competing demands of protecting a culturally significant animal and managing its population for ecological sustainability and other considerations is as much an ethical dilemma as it is a scientific one.
In the end, the annual mass hunt is a complex issue that elicits strong emotions and competing interests from different groups. While the high number of bison killed this year has raised concerns about the ethics of the practice, it will remain an important tool in the management of bison populations in the foreseeable future. The hunt underscores the need for ongoing dialogue and cooperation among different stakeholders and a commitment to finding balanced solutions that provide for the health and well-being of bison populations and the wider ecosystem.