Snow is accumulating all around Yellowstone, including in Gardiner, where old timers are seeing more snow than they’ve seen in many years. We’ve had frequent stretches of bitterly frigid temperatures, too. For the creatures who don’t get to come indoors to a warm fire with a hot meal, it is an extremely difficult time. For wild buffalo, winter is hard, yet they face even bigger problems. 

2017 01 05 01 001 Waiting Gardiner BFCseay800Hunters park along Yellowstone’s northern boundary, waiting for buffalo to leave private land. The buffalo seen here are off limits to treaty hunters, and state hunters need landowner permission to shoot them. Photo BFC/Stephany  

Hunting pressures, coupled with the relentless and inescapable intrusions by snowmobiles west of Yellowstone, have forced a few more family groups of buffalo to vacate Montana for the relative safety of the park. Eleven more buffalo were shot by hunters on and around Horse Butte on the days surrounding the New Year’s holiday. These so-called hunts take place from the backs of snowmobiles, giving the buffalo relatively little chance of escape.  Wearing puffy snowsuits and helmets with rifles slung over their shoulders, hunters zip around at high speeds, looking for buffalo who are just trying to find a quiet place and a bite of grass to eat as they try to survive the winter. Hunting buffalo here during the winter would be nearly impossible — or at least hard enough work to deter most — without the aid of these machines. The snow is so deep that skis or snowshoes are essential to getting around on foot. When buffalo are miles into a snow-filled landscape, they are not easy prey without a snowmobile. With the aid of these machines, buffalo are easy to find and their huge bodies easy to drag to awaiting pickup trucks.

There’s little "hunting" involved in pursuing wild bison along Yellowstone’s norther boundary, either. Oftentimes when buffalo are outside the park, they are on private lands where most hunters aren’t allowed to shoot them. So, with trucks idling, they wait. Sometimes they wait all day, sometimes for days in a row, flanking the buffalo, watching and waiting for them to get up and walk across another imaginary line — in this case, onto Forest Service land where shooting is allowed. Many times, hunters drive through Yellowstone National Park, keeping a close eye on various family groups, hoping and waiting for them to migrate out of the park and into shootable areas. Witnessing situations like these over the days, weeks, and years can be disheartening, as every buffalo in sight is a potential target. Since our last report, eleven buffalo have been killed over here as well. Unfortunately, the number will increase by the time you read this.

2017 01 05 01 002 Buffalocalfindeepwinter BFCseay800A buffalo calf beds down during a bitter cold morning. Accompanied by a small herd, mom was not obviously near by. Many calves lose their mothers to hunters who like to take the bigger buffalo to fill their freezers, or sometimes their trophy walls. Photo Stephany/BFC


More often than not, either for more meat or for trophy, hunters tend to aim for the biggest buffalo they see. In a family group, this usually means a matriarch; a mother or grandmother, a guide and teacher for the younger buffalo. These elder buffalo have learned from their mothers and grandmothers where to travel at certain times of the year; where the best grass grows in winter, where accessible water can be found, where the easiest path through the snow is, how to avoid danger. When she is killed, and when other mothers are also killed, the calves and juveniles are left to fend for themselves, or may turn to any adult females who remain. More and more often we are seeing family groups with skewed adult-to-calf ratios: multiple calves to a single adult female. These mothers who are not taken are often left with numerous calves looking to them for help, but winter is a formidable enough challenger even if not a mother, and it’s harder still if you have a calf to care for or if you’re pregnant with another. In other situations, hunters can wipe out entire family groups, and then that’s it, they are gone forever. Such indiscriminate killing lacks relationship or consideration for the family needs and herd dynamics of the buffalo, and pays no attention to their future survival.  

These so-called hunts are not entirely different from the way Yellowstone captures and slaughters buffalo. With buffalo bottled up in these basins with no escape, and with hunters racing one another while also racing to beat Yellowstone’s lethal capture operations at the trap, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Montana's livestock industry--and the bison management plan that it has forced on Yellowstone--are the true forces responsible for the killing of wild buffalo. Whether through hunt or so called government management actions, the end result is the same: buffalo are reduced to meat, the land is robbed of one of her best caretakers, and the livestock industry gloats with satisfaction.   

At a fundamental level, Montana and it’s cattle culture of control and intolerance are to blame. Our combined efforts must focus on changing and challenging this status quo of the Interagency Bison Management Plan. Any action that does not fight this intolerance and excessive killing, or that fails to advocate for the buffalo's ability to live freely on the lands that are their birthright, poses a threat to the buffalo's long term survival and evolutionary potential. Montana has played their cards so slyly that they aren’t feeling much of the heat anymore; instead, all the entities who should be the strongest allies for wild buffalo — Native Peoples, subsistence hunters, Yellowstone National Park, buffalo advocates — are pointing fingers at each other. It’s the same old game of divide and conquer. Let’s not be fooled. Let’s gather our strengths and focus. Montana is our target and our aim must be true. To start, we must repeal MCA 81-2-120 and remove the Montana Department of Livestock’s authority over wild buffalo. We must also insist that wild buffalo are respected like wild elk in Montana. Please TAKE ACTION right now!. (Take Action)