Along with the geysers and historic cabins, the 4,000 bison that roam Yellowstone National Park draw millions of visitors every year. But for the Nez Percé tribe, the animal is at the center of a cultural practice it hopes to revive within the park’s perimeters: bison hunting.
Like many other Native American tribes, the Nez Percé reveres the bison as a symbol of unity and strength. Indigenous peoples once relied on it for sustenance. They used almost all of its body parts—from horns to meat to tail hair—and celebrated the animal in an annual hunt.
“Before there was a park, there was a tribe,” Nez Percé Chairman Silas Whitman told Reuters, citing Yellowstone as making up the group’s traditional hunting grounds. “Some of our members already feel we have the right to hunt in the park, but it hasn’t been exercised because we feel it would be remiss in going forward that way.”
Western settlers fueled overhunting in the 19th century and drove bison to near extinction. That is, until the animals found sanctuary at Yellowstone in 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant opened the national park as a wildlife haven.
Hunting there is now illegal, but bison that leave Yellowstone in search of food are often killed by not only Native American hunters but local ranchers as well. Fearing that bison would transmit disease to cows that grazed nearby, livestock owners slaughtered more than 1,000 of them in 1996, spurring international outrage.
Park officials condone the practice, which maintains the herd population, “whose size is determined by social tolerance rather than the ecosystem’s carrying capacity.” Bison may be hunted—just not in Yellowstone. Though Nez Percé leaders haven’t officially requested hunting rights in the park, Yellowstone officials have spoken out against the proposal.
“These are America’s wildlife and a crucial part of our national heritage,” said David Hallac, chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources. “To propose to hunt in a place established specifically to prevent animals from being hunted is bizarre.”