Hebgen Lake, MT 

Late last week, we learned from our friends in Gardiner that a gathering of about 150 wild buffalo have migrated out of Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance, near Gardner. Then this week, our patrols discovered another 100+ buffalo migrating across the western boundary along the Madison River onto Horse Butte. This early migration happens to coincide with the start of Montana’s bison hunting season, and we’d already seen hunters take four buffalo in the field before this mass migration. It also occurs a week before Yellowstone’s Park Superintendent, Cam Sholly, convenes a public meeting in West Yellowstone to discuss whether we will plan for accommodating wild herds of buffalo according to what the science says, as required by law and logic, or return to the ecocidal slaughter without regard to science and nature, as demanded by Montana’s petulant Governor and rancher-dominated legislature. 

A trio of bison on a snowy road of Yellowstone National Park.

It seems, with this early migration, that buffalo have a message for all those who are willing to listen, who are evolved enough to see that humans and buffalo are both integral parts of the greater whole that is, as a matter of science, a living planetary organism. Indigenous people have always viewed themselves and the buffalo as part of the ecology. It is only by separating ourselves from nature, by objectifying and commodifying wild bison, and by not seeing them as our biospheric relatives and ecosystem cohabitants, that something like the 19th Century slaughter of 30-60 million beautiful buffalo - or the more recent, shameless echoes of that genocidal trauma represented by casual “culls” numbering in the thousands - is not seen as a crime against nature. And that is the same mentality that prompts Montana’s governor to brag about eliminating science from the state’s wildlife management agencies, while at the same time holding up the fake-science of “brucellosis” as an excuse to threaten the continued existence of wild buffalo on public lands. 

Every year, our buffalo brothers and sisters, the old bulls and wise matriarchs, seek to remind us that our arbitrarily drawn lines on a map or a piece of paper filed in some recorder’s office have absolutely nothing to do with the natural life-ways of America’s mammal, our climate keystone species. Yellowstone National Park is not called “Yellowstone National Zoo,” and for good reason. Buffalo and antelope are national natural treasures, irreplaceable, and still with us in spite of past sins committed in the name of 'settlement' and pursuant to the patently evil 'discovery doctrine.'  

Here is the timely message of the herds to Cam Sholly and anyone who is possessed of reason, intellect, and heart:  

In a world hurting from severely depleted biodiversity and wildlife, and in the midst of a climate crisis that calls on us to work with Mother Nature to restore ecosystems and draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere, there is no such thing as 'surplus wildlife.' We are Buffalo, and we are wild. We deserve to be treated with decency, honor and respect.  

The Park Service, at the state of Montana’s urging, likes to pretend that there is a surplus of buffalo in Yellowstone’s ecosystem, though more recently Park Superintendent Sholly admitted that there is room for thousands more.   

As a matter of federal supremacy, the Park Service’s care-taking responsibilities for migratory wildlife like bison, antelope, wolves and elk extends beyond the Park’s boundaries into the surrounding natural wildlife ecosystem, largely comprised here in Montana of the Custer & Gallatin National Forests. As legal scholars point out in the article “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone” (Wyo. L. Rev. 2022), the Park Service “enjoys its own unique authority to enter into cooperative agreements with tribal governments 'for the purpose of protecting [wildlife] through collaborative efforts on land inside and outside the [Park].’”  

Regrettably, as the buffalo remind us every year with their natural migratory patterns, the Park Service has abdicated this sacred responsibility to a state, Montana, and an industry, livestock, that don’t even recognize buffalo as wildlife! This is rather like turning your children’s pet hamsters over to a bio-lab for care. It is grossly irresponsible, and the public needs to demand more of our wildlife stewards.  

And so, under the dictates imposed on our federal (not state) wildlands by a state that fails to see buffalo as wildlife, and a MAGA governor who illegally kills wolves and has purged science from wildlife management, we are seeing Montana’s “divide-and-conquer” strategy take hold once again outside the northern entrance in and around the town of Gardiner, MT, creating unnecessary conflict for political gain. At the same time, Gov. Gianforte is busy  bullying the National Park Service, urging it to abandon science and its attempts to improve conditions for wild buffalo. 

Why does Yellowstone’s Park Superintendent, Cam Sholly, continue to play along with this charade?!  

Due to the extreme limitations artificially placed on the ability of Yellowstone’s buffalo to inhabit their natural range - which impoverishes all plants and animals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem - state and tribal hunters are forced to gather en masse at the borderlands of the Park, in populated areas, rather than being dispersed throughout the open forests and meadows of the National Forests, like elk hunters are at this time of year. There they watch attentively, waiting for their intended prey to unwittingly step into one of the narrow hunting gauntlets designated by the state to maximize buffalo mortality while minimizing their access to public grasslands.  

The people who live in these communities are forced to tolerate, as best they can, hearing the gunshots, fearing stray bullets that have been known to hit houses, witnessing the hunt from their yards and while soaking in hot springs, and living with the concentration of big gut-piles scattered across the landscapes around their homes.  

Buffalo are forced to choose between ignoring the natural pressures that bring them out of the Park in search of meadows with less snow, ending up in traps operated by the Park Service to be tested and/or sent off for slaughter, being killed without much chance for escape, or grieving their fallen family members in a timeless ritual that all hunters are required to observe before they move in to harvest the meat and hides.  

All because of lines drawn on a map that make no sense to these migratory herds, who watch as antelope and elk migrate outside the Park every year without a similar spectacle.  

This is hardly what nature intends, what wildlife deserves, or what the landscape is capable of providing. As Bonnie Lynn, a neighbor who lives in Beattie Gulch, points out in one of two lawsuits brought against the Park Service and the state of Montana over this untenable state of affairs: 

We believe in hunting for subsistence and for meat. But the hunting here has stepped over the line to threaten the safety and peace of the neighborhood. The hunting creates a public safety hazard, risks the lives of the neighbors and their property, and upsets our way of life.

Why would the state and the Park Service choose to create such an unnatural zone of conflict between competing interests here?  

Well, we know from former Governor Schweitzer whose interests the state is looking out for - and it isn’t the citizens that live in or near Gardiner and Horse Butte. They want to prevent wild buffalo from competing with domestic cows for access to grass on federal lands. They are so ashamed of this venality that they are forced to pretend that the REAL risk is a bacteria carried by both elk and bison that can theoretically cause - shudder to think of it now - a cow to abort!  

Part of Montana’s strategy has been to let the tribes take the heat for ‘controlling’ the populations of Yellowstone’s bison in the exercise of their treaty rights. So they must be pleased to see some extreme animal-rights activists -- as well as some archaic conservationists who apparently believe that the tribes place is on reservations, not their ancestral hunting grounds -- have instigated a campaign of slandering the tribes and BFC itself, as an Indigenous-founded-and-led organization that respects tribal sovereignty.  

It seems ironic that those who owe their privilege to colonialist land grabs, genocide, and broken treaties suddenly find themselves possessed of the moral authority to instruct the tribes on when and how they can exercise treaty rights (or, more accurately, why they should not be able to exercise certain treaty rights). Tribes are sovereign nations, and treaties represent the supreme law of the land in the same way that the U.S. Constitution sets forth inalienable rights for its citizens. They deserve to be respected - especially where it concerns the tribes re-establishing their time-honored relationship with wild buffalo. 

But while we can see through Montana’s corrupt motives, and while we try to excuse the misguided efforts of others, what exactly motivates the National Park Service to refrain from asserting their inherent trust authority to provide for the dispersion of wild buffalo in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? Especially during a time of climate emergency when the world’s leading scientists have identified Yellowstone’s wild bison as one of twenty large mammals necessary to restoring degraded ecosystems to recover biodiversity and, in the process, draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere. 

If the state of Montana has no interest in treating wild buffalo the same way they treat wild elk, which is a given so long as ranchers rule the Statehouse and we have a MAGA governor, then it’s time for Superintendent Sholly to work with the treaty tribes and President Biden’s National Forest Supervisors on a new holistic plan that allows buffalo to be buffalo, and that empowers tribes to fully restore their sacred relationship with buffalo. This would include co-management of buffalo within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and establishing honorable harvest regimes based on traditional ecological knowledge and federal treaty laws.  

Such forward-thinking management would benefit state hunters as well, of course. In fact, all Montanans would benefit from the economic windfall of having wild buffalo grazing along blue ribbon trout streams on public lands. And there would follow a cascade of the beneficial effects bison have on plant and wildlife diversity, in stark contrast to the ecological damage inflicted on our National Forests by cows. 

If you agree with this holistic approach, please take the time to let Superintendent Sholly know how you feel. There will be a public meeting at the end of this month in West Yellowstone, which is an appropriate forum for public comment (and/or nonviolent protest). We have a two-year window right now during which both the Department of Interior and the Park Service are headed up by Native Americans, and Yellowstone’s herds are a candidate species for listing as threatened or endangered because of threats from Montana’s Department of Livestock and science-averse governor.  

As for those hundreds of buffalo who unwittingly trampled over invisible lines into harm's way? Here is a bittersweet update from BFC's Campaign Coordinator, Mike Mease, who rushed over to Gardiner to monitor the situation:

After two days of watching 100+ buffalo walk in and out of the Beattie Gulch hunt zone, two bulls were taken by hunters. Our hearts go out to those who were forced to witness this loss from the sanctity of their homes. Today, my prayers were answered as I watched all 100+ march solemnly back into the Park, each stopping to mourn the remains of their fallen brothers before they left. Almost all the Buffalo in the valley migrated back through the entrance gate into Yellowstone on their way up to Mammoth. We will keep you all posted on all things the buffalo have to do to survive and the sad things that happen along the way. 

At the same time, we watched here on the West side as the snow flew and the buffalo turned about and headed back into their sanctuary inside Yellowstone National Park. All tolled, 8 buffalo have been taken by hunters so far this season, and another 4 have died in collisions with vehicles on the roads outside the Park. According to Superintendent Sholly, there are more wild Yellowstone buffalo now than at any time since we nearly wiped them out in the 19th century ecocide and genocide.

Now is the time to let our Park stewards know our demands on behalf of our buffalo family, whose obvious wishes to reinhabit and shape the Greater  Yellowstone Ecosystem have not been respected for over 150 years now. At BFC, we stand in solidarity with wild buffalo. We stand in solidarity with Indigenous tribes. We stand in solidarity with the residents of Gardiner and Horse Butte. Don’t give in to the state of Montana’s divide-and-conquer strategy. Instead, place the blame squarely where it belongs: on Montana’s inhumane politicians and on the Park Service’s historic lack of responsible leadership.

~ Tom Woodbury is Director of Communications for the Buffalo Field Campaign, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.