About a month ago we saw 32 buffalo walking north on Highway 89. The Gardiner patrol documented the buffalo visiting their relatives that were locked away in both the Corwin Springs and Slip and Slide Quarantine Facilities, where USDA’s Animal & Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) is experimenting on these once-wild buffalo with the chemical birth control GonaCon. By night, the buffalo were bedded down near the more northern facility, Slip and Slide. The next morning, patrols went out and noticed the buffalo had moved behind the facility and were being watched by state hunters. Sadly, these hunters shot and killed two, and the rest ran up the mountain, off the property, and were then followed by more hunters. The buffalo were too fast for them and got away. The hunters backed off and when they weren't looking the buffalo roamed back onto Highway 89. A game warden quickly drove in front of the buffalo with lights flashing to warn oncoming traffic. US Forest Service and Department of Livestock employees quickly got behind the herd and began pushing them south, keeping them away from some cattle that were fenced in nearby (the owner of these cattle is actually buffalo-friendly). The buffalo were pushed until they reached the Corwin Springs bridge and then were finally left alone. Later that day, the herd was hazed by a hunting rig's diesel engine and walked onto hunting grounds where more members of the herd were shot and killed. The hunters got to work processing the fallen buffalo and the rest of the herd moved away going south, toward Yellowstone National Park.
The next morning, BFC patrols noticed an orphaned yearling bedded down outside of APHIS's bull buffalo enclosure at the Corwin Springs facility. The orphan was left behind during the chaos of the hunting and hazing that occurred the day before. With her family gone she was attempting to join up with a different herd, and the only buffalo she could find were those incarcerated at Corwin Springs. Unfortunately, there was a double-electric fence separating her from them. Regardless, for the next three and a half weeks, she stayed outside the fence at Corwin Springs, as close to her relatives as the fence would allow. The Gardiner patrols checked on her multiple times every day since she was first seen. While those weeks were heart breaking for BFC patrols, I am very glad to say that this story has — for now — a happy ending.
Fast forward five weeks, to Monday morning. Trucks had gone to slaughter early in the morning, and we'd spent the time documenting their last voyage. We got word that a small family group was on the highway to the north - just making their way past the Slip & Slide facility, heading south in the direction of the orphan. Our patrol went to check on them, to warn traffic when they got in the road. They were an unusual and beautiful family - a mama buffalo, her yearling, and a young bull, led by a huge and majestic adult bull. It is not unheard of, but pretty rare, to see a mature bull in with a family group this time of year. He led the way, holding up traffic when necessary for the family to pass safely. We quickly realized that they were on a direct path towards the orphaned yearling, who was still bedded down by the fence of the Corwin Springs facility - in the same place she'd been for the past month.
Buffalo have very strong family ties. They mourn the dead, celebrate birth, come to the aid of the injured and dying, rescue other family members in trouble, and adopt orphans. Our only hope for this baby buffalo was for another family to find her and adopt her. We have seen buffalo adopt orphan calves many times over these past two decades, mainly calves who have been separated from their mothers during hazing operations, but also during hunting, when calves lose their mothers and even entire families because hunters are not careful. So we hung on to hope for this little one that this family would find her and take her in.
Our hearts fell when the family detoured down towards the river, away from the orphaned youngster. But after a time, they came back up to the highway, crossed, and made their way again along the fence of the quarantine facility. We watched, waiting from a distance, hoping. As they got closer we could see the yearling stand up from her spot in the sagebrush. The mom and her two youngsters approached, and after a bit of sniffing and greeting, the yearling became one of the family. The imprisoned relatives, within the GonaCon enclosure, quickly made their way down to the fence to say their goodbyes to their wild and free family. Then the family, now plus one, carried on to the south, led once again by the huge bull.
They moved across the bridge to Cinnabar Basin and quickly passed through the dangerous hunt zone, making it to the safety of private property before any hunters knew they were there. Still they moved, bee-lining it past the second danger zone of Beattie Gulch and into the park, the adopted yearling, smaller than her new siblings, sticking close to mom. By afternoon, the orphan and her new family met up with a large herd inside the park, once again held in the safety of the herd.
The big bull, normally solitary by nature, realized his job was done, and continued on south on his own, hopefully to carry his wisdom safely into another year. We rejoice in the fact that the lone yearling we'd worried about so much over the past month is safe among her relatives, with no fence to divide them. We hope that one day she'll be a big beautiful mama with youngsters of her own.
As of Wednesday afternoon, that large herd is still together, but their current chosen ground is in the hills directly above the Stephens Creek buffalo trap - the facility of horrors within Yellowstone National Park that has been the death of hundreds of buffalo this season alone. We watch anxiously, sending all our thoughts and energy, hoping to keep that family group, and the yearling who has been through such an ordeal, safe from the trap.
For the Buffalo,
Mackenzie and Cindy