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Collared female “S3” and members of her family enjoy some late-fall grazing in the safety of Yellowstone Village. BFC photo by Stephany Seay.

She was a powerful leader from the imperiled Central herd. A direct descendant from the original twenty-three survivors, her ancestors who saved themselves from the U.S. Government’s attempted genocide during the nineteenth century, when nearly 60 million used to roam the continent. She gained her immense wisdom being taught by her own mother and grandmother, as they, in turn, learned from theirs, and on down the family lineage, since buffalo time began. Like the mothers before her, she taught the young ones where to find the best water, where to give birth, where to find the best grasses and sedges, how to escape the deepest snow, how to stick together to stay safe from predators, and, indeed, how to flee to the thick forests to escape helicopters, horse riders, ATVs, and law enforcement during hazing season.

Years ago, she had been captured and violated by Yellowstone biologists, who placed a thick leather radio collar around her neck to keep track of her movements. They labeled her “S3.” We loathe these collars and what they represent for any wildlife, partly because they are highly visible and recognizable. As much time as we spend with the buffalo, we know many individuals by the shape of their horns, the color of their fur, their scars, nicks, hair dos, but those collars, tools of the panopticon, are worn by a few unlucky adult females, and they make undeniable identifiers. These collars, we have been told, are supposed to just fall off after a few years. But, we’ve seen no evidence of this, as many of the females who are forced to wear them have been wearing them for close to a decade. S3 was no exception. We knew her for many years.

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The path to safety that “S3” took her family down a few times this winter, after being shot at by hunters. BFC photo by Stephany Seay.

In the most recent times, we had seen her here in the Hebgen Basin, coming to her spring calving grounds. Again, this winter, she arrived with her large, extended family, in the company of a couple other collared females, including “A3,” “K4," and one who had a collar with no identifying marks. When she and her family arrived, so did scores of hunters. Some of her friends and relatives were killed by hunters, and she took the survivors away to safety. On three different occasions this kind of scene played out. She and her herd would arrive, hunters would follow, make as many kills as they could, and she would leave once again, bringing her family back to where she knew they were safe. She was also the one who surprised us by taking an unusual route, not along the bluffs of the Madison River, but through the thick woods to the north, seeking shelter and a quick departure through the trees. One day, after leaving this way for a second time, she pleasantly shocked us while we were checking on some bachelor bull buffalo — she had lead her people far north of where the family groups tend to migrate, and we found her and over 100 others in the company of these bulls. Something most of us had never seen before, and others hadn’t seen for nearly twenty years. Again, she and her family returned, and again the hunters came, and again she lead her people to safety. Then, not long after that, two weeks ago, our Gardiner patrol spotted her in the Gardiner Basin, all the way to the north. She was living proof that Central herd buffalo migrate into both Basins, suffering both tragic consequences . She was with a herd of about 80 buffalo, on the school football field, with no less than five of the young bulls who escaped quarantine last month. It was so amazing to ponder her journey, the decisions she made and why.

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Living proof that members from the Central buffalo herd migrate both west into the Hebgen Basin, and north into the Gardiner Basin, “S3” was spotted just two weeks ago on the Gardiner school’s football field. BFC photo by Stephany Seay.

Last weekend, she came back to the west side, to the Hebgen Basin, sadly, for the last time. A hunt party had found her and they took her life. Our patrols, when confronting the hunters, had asked if they had shot a male or female. They said they didn’t know, “but it [sic] had this collar thing on.” When we asked what the collar said, one person in the group said that it looked like “53.” We were crushed. We knew then that not only had S3 returned one more time, but it was her the hunters killed. They didn’t know her sex before they killed her, they didn’t consider that it might be unwise to shoot a collared buffalo, never mind the dangers of killing any female from the Central herd, but, even after field dressing her, they still didn’t know she was a female. The following morning, our patrols found a calf in her womb, left there in the gut pile.

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Some of the survivors who have travelled in and out of dangerous situations in the company of “S3,” heading deeper into Yellowstone to escape the hunt zone. BFC photo by Stephany Seay.

Her wisdom, her journey, her unborn calf, and her contributions to the survival of this herd were simply snuffed out. Her story is over. And she is not alone. She’s just one who had the unfortunate luck to be captured by biologists and therefor marked. But, so many buffalo share the trials and tribulations that she did. These sacred buffalo have to constantly run the gauntlet, just trying to survive, just trying to make it through winter and keep their families alive. Everywhere they go, there are humans waiting to do them harm, should they dare cross the line out of Yellowstone. Yellowstone’s bison biologists have recommended a cease fire in the Hebgen Basin, since only Central herd buffalo move through here. But, they also move north into the Gardiner Basin, where Yellowstone is greasing the gears of their infamous buffalo trap. Soon, not even Yellowstone will be a safe place for our national mammal. Will the park, who is crying out to end hunting in order to protect the surviving members of the Central herd hold any restraint, take any responsibility for their own actions that have caused far more indiscriminate killing of both the Central and Northern herds than hunters have? Please ask them. Call Superintendent Dan Wenk at 307-344-2013, and Yellowstone’s leading bison biologist, Rick Wallen, at 307-344-2207. Should they try to place all the blame on Montana, or say their hands are tied by court order, please remind them that all they have to do is give a 30-day notice to terminate the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which the trap is in place to serve.

For S3, consider saying a prayer for her, or honor her and her wisdom in some way that feels right to you. Give thanks that she survived as long as she did, and raised wise children, who, have once again had to save their family members from the bullet. She taught us well, and she taught her children well. May that wisdom carry on and help prevent the extinction of the Central herd.

Wild is the Way ~ Roam Free
~ Stephany