Female buffalo are rarely alone unless some tragedy or sickness has befallen them. Over the weekend, our patrol encountered this lone, young female bedded down on the side of Rainbow Point Road. We stayed with her for hours, fearing the worst. But it turned out that she was physically fine. It is likely that she was separated from the rest of her family during a hunt, or possibly when trying to negotiate the roads they have to travel to get to the habitat they need. After a day and a half of keeping a close eye on her, she was less than 1/2 a mile from joining with a group of buffalo, but a hunter got to her before she made it. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
The actions of the highly controversial Interagency Bison Management Plan - largely led by Yellowstone National Park and the Montana Department of Livestock - have exceeded the decimation of the country’s last continuously wild, migratory buffalo population. More than 13%, 610, of the beloved buffalo of Yellowstone country have been eliminated from the last wild herds; some through hunting, but more significantly, through Yellowstone National Park’s capture for slaughter and domestication (quarantine) operations. Yellowstone commenced capture operations at their Stephens Creek buffalo trap a few weeks ago, at the height of a late-start Tribal hunting season. An estimated 430 buffalo have been trapped in this facility this year, through baiting and hazing, leaving the public lands — Treaty lands — outside of Yellowstone’s boundary largely bereft of their presence. These unnecessary and publicly unsupported actions by Yellowstone caused hunting pressure to relocate to the Hebgen Basin, in the West Yellowstone region. The Hebgen Basin is critical habitat for the imperiled Central herd, who exclusively migrates into these realms that harbor their calving grounds on and around Horse Butte. The Central herd joins with the Northern herd in migrating north into the Gardiner Basin, where Yellowstone’s trap is located. Because the Central herd migrates both north and west, they have been doubly impacted by IBMP mismanagement actions for two decades, consequently, their numbers have plummeted in recent years. The Central herd has been driven down to a quarter of their 2005 population estimate, today hovering around fewer than 1,000 individuals.
This female buffalo represents many hundreds just like her, who are heavy with calf and trying to make their way to safe places where they can prepare to give birth and raise their child. Calving season is about a month away. Most hunters have agreed not to shoot adult females after March 1st, but, as we have found among gut piles, this is not always honored. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
Yellowstone recognizes the jeopardy the Central herd is in, so much so that for the past two years they have recommended that there be no hunting, nor any lethal action taken in the Hebgen Basin. Yet, Yellowstone also knows that Central herd members also migrate into the Gardiner Basin, and aside from a few radio collared females, they don’t know which buffalo they capture are from which herd. Once they are in the trap, Yellowstone doesn’t care. Yellowstone is shirking an important responsibility to the buffalo in their care by placing the conservation burden on hunters (who kill far fewer buffalo than Yellowstone), rather than take responsibility for their actions and taking a stand against Montana’s livestock lobby, and cease operations at their Stephens Creek facility. Due to Yellowstone’s capture operations, within the past week, hunters left the Gardiner Basin and headed to the Hebgen Basin, where members of the Central herd have started to migrate. Spring migration has just begun for the Central herd. Buffalo families, including mother’s heavy with calves, are coming out of a long and difficult winter, seeking the life-giving, south-facing slopes of Horse Butte where they can find grass easier and prepare to give birth. That these buffalo should be targeted now, at such a sensitive time, all because Yellowstone can’t say no to livestock interests and do right by the buffalo. Each of these buffalo has their story, and we ache to tell them as we experience it with them, through their eyes. But, ultimately, what is critical to convey is that this is a direct consequence of the IBMP’s intolerance of wild buffalo in general, and Yellowstone’s actions at the Stephens Creek trap specifically, that members of this imperiled herd are being targeted thusly. Indeed, buffalo from both herds are nearing calving season. It’s that time of year. But, wherever they roam, very pregnant females, their calves, and entire families are being targeted by the nefarious actions of the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a plan that serves only Montana’s livestock interests. Without a doubt, this entire war against wild buffalo is driven by Montana, yet that is no excuse for Yellowstone to turn their back on the sacred, beloved buffalo whom they are entrusted with caring for.
A truck pulls a stock trailer full of wild buffalo captured at Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek buffalo trap. Headed for slaughter, the trailer passes by another capture facility, where buffalo have been taken from Yellowstone and used in science experiments by USDA’s Animal & Health Inspection Service. Along with the bedded down buffalo, also watching the passing vehicle is a herd of elk, implicated nearly 30 times in the transmission of brucellosis to cattle — a crime the buffalo are repeatedly blamed for but have never committed. Elk are rightly free to roam, while the buffalo suffer deep prejudice and gross injustices. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
There’s never a dull moment when standing with the buffalo. Just as you think you know what might happen next, something different occurs. As Yellowstone was capturing, other buffalo in the Gardiner Basin were heading deeper into the Park. Buffalo from the Central herd were making their way into the Hebgen Basin. Both herds seeking their natal grounds, where they will bring forth the next generation. The weather was warming and snow was melting. We started to breathe a sigh of relief that maybe Spring was really here and the killing time was coming to a close for the season. Yet, in this time of climate chaos, anything can happen. Over the weekend, Yellowstone country was hit by a significant spring storm that dropped more than a foot of heavy, wet snow in some places. This storm re-triggered a lower-elevation migration, bringing more buffalo back into the Gardiner Basin, into the dangerous territory of Yellowstone’s trap. The IBMP and Yellowstone have a goal to kill upwards of 900 buffalo this year, and if the Park takes advantage of the buffalo who responded instinctively to this latest storm, they just may meet their goal. For more than two weeks now stock trailers full of buffalo have been escorted from Yellowstone’s trap, out of the park. Crammed alive into veritable coffins on wheels, they travel hundreds of miles in fear and confusion, to be met by the cold, hard, unforgiving concrete floors of the slaughterhouse.
Please help us stop this madness, end these crimes against the sacred buffalo. Our National Mammal, the last of their kind, deserves to live a life of dignity and integrity, one filled with honor and respect. Every soul who opposes these actions must raise their voice as often as it takes until the killing stops. It is up to each of us: we have to make it stop.
WILD IS THE WAY ~ ROAM FREE!