The North American Bison is a survivor. Once the most populous land mammal in the world, the bison was nearly driven to extinction.
The bison of Greater Yellowstone are sacred to 27 tribes with a historical affiliation to the region. Prior to expansion in the West in the early 1800s, between 30 and 60 million bison roamed freely. Most of these incredible animals lived in the Great Plains, where they fertilized and turned the soils with the movement of their massive herds. Native Americans relied upon bison for food, shelter, and more, utilizing every part of the animal after harvest. But as non-native peoples settled in the West, the bison was hunted to near extinction as settlers sought to sell their hides, reduce railroad problems, and reduce the food source of Native peoples. By the end of the 1800s, fewer than 1,000 American bison remained. After the slaughter finally ceased, no more than 540 were left alive. To help save the last of the bison, they were moved to Yellowstone Park. Poaching continued even then, and by 1902 the herd had been reduced to just two dozen. With vigilance toward the remaining wild herd, the bison were saved and by 1968, slowly started increasing in population.
Today a herd of 5,000 lives in Yellowstone Park. However, more than 12,000 have been killed since 1989 when wandering out of the park’s boundary. Wildlife does not recognize political boundaries in its quest to survive in the GYE. Winters are harsh and bison’s natural survival behavior is to migrate to the lower elevation out of the park’s boundaries. Yellowstone bison coming into Montana have been killed based on an assertion they represent an imminent threat of passing along brucellosis to domestic cattle, but the risk is overblown, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences. Only in recent years has a new program started to transfer wandering Yellowstone bison to surrounding tribal lands and management, to help the indigenous residents of the GYE restore a species central to their ways of life and spiritual traditions. Even this change in management of the Yellowstone bison does not recognize the fact that American bison re-established in the GYE are not permitted to move freely across the ecoregion to benefit their overall health and survival.