The very same government who declared the American bison our National Mammal with such pomp and ceremony is hell bent on destroying the last wild, migratory population. Approximately 190 Yellowstone buffalo have been trapped by Yellowstone National Park employees who wear the image of buffalo on their badges. These and hundreds more of the world’s most beloved and important buffalo are destined to be reduced to meat within the cold walls of slaughterhouses. Just this week, however, Montana Governor Steve Bullock issued an executive order prohibiting Yellowstone from moving buffalo through Montana to slaughter until Yellowstone finds a “temporary home” for the forty young buffalo who have been held captive in Yellowstone’s trap since last February. These buffalo don’t need a “temporary home.” They have a home, the Yellowstone Ecosystem, where they roamed freely until last winter. While this executive order may stall the slaughter, it will not prevent it, and will likely result in the nearly 200 buffalo who have been captured for slaughter being confined in the trap for a longer period of time. This is a game of political chess being played with the sacred buffalo used as pawns in an attempt to push a quarantine (domestication) plan through. Quarantine is not a solution, and does not prevent slaughter; it is part of the larger problem of control and manipulation of wild, migratory buffalo which results in buffalo being repeatedly tested, many slaughtered, and survivors living behind fences until they are reduced to meat or die in captivity. Some quarantined buffalo have even been sent to zoos. Yellowstone’s trap serves a livestock model paradigm -- quarantine and slaughter — and is an extreme danger to these wild gentle giants, the last of their kind. Buffalo who are able to evade capture by slipping past the trap face another imminent danger just a mile north of the trap at Yellowstone’s north boundary, and also along the park’s west boundary, in tiny portions of southwest Montana where so-called hunting is taking place. At least 185 buffalo have been stopped dead in their tracks with bullets. By the time you read this, that number will likely have risen.
The horror of what is happening daily to these buffalo families are events that could fill thousands of pages, and while we can’t share every detail, here is some of what has been happening to the buffalo:
The other morning we supported a solitary bull buffalo who was walking along dangerous part of U.S. 191. Following at a safe distance with our hazards on, we stayed with him to warn traffic. There is so much snow piled up on the sides that it is very difficult for any buffalo to vacate the highway, so on he went. Unfortunately, a group of passing state hunters spotted him too, and they immediately positioned their truck just ahead of the bull, moving at his speed, their exhaust blowing in his face. This part of the highway runs through Gallatin National Forest, so the hunters only needed to get him to move a few feet off the road in order to kill him. Their opportunity came when he got spooked by a passing vehicle. The bull jumped into the snowbank and the hunters — if you can call them that — parked their truck (illegally, it turns out) and the man with the tag grabbed his rifle and post-holed though the deep snow after him. We mistakenly thought they needed to be much further off the road before they could shoot, and we told them so. They yelled at us, saying we were interfering, and the man with the rifle screamed “I’ve waited fifty-seven years for this!" and pressed on, trudging a few more feet after the bull who had moved a little deeper into the tree line. But the bull got away. At least for the moment. Authorities arrived and gave the hunters a warning for parking illegally, and asked us to move on. We were elated in thinking that this handsome bull who had struggled so hard to just walk down the road had escaped with his life. Disaster narrowly averted. Or so we thought. Afternoon patrols took over, and when they came home they shared the bad news that the hunter had gone after the bull again, shooting and injuring him without pursuing him. Instead he sat in the warmth of the truck waiting for him to emerge from the forest. How could the hunter anticipate where the wounded buffalo might go and how could he not pursue him? The bull did emerge again, limping. He kept falling and getting up, disoriented and badly hurt. He was heading down a road that leads to the town dump, where he could not legally be shot. Authorities arrived, and, because the bull was so badly wounded, the hunter was given special permission to kill him in the road. He took four shots at close range to finally end the life of this bull he had injured earlier.
We’ve seen a buffalo calf near the town of Gardiner who has been orphaned by hunters. She’s lost her entire family. Lost and alone — the worst possible thing for a baby buffalo — she has wandered over to the only buffalo she can find, who happen to be captive in another facility run by USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, where buffalo stolen from Yellowstone are being experimented on with the chemical birth control agent, GonaCon. Hunters took her mom, brothers, and sisters. One of her relatives might even be the buffalo who was shot and killed at Beattie Gulch and is still laying there, completely whole save for what the ravens have taken, left there by hunters. It’s possible the hunters didn’t even know they had hit her, not with the way they shoot so frantically into family groups as soon as they cross the park boundary, often never even knowing which hunter hit which buffalo. At least four buffalo who have been in situations like this have been shot by Yellowstone park rangers after being shot and then retreating into the park to flee the hunt scene. Entire family groups are often wiped out, and more and more groups of buffalo have far too many calves for the amount of adult females, indicating that their moms have been shot. Like elephants and humans, buffalo deeply mourn the loss of loved ones, and hunters often take advantage of this response. Sadly, it’s not rare to see a baby buffalo run to her dead mother only to be shot as she mourns, or a mature bull come to his dead herdmate and be gunned down while he’s trying to get his buddy back up. Sometimes buffalo who make it to private lands where they are safe from rifles are harassed by hunters, who either drive back and forth in their pick-ups, or on their snowmobiles, trying to make the buffalo uncomfortable enough to leave safety. These are just some of the things that we see happening on a daily basis, most taking place less than a mile from the Yellowstone boundary. Meanwhile, just a mile further, inside the Park, buffalo are being captured by park rangers. These are some of the reasons that we have a very difficult time understanding any of this as “hunting.”
These lethal “management” tactics are part of or blessed by the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which was created on behalf of Montana’s cattle industry, a plan called for under state policy MCA 81-2-120. Under pressure from Montana’s violent and forceful livestock lobby, state, federal, and tribal governments — most of which should be strong allies for wild buffalo — are flippantly destroying nearly every buffalo who migrates into Montana. Capturing wild buffalo for slaughter or for any other means can’t be disguised as anything other than what it is: brutal and wrong. Yet the people shooting buffalo with rifles seem to think they are playing some kind of conservation role as they, unknowingly or not, do the bidding of the cattle industry by helping to facilitate the destruction of wild, migratory buffalo. Unfortunately, they don’t see that their “hunts" are a direct service to Montana's intolerance for these native bovines whose only “crime” is that they eat grass. Make no mistake: BFC stands in strong solidarity with treaty rights and we are not opposed to all hunting. Some among us are subsistence hunters (and some are vegans). But we are strongly opposed to this so-called buffalo hunt that is manipulating treaty rights and using hunters to kill buffalo, while buffalo are simultaneously captured for slaughter inside Yellowstone under a plan set up explicitly to serve livestock interests to drive down the world's only wild population of an ecologically extinct native species. The only solution is the simplest one: let buffalo roam. Let them walk the earth as they are meant to. Demand more buffalo on a larger landscape instead of caving in to one industry's prejudice, intolerance, and greed. The most complicated part, of course, is changing the human element.
But change it we can, and must! In his last email to me, the recently departed BFC advocate and videographer Tony Birkholz wrote: “Continue endless pressure, endlessly applied!” In honor of Tony, buffalo, grizzlies, and all that remains wild, let us make a pact together to do just this.