2021 02 05 01 001 BFC Stephany Seay 23

Frosty buffalo along the Madison River, inside Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

We figured many of you would be asking that question since it’s been a while since we posted a proper Update from the Field. The truth is, we haven’t seen buffalo outside of Yellowstone National Park in roughly six weeks. After the last adult female was shot by a hunter, the survivors who had been in Montana headed back into Yellowstone and virtually disappeared. Until the other day. After so many weeks in the absence of buffalo, a small family group appeared along the Madison River. A couple of days ago they came dangerously close to Yellowstone’s boundary, where they were vulnerable to hunters. Though there were several hunt parties in the area, none of them spotted the buffalo and since then, the buffalo have moved deeper into Yellowstone where they are safe.

Even though there have not been any buffalo in Montana, the “Bison Hunt Hotline” run by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, & Parks, leads hunters on saying there had been occasional sightings of buffalo in the state. This was completely false. We question why MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks would mislead hunters this way, knowing that many travel from other states, hundreds of miles away. We assume that this misinformation was put out to give the appearance that there are wild bison in Montana so that the opportunity to hunt seemed legit. For weeks hunters would arrive, scouting the Hebgen Basin on snowmobiles, but finding no buffalo they probably thought luck just wasn’t on their side that day. If Montana’s hotline — which does not exist for any other wildlife species — repeatedly reported that there were no buffalo in the state, hunters might start to ask questions Montana didn’t want to answer. Hunters might even begin to do the right thing and start challenging Yellowstone’s capture-for-slaughter operations, or even start to realize that the Central herd is in such dire straits that hunting is nowhere near sustainable. From our experiences over the last couple of decades, the buffalo are absent for two reasons: 1) we are having an extremely mild winter, so the drive to migrate to lower elevations is not urgent; and 2) buffalo are savvy and when their family members are shot, they vacate the area.

2021 02 05 01 002 BFC Stephany Seay

We love the mystery of wondering what a buffalo is thinking at any given time. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

Where we have been seeing buffalo is deep inside Yellowstone. In recent weeks on our daily field patrols, that’s been through a spotting scope, with the buffalo miles away. On Monday, however, a couple of us were lucky to be able to take a snow coach tour into the Park. After being so lonely without the presence of buffalo, we finally got to be in their company again. They all looked completely content where they were. The folks we were on the tour with were also very much enchanted by the buffalo, and we were able to put calendars and newsletters into their hands, the buffalo having touched their hearts.

2021 02 05 01 003 illegal snowmobiles BFC Jaedin Medicine Elk photo

Snowmobilers, likely looking to hunt buffalo, illegally enter Yellowstone National Park along the east bluffs of the Madison River. Photo by Jaedin Medicine Elk, Buffalo Field Campaign.

While the family group we mentioned earlier are now safely inside Yellowstone’s boundary, hunters are still swarming the area. Thursday morning’s patrol discovered illegal snowmobile tracks going into the park along the east bluffs of the Madison River, almost to where the buffalo had been seen the day before. Patrols were able to document the damage and contact the proper authorities who are now investigating the situation. Yellowstone has a trail camera set up along the boundary at that location, so maybe they will be able to determine who did it. We can assume that it was hunters, though it could also have been thrill-seeking yahoos. Recreational snowmobilers often enter areas closed to snowmobiles, but there is no doubt that hunters are feeling pretty desperate since the majority have so far not been able to kill any buffalo. This is the furthest into the park that we have seen snowmobiles go.

As hunters look for buffalo to kill, Montana legislators are seeking to harm them in other ways. We encourage all of our Montana supporters to visit our Legislator Educator Initiative web page to learn about the bills that are being introduced and to contact state legislators about them. We also encourage all of our supporters to contact Montana Governor Greg Gianforte to urge him to protect our National Mammal in Montana, as well as contact Congress about doing the same. No matter where you are, there is something you can do to help protect the last wild buffalo. Also, coming up this month, on February 14th, we will be honoring the memory of our co-founder Rosalie Little Thunder. We sadly can’t do our annual walk this year, because of Covid-19, but we have set up a wonderful web page where we can all celebrate the memory of this most amazing woman. We hope you will join us. Thank you all so much for everything you do to support our work in defense of the sacred buffalo.