A stunning late-born buffalo calf who miraculously made it through the winter grazes in the Gardiner Basin. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
It is hard to be a wild buffalo in this time and place. No matter where you go there is trouble. All you’re trying to do is make a living for you and your family, find food to last you through the next cold spell, find a place to walk, be free, find water, play once in a while, stay alive. But everywhere there is danger. If a buffalo goes this way, there’s a trap, if you go that way, there are rifles, and if you go the other way, there’s the steel-jaws of the highway. And if you don’t go, you don’t get to eat or move around, don’t get to be a Buffalo. Stuck between a rock and too many hard places.
Five hundred and forty buffalo later, the trap is empty and shut down, nearly three hundred more gone and the hunts are finally over. The dangers that remain are roads and melting snow. The tiny family groups who come out of the Park, into Montana, to seek their calving grounds, are few and far between. Once upon a time there were hundreds. Long before that, there were thousands and millions. Diminished in numbers, shunted by humanity, still they come. It is miraculous. At last, it is April. Females are bursting with the promise of new life. Buffalo return to or emerge towards the places where they will soon give birth. Dripping with shaggy wool, some skinny, most with an extra spirit in their steps, they feel the waxing of the Sun. As the days get longer and warmer, the snow is trying to melt into the earth, feed the rivers, encourage the wanting grasses, but everywhere is like concrete right now. Warm afternoons make slush of the still-deep snow, then colder night-time temperatures turn it into a kind of stone that no face can penetrate. Starvation in the time right before plenty is the reality. Did the “managers” consider this? They have surpassed the high end of their agreed-upon kill quota. More than 900 of the last wild buffalo are dead.
A pregnant buffalo from the Central herd negotiates U.S. Highway 191 on her way to favored calving grounds. Probably thinking they were being helpful, the Yellowstone park ranger exacerbates the difficulties of the crossing. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
Twenty percent — one fifth — of the last wild herds have been lost. Decimation times two. The last of the descendants of the only wild buffalo who saved themselves from near-extinction, the only ones who have lived on the lands that are their birthright since prehistoric times. Twenty percent of 4,500 individuals. Our National Mammal, the sacred, keystone buffalo. Do the “managers” congratulate themselves for a job well done, now that they have exceeded their goal?
After making it through months of a long, dark, snowy winter, spring is finally here and the green grasses are begging to rise. But, for now, it is the time in between. It is the time when Nature takes her toll, when many animals give in to the demands of the earth. This is the way that it should be, Nature’s way; absent of management plans and hunting regulations.
The Central herd faces many challenges, including their Madison River migration corridor, bisected by U.S. Highway 191. After spending hours along the road, this two-year old bull did not make it. No matter the serious efforts of our Night Rove patrols which have saved countless buffalo and human lives, some drivers do not heed our warnings. The young bull was struck by a semi and consequently shot by authorities after sustaining a terrible injury to his right hind leg. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
It’s a difficult time for a buffalo, for any wildlife in this formidable ecosystem. Yet, there is so much celebration in the air. As we hunker down, lock down in self-quarantine in response to COVID-19, our work for the buffalo carries on. Bare boned and not currently accepting new volunteers, we are burning the candle at both ends, always in service to the buffalo no matter what. Our Gardiner camp is closed down for the season, and here in West Yellowstone, in the Hebgen Basin, our patrols have taken on a heightened response to buffalo along the highway. Cutting directly through their migration corridor is U.S. Highway 191 — sometimes easy to navigate during daylight hours, but extremely dangerous at night. Night Rove patrols are our most important right now. Moving into the Hebgen Basin is the Central Herd, who is highly imperiled, their numbers having diminished by nearly 30% in recent years. Because they migrate both into the Gardiner Basin and into the Hebgen Basin, they have been doubly impacted by “management” actions, and now, ironically, moving into their calving grounds where baby buffalo will soon be born, they must negotiate the highway.
After all the Interagency Bison Management Plan has put these sacred buffalo through, it’s an ironic insult to injury that they must maneuver through a highway that brings visitors, services, and goods to the town that exists only because they do. But, most will make it. We will be by their side every step of the way. Soon, calves will be born and the dangers of the season will be over. We so look forward to sharing that time with you! As you expect us to, we are taking every precaution during these trying times, and, of course, we are standing with the buffalo, who will always come first.
WILD IS THE WAY ~ ROAM FREE!