I read one source years ago suggesting that the primary control mechanism of bison was the human population on this continent, as many as eighteen million at the arrival of the Europeans. Thus followed a human die-off, and the bison population exploded. Migrating settlers were confronted with millions upon millions of the beasts. The slaughter of that era had two purposes – to open range for cattle, and deprive natives of their primary food source. Both succeeded.
In the real power structure, the Montana Stockgrowers Association is the group that makes and enforces policy regarding bison in Montana. The Montana Department of Livestock holds titular authority, and underneath that is the governor, charged with grabbing a baton and leading the parade after it is moving.
In the early 1990’s, the Governor or Montana was Stan Stephens, and during his administration Montana became a nationwide laughing stock. The Yellowstone bison herd had overgrown and had to be culled. To do so, Stockgrowers invited a public harvest. The nation was shown images of “hunters” dressed in hunting garb standing fifty feet away from their trucks and prey and dropping them. It was disgusting to watch.
The next governor, Marc Racicot, had better advice. He built a wall, and did the slaughter away from cameras. No images, no outcry, no problem.
I was a writer for Writers in the West at that time, and reacting to the buffoons masquerading as hunters, wrote a column describing the cat-and-mouse game played by Racicot. I was ego-boosted when a friend of my daughter’s, in school in Wisconsin, said my WITW piece was a subject of discussion in one of her classes.
At issue are brucellosis, wolves, the real power structure, and the real effect of absence of apex predator on the landscape. Once it was humans. Now we rely on wolves and grizzly bears.
Brucellosis is a disease that causes abortion in elk and bison, and undulant fever in humans. It is under control in our cattle population, but the mere threat of species transmigration is enough to affect markets and cause quarantine. So the Stockgrowers watch it closely. Even the perception of threat to cattle will cause them to bring out the big guns. I get this, and given the unbridled power of the MSA, not much can be done to stop them.
There is not enough predation in Yellowstone national park to keep the bison herd down to a reasonable number. Wolves are great hunters, grizzlies less so, but in bison they both meet their match. Wolves prefer elk, and bears the carrion created by wolves. As a result, the bison population in Yellowstone regularly gets out of hand. Three methods of control are die-offs, migration, and culling.
Culling by humans is not allowed in the park. When food supply wanes, bison migrate into the greater ecosystem, and the Stockgrowers spring into action. These days, the killing is done out of sight, and the meat carted off to Native American reservations.
I do not know of a better solution. The effects of bison overpopulation on the landscape are devastating. Perhaps we could invite our Native American friends in each year to enjoy a harvest, as their ancestors did.
But culling is essential. There is no way around it. Nature is out of balance. Human management is essential. In my view. I invite others to set me straight.