The majority of buffalo being killed by hunters are adult females. Not only do they hold the wisdom in the herds, killing females is a sure-fire way to drive the population down. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
I keep having visions of this dream that came to me the other night and it will not leave me: a two year old female buffalo stares at me with a sad, questioning look in her eyes, as ten orphaned yearlings, who she is now responsible for caring for, scamper around in confused circles because they have lost their mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers to hunters who don’t seem to care that the Central herd is quickly diminishing (Take Action). As Yellowstone officials cry about fifty-two bull buffalo who have once again found freedom after escaping Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek quarantine pens (Press Release), the imperiled Central herd continues to be targeted by hunters, and none of the bison managers are batting an eye. It was a long and rough weekend for buffalo here in the Hebgen Basin, who’s death toll is rapidly rising. No buffalo have yet migrated into the Gardiner Basin, so the Central herd over here continues to bear the brunt.
Though a long ways off, a close look at this photo will show you a line of buffalo along the (frozen) lakeshore, with a small group of hunters on the hill just above them, then a huge group of hunters and snowmobiles at the top of the hill. To the left is the boathouse located on the Galanis property. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
For a few days at least, the groups of buffalo — upwards of eighty individuals — had found shelter on the Galanis property, which is Montana’s largest safe zone, but also is adjacent to Gallatin National Forest, public land where buffalo can be hunted. Over the weekend, a group of hunters was sitting at the boundary of the Galanis’s, eyeing the buffalo and just waiting for them to cross over. The hunters had no luck that day. But everything changed the following day. The same hunters, along with additional hunt parties totaling at least twenty people, returned to the edge of the Galanis property boundary, watching buffalo who were getting perilously close to the public land. The buffalo weren’t budging. We had eyes on them and the hunters, and started to see hunters coming down the hill, towards the water, where the buffalo were. We could see that some of the hunters had their GPS gadgets out, but we were certain they were trespassing. We immediately contacted our local Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer, and he had been watching the scene from afar and was already on his way out there. Then we started hearing gunshots. We couldn’t believe it! This could not be happening. Not only were we sure they were trespassing, but they were starting to shoot buffalo! The law enforcement arrived at the scene, and, he, too got his GPS device out. What we then learned was hugely disappointing: a small corner of the public land cuts into a section of the Galanis property. The hunters were very close to the property line, but, unfortunately, they were legal. Nine buffalo were killed that day. Correction: ten buffalo were killed that day. A hunter shot an adult female who then ran onto the Galanis property. Law enforcement suspected this had happened, and got permission to access the property the following morning. They found her dead.
By the end of the day, the majority of those buffalo headed onto obvious areas of the public land. We were extremely worried that more hunters would arrive and take more of these Central herd members. We had patrols out first thing the following morning to look for them, but they had already moved east over Horse Butte, we hoped, heading to the safety of the Park. If it had been under the cover of darkness, they would have made it back alive. But, they traveled in the day, along the northwest bluffs of the Madison River, which is also part of Gallatin National Forest. By the end of the day, seven more buffalo had been killed. The rest of that group, thankfully, did make it back into the park. The following day, patrols did a recon into the park, and found them deeper within the shelter of those lands, where they are choosing to stay for now.
This is just part of the gruesome sight that greeted the residents of Yellowstone Village along Rainbow Point Road. There were a lot of very upset locals on this sad day. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
The smaller group of approximately twenty-three buffalo who had stayed on the Galanis’s, chose to leave on Monday morning. They headed east down Rainbow point road, also in the direction of the park. Again, had they traveled under the cloak of night, they would have made it alive. No such luck. Monday morning was a veritable massacre along Rainbow Point Road. Morning patrols observed utter chaos as various hunt parties went after the buffalo as they tried to make their way towards the park. Gun shots were going off in every direction as the buffalo tried to get away. Before 9 a.m., seventeen buffalo were dead. Only five survived from that group. After the chaos ended, we tracked them and they made a bee-line into the Park.
Afternoon patrols checked on the scene. Driving down Rainbow Point Road were snowmobile trails, that were also blood trails, going into the woods leading to gut piles. There was blood on the road. There was blood everywhere. The further west we went down the road, we got closer to some Forest Service snowmobile trails, and more intense signs of kills. We reached an intersection we call the Turkey Tracks, and parked there were a few of the hunters rigs full of dead buffalo, including three skinned buffalo laid out on the road. The sight was so shocking a couple of us couldn’t help but document it. When we got out of our car to take photos, some of the hunters emerged telling us, “get out of here! there’s nothing here for you!” There was no sense in responding to that, no sense in addressing anger with anger. I took a deep breath and asked, “Are you aware of the status of the Central herd?” One of the hunters responded, “Yeah.” Then I asked, “Does it matter to you? Does it matter that these buffalo are in dire straights?” The hunter said, “No, not so long as I can feed my family.” Hearing that broke our hearts. I said, “You won’t be able to keep feeding your family if they go extinct, and what about other families who need to eat, what will be left for them?” And what about the buffalo who made a deal with the People so long ago: we will take care of you, we will offer you ourselves so that you may live, but when we are in our time of need, you must take care of us. But, so many of the people have forgotten their end of the bargain. The hunter also said that if this herd was in jeopardy then hunt managers wouldn’t allow them to hunt. But, Yellowstone’s bison biologists have recommended a cease-fire on the Central herd, but neither hunters nor hunt managers are heeding this warning. And, neither is Yellowstone. Yellowstone can’t place the burden of conservation on hunters while they grease up the gears of their trap, preparing to capture buffalo for slaughter or quarantine. Along with Northern herd members, Central herd buffalo also migrate north into the Gardiner Basin, where Yellowstone’s trap threatens migration and takes more buffalo lives than hunters do.
And it does appear that the quiet BFC and the buffalo have enjoyed in Gardiner is about to end. After getting a call from a local supporter Tuesday morning, who said there were a few groups of buffalo by the Arch, we opened camp over there on Wednesday. From the sounds of this evening’s Gardiner report, it’s just a matter of time before the killing starts over there. Today, January 18, our petition filed to protect wild buffalo under the Endangered Species Act, rejected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will be heard in U.S. District Court, in Washington, D.C. We are challenging the Fish & Wildlife decision, which was not made using the best available science, as should be done. We hope the judge likes our National Mammal, as gaining ESA protection for these last wild buffalo is one of the greatest chances for them to have any kind of meaningful, viable future.
Wild is the Way ~ Roam Free!