The Bison’s Legacy

One year ago this May, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, naming the American bison as the country’s official national mammal. The following July, wildlife preservationist groups filed notice of their intent to sue the Department of the Interior in order to stop the annual slaughter of Yellowstone National Park’s wild bison. The park’s winter cull is mandated by the Interagency Bison Management Plan which calls for the maintenance of Yellowstone’s bison herd at about 3,000 individuals (out of estimated population of 5,500 in August 2016). The plan also requires the park to prevent those animals from straying into adjoining rangelands where they could potentially infect domestic cattle with the bacterial disease, brucellosis. Herd reductions are accomplished by hunting, capturing, and killing bison that migrate outside of the park in winter. Though the lawsuit to stop the annual slaughter was just the latest in a series of legal maneuvers launched by wildlife advocates seeking endangered species protections for the Yellowstone bison, the latest action seemed a particularly pointed rejoinder to the government’s entirely symbolic gesture of just two months earlier. At the end of the bison’s first year as the national mammal, over 1,200 of Yellowstone’s buffalo had been slaughtered—the most killed since 2008.  

The National Bison Legacy Act became law as I was finishing my book, Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonizationjust in time for me to squeeze mention of the act’s passage into the epilogue’s footnotes. The event provided a nice bit of serendipitous evidence to verify wild animals’ continuing significance in American law and society. But in many ways, the subsequent lawsuit over the Yellowstone bison is the more fitting postscript to my study. At the heart of the current controversy is a conflict between the wildness of the Yellowstone buffalo (the largest free-ranging and cattle-gene-free bison herd) and the sanctity of private property. This, though, is nothing new.

Since the colonial era, American animals have provoked similar disputes because they have never paid much attention to legal boundaries or private property. Wolves breached seventeenth-century enclosures to make off with settlers’ livestock. Deer wandered into farmers’ fields, enticing eighteenth-century deerskin hunters to trespass. Shad migrated out of coastal rivers, causing nineteenth-century fishermen to question the value of the private mill dams and commercial seines that blocked the fish’s return to local shores. These were consequential concerns in early America where democratic access to wild animal abundance was held out to settlers as an incentive to occupy the land. Wildness was both a blessing and curse to colonizers who struggled to reconcile animal mobility with Anglo-American laws of possession.  

Though the terms of the debate have changed over the centuries, the Yellowstone bison controversy raises the same sort of questions about the place of wild creatures in a domesticated world of private property. Those questions were supposed to have been answered by the progressive-era invention of national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges—public spaces where animals could remain wild so long as they stayed within legal bounds. But the Yellowstone bison are wild precisely because they do not stay put. What makes them unique is that they display the free-ranging and migratory behaviors of their ancient wild ancestors. But it those migrating buffalo—the individuals that follow their natural instincts to range beyond the park’s borders—that are captured, quarantined, and killed to protect the livestock property of Montana ranchers. We value Yellowstone’s bison for their wildness and kill them because of it. That paradox is perhaps the bison’s true legacy.


Andrea L. Smalley is an assistant professor of history at Northern Illinois University. Her book, Wild By Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization, is available now.