For the Baby Bison That is No More

Close up of a bison calf's face

— by Susan B. Eirich, Ph.D. —

There was a national sadness at the euthanizing of a baby bison in Yellowstone last May. It was taken away from its herd by well-meaning but ill-informed tourists, and the rangers made the decision to kill it when it couldn’t be introduced back. It was causing difficulties running up to cars looking for help.

We all become a bit traumatized by news like this. There have been radically different responses to this highly emotional event. An environmental educator wrote in response to what she perceived as cruel attacks on the tourists through social media. She talks about the basically loving, concerned impulse of the tourists, however misguided, and how it shows the urgent need for more education about wildlife. 

Another article from a wildlife biologist who wrote with some heat of “do-gooders,” of “interfering with natural processes,” and the importance of “wildlife management by experts.” 

There are several critical, unexamined assumptions in this article:

1. What is a natural process? Wildlife management clearly implies interference—that we are managing, not allowing natural processes to happen. Not that we aren’t doing our best based on current accepted human knowledge—but that changes constantly. For example, our policies around wildlife suppression. What we call “natural processes” themselves have a wisdom far greater than our limited understanding.

2. Who qualifies as a “wildlife expert” that we are supposed to trust and listen to? How are they trained? From what assumptions and attitudes did the field evolve? How much of the complexity of life is incorporated into their training? How deeply have the principles been questioned? Each field is only as good as those who question it.

3. What is a “do-gooder?” Someone who follows their heart? Which is good and not so good. Heart without knowledge and applied intelligence can lead to tragic consequences, as in this case. But so can knowledge without heart, and I would argue that the current standards of the wildlife management profession errs in that direction. What we need is “heart-knowledge,“ moderated by the best scientific information of the times. We also need to examine our philosophy and world view as promulgated in our educational system. He writes, “It is important to recognize that there are those who have dedicated their lives, education and careers to learning how to properly manage our resources.” A baby bison is a resource? Life is a resource? We manage Life? The very idea of managing nature is a very strong lens through which we look and think we are being objective.

Bison calf nursing
Bison Calf Nursing | Don Mammoser

The author states, “Wildlife conservation is about populations, not individuals…the goal of wildlife management is to maintain ecological processes, and this does not included pulling wildlife out of populations and throwing them into captivity for the sake of keeping them alive.”

1. Who made it about “populations, not individuals”? Why is it one or the other? Why can’t it be about both? Maybe the field needs to broaden its thinking.

2. If the goal is to maintain ecological processes, why do we stop the natural migration of bison out of the park each year with terrible consequences and suffering for the biggest genetically-pure herd left in the world? We are stopping the natural flow of bison in the very same park where we are supposed to be maintaining ecological processes! We do this not for ecological reasons but political ones; because ranchers fear competition and potential diseases for their cattle. If political reasons can interfere with natural processes—why not heart and value-of-life reasons?

3. Disapproving of “throwing them into captivity for the sake of keeping them alive,” is indicative of a particular view of life and value system. Not the only one. What would that baby bison have said if he or she had a voice? “I would rather be killed than live a life in captivity, where I can still be with other bison, smell the air, experience the rain and the wind and the snow, feel the hearts of my herd, eat the sweet grass. At least experience Life, even in a limited fashion.”

We don’t make those decisions for humans. What is the reasoning and value system that an individual animal is disposable as long as the species survives? I am sure the writer doesn’t consider himself disposable and neither do I. Yet he is one of seven billion—the species will survive without him. I personally would argue that neither is disposable. That all life is precious and needs to be valued and we take actions accordingly, including a life in captivity if that is the only option.

Three American Plains Bison walking across snow
Bison in the Snow | David Osborn

Great Empathy for the Rangers

I have great empathy for those rangers who had to make that decision and those who had to perform the act. It must have hurt their human hearts deeply. They were caught in a legal and belief system that didn’t allow for flexibility or the validity of feelings in decision making. How do we change our education system to bring together science and heart for a new way of looking at and treating wildlife? There are many more issues relevant to this discussion. How do we educate people in a way that the information sinks in enough to change instinctive nurturing behavior? Signs and a pamphlet at the visitor center are unlikely to override the immediate urge to help what looks like an abandoned or ill baby. There is an inherent problem with letting millions of uneducated people have access to wildlife essentially unprotected from human interference. Perhaps rather than being handed a pamphlet each visitor should be required to view a video before entering. A thought.

The field of wildlife management and conservation takes a scientific approach, which is essential to counterbalance many of our human weaknesses. It is a valid attempt to make decisions based on facts but has a narrowness of focus that limits its effectiveness. The field of spiritual ecology adds the worth of each individual life and takes an even more encompassing view of “natural and ecological processes,” which includes values that include the heart as a basis for action. It would be good to combine the two.

There is a complicated mix of perceptions, opinions, culture and values any time humans and wild animals interact. The fate of this poor bison baby, running up to cars looking for help, is one tiny window into the tragedies and complications that arise when humans and wildlife interact. We have not dealt with it effectively yet as a society, but it would enrich us immensely if we did.


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