James Holt
James Holt

“I follow Tamulwit,” said James Holt, Coexistence Council member and executive director of the Buffalo Field Campaign. “It’s a sacred responsibility. Back before human beings came, the Creator called a council with all the living beings: the animals, the plants. He asked them what they would do for the human beings that were coming and they stood before the Creator and told him what they would do for humans. The Creator said, ‘It was good, everything would have a role to help humans.’ He then gave humans a sacred responsibility to protect and advocate for all those things that these beings promised to provide for us. Coexistence for me means living in concert with my environment. Even though these plants and animals were to provide these things for us, we are equally obligated to speak for them; to provide for their homes and their wellbeing.”

James advocates for all species of wildlife, but his focus is on bison/buffalo. His primary goal is to create permanent year-round protection for bison and the ecosystem they depend on, including respect for the migratory needs of this long exploited and clearly endangered species.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park are the only pure descendants (free of cattle genes) that once roamed our country’s grasslands. The bison was designated our national mammal in 2016, but these great creatures are treated more like farm animals by federal and state agencies than the wild national treasure they are. Yellowstone sets a limit of 3000 bison in the park and those bison are not allowed to migrate beyond the park boundaries. Every year, many bison from Yellowstone are rounded up and quarantined, slaughtered or shipped out to tribal lands from their home. James says, “We need to halt the hazing and the quarantine as the main tool for population control that state and federal agencies spearhead. We don’t like the bulk and mass quarantine of herds; at that point they begin the domestication process. That is a big sticking point for us. We need these wildlife agencies and managers to treat them as wildlife.”

“We look at the elk population in the region, and its ability to wander and act as wildlife should. And that’s what we want for bison. ”

But ranchers see bison as competition with cattle. The great free roaming bison herds have been replaced by cattle, but cattle don’t forage in the same way as bison and have a detrimental impact on the landscape. “Bison are shown to be ecosystem engineers and benefit other species on the landscape. We need bison to maintain that ecosystem and provide the resilience necessary for other species to persist in an uncertain future. Mother Earth and the bison themselves know what’s best.”

Ranchers have also claimed that bison can transmit brucellosis to cattle. Yet, there has never been a documented case of brucellosis being transmitted from bison to cattle in the wild. James says, “I would contend that the impetus should be on the cattle industry itself. We are talking about a hand full of ranchers on a few cattle allotments that impact the only continuously wild herd of bison. Vaccines are almost 100% effective on cattle. The impetus should be on the ranchers to get the cattle vaccinated, keep space and give primacy to the bison. Elk have proven to transmit to cattle. Yet, elk have continued to roam free.”

One way the tribes have taken to address the slaughter of Yellowstone bison is to take these animals and put them elsewhere. The Intertribal Bison Cooperative of 1992 was the foundation for this “on reservation activity” that is occurring on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. “Tribes have developed the capacity to manage bison holistically. Tribes are proven stewards of the bison populations they do have. This provides opportunities for more tribes across the plains with a buffalo culture.”

James and the Buffalo Field Campaign support these tribal efforts, “but not at the expense of the populations on the ground or the ecosystem itself. We know tribes have a relationship with bison since time immemorial. We grew along with these species. We have to be included and be a large part of the management and the outcomes within those ecosystems for this important species.”

This is difficult when the Park Service continues to promote a policy that treats bison more like cattle than wildlife. The Park Service is working on a new Environmental Impact Statement for Yellowstone bison, but all the alternatives rely on keeping bison within the park boundaries. The state of Montana has played a lead role in obstructing any progress on this policy. Tribes have voiced their opposition to how bison are managed; that is one of the reasons they developed the Fort Peck program.

Unfortunately, even if the bison are moved to Fort Peck, the federal government requires them to stay behind fences and receive annual vaccinations; a recipe for domesticating these traditionally free roaming creatures. The Buffalo Field Campaign has teams in the field every year, and they are firsthand witnesses to the efforts of the government to domesticate these herds, from breaking up of clan herds to the slaughter of thousands.

For the United States to honor the tribal treaty rights, bison have to be on the landscape in much larger numbers. “Bison need to be treated as wildlife and saturate their migratory corridors and ancestral homelands. Treaty rights include hunting. Treaty rights are wildlife and tribal people exercising that practical relationship they’ve had since time immemorial.”

Credit Buffalo Field Campaign

James and his team of staff and volunteers work round the clock to protect the bison in and around Yellowstone. He says transportation infrastructure is a big concern for bison management. “Right now, our field operations have switched from monitoring for hunting, hazing and quarantine operations to protecting bison crossing and being near highways over in West Yellowstone. Our primary focus for now is on highway safety: the protection of the drivers using that corridor as well as the bison herds. We run three patrols a day. We are out there 24-7. We have to be there because those bison move day and night. The fatalities caused in that area are consistent enough that it warrants our 24-hour protection and monitoring.”

The biggest issue is with national semi-long haul truck drivers. “They are coming through at 1 am. It can be snowing, visibility can drop, and all of a sudden, they could be on an entire herd. We do outreach to different transportation companies, especially those we see that go through that corridor often.” The Buffalo Field Campaign educates the companies, and in turn, the companies educate their drivers to be prepared. We tell them to “be on the lookout for our highly visible signs; let them know that we are out there with cones and flashlights. We are trying to walk the herd off the road.” The roads are attractive to bison because they are warm at night and they tend to be clear of snow. The sun bakes the roadside, so it’s the first area exposed for grasses. James says, “They get on that south side of the highway and forage.”

Bison in Road Credit: Vincent Ledvina, Unsplash

James says part of the solution is to increase funding in the transportation and infrastructure bills to fund infrastructure development along these highways and build fencing to channel bison to wildlife crossings that could be constructed to connect habitats. These efforts can create local jobs and support small businesses and contractors.

The Buffalo Field Campaign also works in local neighborhoods around Yellowstone, helping neighbors coexist with bison. Periodically, bison can move through neighborhoods, and when that happens, it can get comical. One neighbor says at certain times of the year, his boss is prepared to get a call from him telling him he will be late for work because a bison herd is laying in his driveway. James says, “They chose to move, you don’t move them.” The neighbor says, he sits back and has a cup of coffee and admires the buffalo through his window.” BFC also works with local homeowners to buy additional lands in Horse Butte to provide more accessible long-term habitat for bison. James says, “You name the sector, and we are working to develop coexistence principles.”

James believes our ego is the biggest hurdle to coexisting with wildlife. “Humans need to understand fundamentally that we are not endangered. Humans have to understand that they are not the center of the universe even if it may seem that way. We need wild bison, like we need wolves, like we need salmon, orca, condors; we need all these different species to protect our own future. Our unborn generations, we borrow from them, and what are we leaving them? That is our biggest obstacle, our own ego. We have to knock ourselves down a notch. We try to keep ourselves separate from the ecosystem. We observe it from a weird third person place, but we cannot separate ourselves. “

“Our own wellbeing is predicated on the wellbeing of the birds, of the fish, of the water. It’s a sacred
thing. Coexistence is sacred.”

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