Buffalo are all over the Hebgen Basin right now, along the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park. Horse Butte and the neighborhood of Yellowstone Village/Hebgen Lake Estates is teeming with the gentle giants. Most residents have huge smiles on their faces and we've seen people out walking their dogs with the buffalo close by. There’s a group of buffalo who just arrived along Highway 287 and we are hopeful that they will head to BFC headquarters for a visit. It still feels surreal that they have year-round habitat and most hazing threats are over. Unfortunately, there is a fairly large number of buffalo along the south side of the Madison River — an area where buffalo are still unwelcome — and two Department of Livestock inspectors did a reconnaissance yesterday morning and are aware of them. It seems that right now conditions on the ground might be too slushy for any hazing, but we will be ready when that time comes.
Our recent field patrols have been peaceful. We have been dealing with a few highway crossings, but with so much snow gone, the buffalo aren’t getting locked onto the highway and are able to move across the land more freely. While we continue to prioritize highway patrols, day and night, we have also been able to get out on the land to do lots of scouting. Everywhere we walk, the muddy ground or the remaining snow is covered with buffalo tracks. It is a gift to walk in their footsteps. And it’s not just buffalo we are blessed to encounter. We are blessed with magical moments as we spot moose, elk, golden and bald eagles, ravens, trumpeter swans, Sand Hill cranes, white pelicans, foxes, coyotes, and the tracks of wolves and grizzly bears.
(Don Spates/BFC photo)
On a recent patrol our volunteers were thrilled when they spotted very fresh grizzly bear tracks! It is always so humbling to come across these massive footprints and know that you share the forests and fields with such a sacred, powerful being. After a long winter’s nap, grizzly bears — federally protected under the Endangered Species Act — are hungry. Two of their most important food sources right now are winter-killed buffalo and elk. Indeed, buffalo meat is becoming increasingly important to grizzly bears due to the impacts that climate change is wreaking on other high-protein foods such as cut throat trout, white bark pine nuts, and army cutworm moths. These latter foods have traditionally been mostly enjoyed by mama bears and their cubs, while the boars tend to eat more ungulate meat. But with the losses of these important foods, moms and cubs are looking for buffalo, too. This is actually increasing grizzly bear deaths, as it brings cubs into more frequent contact with boars, who sometimes kill them. It also brings more bears into contact with hunters during the fall. The solution is simple: allow more buffalo on a larger landscape. Many of the buffalo we are seeing are showing signs of having lived through a difficult winter, and there is one particular adult female, injured and as thin as any buffalo we have seen, on whom we are keeping a very close eye. We are hopeful that she will make it, though her chances are not good. If she doesn't, she will go back into the cycle of life, providing needed nutrients to a hungry grizzly bear.
The Yellowstone bio-region is the only place in America where wild bison and grizzly bears have co-existed since time immemorial. Buffalo are an essential component of the ecologically rich habitat on which they have always lived. Yet the US Forest Service, the agency charged with managing much of this habitat, continues to refuse to classify wild bison as a Species of Conservation Concern or a Focal Species. We would like to send a buffalo-sized thanks to all of our supporters who have taken action--writing letters and attending public meetings--to urge the Forest Service to admit to the importance of native, freely migrating bison.