As anticipated, we received a bit more than a foot of snow late last week. It fell and accumulated within three short days. Patrols are now trading in pack boots for ski boots, and we are breaking trail through the lovely snow to check on our friends, the buffalo. Save for seeing a few through the intense magnification of our spotting scopes, there are no buffalo around at the moment. This mellow time gave us the opportunity to attend this week’s Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) meeting in full force. Though patrols were obviously covered, we were able to send a strong crew to represent at this meeting.

While very important, these meetings are never easy to attend. They are “working meetings” for the IBMP participants, held three times a year, and the public has to sit there in silence, without being able to ask questions or offer feedback, as the agencies drone through the killing they did the year before, the obstacles and objections they face (from the public), and how they want to resume for the coming season. There is one very brief opportunity — right after the lunch break — for the public to give very short comments. Sometimes we get a whopping four minutes; this week, because of the high number of people who signed up to comment, we got only two minutes each to speak.

The meeting started off with a discussion of the gut piles and carcasses left on the landscape by hunters — and if and how to clean them up -- to address both concerns about potential conflicts with resident grizzly bears, as well as aesthetic concerns from human residents. The focus of concern is mainly in the Gardiner Basin at Beattie Gulch, a tight, bottleneck corridor the buffalo must move through to reach winter ranges. Right at the edge of Yellowstone’s north boundary, this square-mile of public land becomes a death trap for the buffalo. The small landscape creates a congested, confined area to hunt, putting both hunters, buffalo, and the general public at risk. Hunters get the blame for everything left behind, but, in reality, it is the IBMP agencies who are truly to blame. They are the ones initiating an extremely late-season hunt on a very small landscape. The IBMP agencies, Yellowstone National Park and the Montana Department of Livestock in particular, use this hunt and the hunters in an attempt to shift the black eye away from their capture-for-slaughter operations. During the meeting, hunters from various Tribes rightfully expressed strong concerns about the minimal landscape the IBMP agencies allow the buffalo to occupy and how this interferes with their treaty rights. In the end, the discussions about carcass removal lasted for hours, but as with most bureaucracies, it didn’t get very far.

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Yellowstone bison biologist, Chris Geremia, reviews the IBMP 2018-2019 operations plan and offers recommendations for 2019-2020. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

Other issues arose at the meeting, including discussions about moving forward with the livestock-paradigm quarantine (domestication) program, and the number of buffalo they want to “remove” (read: kill) this season. Yellowstone and the other agencies want to eliminate between 600-900 buffalo this year. Within that number range, upwards of 120 buffalo could be captured, taken from their families and wild homes forever, to suffer through the quarantine process, and the rest of their kill quota would be met through hunting as well as capture-for-slaughter at Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek buffalo trap. The kill quota comes as a recommendation from Yellowstone National Park’s bison biologist (a goal set to appease livestock interests, nothing more), while at the same time the very same biologist stated, “we have something very important here in Yellowstone: the largest free-ranging population of bison in the country.” Yellowstone’s bison biologist, Chris Geremia also expressed strong concern for the status of the Central herd, which has been in serious decline since 2008, so much so that for the past three years, Yellowstone and now Montana wildlife officials, have recommended no hunting or lethal removal in the Hebgen Basin where only Central herd buffalo migrate. While we fully support this recommendation, we have to ask Yellowstone what responsibility they are taking to ensure some measure of protection for Central herd buffalo who migrate into the Gardiner Basin. The Central herd migrates both west into the Hebgen Basin and north into the Gardiner Basin, making them doubly vulnerable to management actions. Yellowstone wants to place the conservation burden solely on hunters while they grease the gears of their Stephens Creek trap, where both Central and Northern herd buffalo will be abused and sent to the killers. Aside from a few collared females, at the trap they don’t know which buffalo came from which herd.

Forgetting to put on their thinking caps, some of the agency representatives expressed bafflement as to why the Central herd wasn’t using more of the year-round habitat they were granted here in the Hebgen Basin. These agencies seem to forget that they have been persecuting the buffalo for decades, and just because they are finally laying off of hazing them every time they step out of the park, they still face the dangers of being hunted. Patience is not a strong virtue with most buffalo hunters. So often buffalo who migrate into Montana never have a chance to take a breath before they are immediately met with gunfire, and they tend to not stick around once they are shot at. The good news here is that just about everyone seemed to share this concern, and it was underscored by the grave status the Central herd is in. Many expressed a desire to issue a moratorium on hunting in the Hebgen Basin to offer the buffalo a chance to recover and to explore more of the ground they’ve been given. We will continue to apply endless pressure to ensure that this moratorium is put into place.

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BFC’s executive director, James Holt, speaks brilliantly, from the heart, during the public comment period. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

The public comment period was full of powerful, logical, and impassioned pro-buffalo comments. BFC’s executive director, James Holt, member of the Nez Perce tribe, eloquently spoke to how tribes’ treaty rights are being manipulated by the agencies for this management scheme, and how the whole thing is a disrespectful disgrace for our national mammal. BFC’s co-founder Mike Mease addressed the glaring hypocrisy in how elk — who have been blamed numerous times for spreading brucellosis — are allowed to roam freely, while buffalo who have never transmitted the cattle-disease are treated as vermin.

Other BFC family represented beautifully, as did numerous other wild bison advocates. Many of the agency and tribal representatives came up to us afterwords to thank us for our comments, and quite a few Native folks expressed how glad they were about James being our executive director. We couldn’t agree more! All in all the meeting was business as usual, but the sense of a positively changing tide was in the air and on the tongues of many. We are on the cusp of tremendous opportunity, and we have you to thank for helping us get to this point and for standing by us as we stand with the buffalo.