We were supposed to meet with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDOT) last Wednesday to discuss ways we can work together to reduce bison-vehicle collisions, but bad weather and unsafe driving conditions prevented MDOT representatives from coming to West Yellowstone. Just a few days later, on the coldest morning we’ve had yet, an extended family group of about thirty buffalo migrated from Yellowstone along the Madison River corridor, crossing into Montana and across the treacherous US Highway 191. They made it all the way to Horse Butte, but in the frigid dawn a resident rushing through the subdivision on his way to work struck four buffalo on Rainbow Point Road, injuring three. When patrols arrived at the scene, the driver had already returned his damaged vehicle for an intact one and dashed off to work. Two of the four buffalo, however, would never return to ‘business as usual.’
This buffalo was one of four struck by a vehicle early Saturday. While the impact didn’t immediately kill her, the injuries were severe and her suffering had to be ended. Her body rests where she died, and is now providing the gift of her sacred flesh to ravens, coyotes, and wolves. Photo by BFC/Jim Pissot
We could not immediately locate the injured buffalo. As we were soon to discover, they had moved off into the woods. Through the shattered glass and plastic shards strewn across the roadway we began to see frozen splatters of blood, which led us to a buffalo's trail. Along that trail Crow found one of the injured: an adult female whose tracks revealed she had limped away, bedded down, limped away again, bedded down, and on went the pattern. When he found her, she was still alive but down. Upon seeing him, she rose and tried to move on a bit. He called out to the rest of us and right at that moment, on the other side of the road, we found another adult female. She lay in the snow, still alive but shivering convulsively, more from trauma than from the frigid temperature. She was in bad shape. We were at a loss as to what to do, but we knew what needed to happen. With a heavy heart and thoughts running in every direction to steer us towards hope and away from the inevitable, we knew we had to make the call. These buffalo were suffering and we had to help them. We made the dreaded but necessary call. The regional Forest Service law enforcement officer arrived quickly. Cursing the cold and the task at hand, the officer treaded heavily towards the more severely injured buffalo. He did not want to do this, but had to. He was quick and his aim was true and it was over quickly. The tears froze on our faces as quickly as they fell. The other buffalo had moved on a little ways. After he found her and watched her for a bit, he decided that her injuries seemed minor enough, and her will to live strong enough, that he wanted to give her a chance to live. We were thankful for this. Had our local Department of Livestock agent been the one on the scene, not only would he never have given the buffalo a chance, he would have taken pleasure in the kill. We and the buffalo were lucky to have the help of someone with a heart and conscience.
photo by BFC/Stephany Seay
After we were alone again with the buffalo, we paid our respects. Even in death she was perfect. Every woolly hair on her back was individually crystalized, dressed in winter. We rested our hands on her, offering prayers and tobacco. Her open eye was turned to the sky, beautiful, but seeing nothing of this world. Soft downy fur lined that eye and we traced it with our fingers, the lashes so perfect, each coated with frost as if some great artist had decorated her for an important event.
Not long after we found the rest of the herd safe from hunters, on buffalo-friendly land. We watched them for quite a while, noting one adult female who was standing just a little too still, but otherwise, seeming alright. She had managed to keep up with her family and was grazing with the others. She was a little too far away, even through binoculars, to determine if she was injured or not. But our guts said she was. Later that evening, while looking through photos, we found that one of her hind legs was scraped up, but did not appear broken.
The next day a state hunter arrived, undoubtedly having been tipped off by a local that buffalo had migrated out of Yellowstone. All but one — the injured one the officer did not shoot — were safe on land that was off limit to hunters. The injured one hadn’t moved much further from where we had last seen her the day before. A local resident spoke with the hunter and pointed her out. Five shots later, she too was dead. As sad as this situation is, and as much as we disagree with the hunt, it was an ethical act, an act of mercy, for the hunter to take an injured buffalo rather than going after some big, healthy trophy. He left nothing behind, barely enough even for the ravens, though they will be heavily nourished by the mama buffalo who died the day before. In a rare twist of events, rather than being hauled off to the local dump as usual, this buffalo is being allowed to remain where she died, and will feed the ravens, coyotes, wolves, and others who will benefit greatly from this winter meal.
We’ve had two significant snow events in the past week, and the accumulation is such that buffalo are now on the move to lower elevations. We are always very careful about reporting the whereabouts of buffalo, but it’s almost a pointless thing to worry about, as the state of Montana makes it so easy for hunters: they provide a “Buffalo Hunt Hotline” so hunters only need to make a quick call to find out if there are buffalo available along Yellowstone’s western or northern boundary. Shooting fish in a barrel was never as easy as this.