Wispy flurries are falling as I write, but we still haven’t had any real snow to speak of, though, thankfully, it’s at least cold enough that the lake has started to freeze. We’ve all been delighted by the whale-like sounds coming from the lake, as fluid water transforms to solidifying ice. It’s a strange start to winter. Scary evidence that we are in the throes of climate chaos; mid-December and we are still hiking instead of skiing and we hardly had a single day or night with negative temperatures. The good news is that, for the buffalo, travel is still really easy and grass not hard to find. We haven’t even opened up our Gardiner camp yet, because the buffalo don’t yet need to migrate to lower elevation habitat. For a few weeks here on the west side, in the Hebgen Basin, the buffalo had been pretty content in safe zones on Horse Butte, hanging around Yellowstone Village and the Galanis property. But, things suddenly changed for the worse at the onset of the weekend.
A hunt party exits the Galanis property, where hunting is not allowed. Neither, as the hunt party learned, is going through this property to access huntable buffalo on public land. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
Late last week, a crazy thing happened. The buffalo moved just off the Galanis’s property — the largest buffalo safe zone in Montana — onto the public portion of Horse Butte (Gallatin National Forest), where they could be killed by hunters. With so little snow, though, snowmobiling isn’t really feasible, and most hunters won’t work hard for their kills. We thought the buffalo would be safe because, generally, hunters are lazy and there was no way anyone was going to walk all the way around Horse Butte to shoot, field dress, and drag out a buffalo. We were both right and wrong. Our patrols spotted a state hunting party who appeared to be accessing the buffalo through the Galanis’s. We were shocked because we knew the Galanis’s would never allow this. We received phone calls from friends in the Village, we were hearing crazy chatter over the radios, and we immediately called Grandma, our dear friend and close contact with the Galanis’s, to find out if they had given permission for this. We soon learned it was the Galanis’s ranch manager who had granted permission, and wanting to take the easy way out, they wanted to bring the dead bull they killed back through this safe zone. Grandma asked that our patrols watch the hunt party, and get footage and photos should they bring the dead bull through the front gate, where an enormous “Buffalo Safe Zone” sign is posted. We were on it. We had the front gate covered, and had another patrol ready to cover the only other access point, should the hunt party try to sneak through trying not to be seen. We waited for quite some time, watching the hunt party through a spotting scope and binoculars, ready to document. In the meantime, we were also waiting for Grandma to contact the Galanis family and hopefully deny the hunt party permission to bring the buffalo through their land. After a couple of hours, the hunt party left the bull, gutted and just laying there. Suddenly, their truck was coming towards the front gate, and we were ready.
While they didn’t have the dead buffalo with them, we were able to document them coming through the safe zone, and able to get photos identifying the driver. After they left, we gathered another patrol who got permission to go through the Galanis’s and get a closer look at the bull and the route the hunters had taken through the property. A couple more hours passed as we watched the dead bull, hoping that a grizzly bear, a wolverine, or some wolves might be able to seize the hunter’s kill. Suddenly, we spotted the hunt party again. This time, they had a snowmobile on a flatbed trailer. They also avoided the front gate of the Galanis’s, taking a different route, down Pine Needle Road, towards the public land access road. We weren’t sure if they had finally been denied permission by the Galanis family, or if they were just trying to avoid us again. But, pretty soon, we spotted their snowmobile arriving back at the dead bull. They took the route they should have taken to begin with. After it was all said and done, we learned that the Galanis family was furious with the ranch manager who should never have lead a hunt party through their property. Rest assured, it will not happen again. It was also really terrific the way the community pulled together. So many people there are watching out for the buffalo. It was a really bad judgement call on the part of the ranch manager to think that he could have ever gotten away with what he did.
A female buffalo killed by hunters. In order to offer some safeguard to the Central herd, some hunt managers are recommending that only bulls be taken in the Hebgen Basin, but these suggestions are being ignored and are meaningless if they aren’t going to be enforced. Photo by Sohee Cha, Buffalo Field Campaign.
As all of this was taking place, the entire group of more than 100 buffalo moved back onto the safety of the Galanis’s. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay. The following day, as our recon patrol was inside Yellowstone, basking in the glory of a beautiful day, coming across wolf, moose, buffalo, and otter tracks, and enjoying the jazz-in-flight of trumpeter swans flying low right over our heads, we heard a series of gun shots. A lot of them. They were coming from the west, from outside of the park boundary. After hearing more than twenty shots, we high-tailed it back to our car and met up with our rove patrol. They told us that five buffalo had been shot. The group who had been safe on the Galanis’s the day before, had moved back onto the public land, and were heading east along the northwest bluffs, likely heading for the safety of the park. But, not all of them made it. When patrols went in to check on them, they came across an eerie sight: five dead buffalo and no hunters around. The rest of the herd was still close by. The patrols paid their respects to each of the dead buffalo. The hunt party returned after leaving the buffalo to get their field dressing tools. Not long after that, a state hunter arrived on a snowmobile and took a shot at another buffalo. After being chased away by the hunter who was hazing them away from their fallen friend, the rest of the herd continued east, towards Yellowstone. The last we saw of them that day, they had disappeared into the woods, in a place we call Rainbow Point Meadows, and were not seen again for a number of days.
The following day, our recon patrol set out to track these buffalo and see what path they had taken. It’s been unusual, the paths the buffalo have been taking this year, after being shot at by hunters. Typically they will return to the park via the bluffs along the Madison River. But, twice this winter, they’ve taken a completely different route through thick forests. The forest provides better cover, and with so little snow, it’s easy for them to go where they want. We easily picked up their tracks in the meadow, where there was plenty of evidence that they had stayed there long enough to bed down and graze. Then the tracks headed north into the woods, then north east, through some really thick forest that we were amazed big buffalo bodies would fit through. They left traces of their curly wool on many of the branches. When we finally reached the park boundary, the tracks headed due east, and they kept going. The buffalo took us deeper into the park, into the new burn from the fires of 2016. It was a beautiful sight; the black of the burnt trees, the white of the snow, and the braided trails of so many buffalo. It was also clear that they had not stopped; they were on the move to somewhere. But, where? We could see through the trees to our north that we were southwest of Sandy Butte, and suddenly we came to Cougar Creek, and the buffalo’s tracks kept going. We started to run out of time, as the days are so short this time of year. Aching to continue to see where the buffalo were taking us, we had to turn around, and followed the contours of Cougar Creek back out to the highway. The next day, another patrol went out, starting much earlier, followed ours and the buffalo’s tracks, and continued on where we left off. The tracks kept going meandering east, and still, as twilight was approaching, the buffalo were not found.
The following afternoon, taking a new volunteer on a rookie rove, our last stop was a place we call The Vista, which is inside the Park along Duck Creek, and is just north of Cougar Creek. Duck Creek and Cougar Creek are migration corridors that are typically used by bull buffalo. The matriarch-led family groups typically use the Madison River corridor, which is why we were so interested to see where those tracks from the past few days were going to go. As we scanned Stubby’s Meadow and the surrounding hills, looking for any bulls who might be visible, we saw a few of the big, burly males in the distance, and then we suddenly saw them! Over 110 buffalo just east of Sandy Butte! We’d found them! In my fifteen years in the field with the buffalo, I have never seen family groups use this corridor. On our crew that day was Grumble, who has been with BFC from the beginning, and earlier that afternoon, while we were showing volunteers the Duck Creek trap, he recalled the days of seeing family groups in this area many, many years ago. And here they were again. It was a beautiful sight and totally unexpected. Deep in the park here, they are safe from both hunters and capture, and there is plenty of food. The earth is open so it’s really easy right now for them to move where they want. These buffalo are all from the Central herd, who are in serious jeopardy. Clearly, neither hunters nor hunt managers care enough about their current status to refrain from killing them, but the buffalo care enough about each other that they are keeping themselves safe. It was exciting and humbling to learn yet another lesson from the buffalo: it never fails that just as soon as you think you might know so much about them, they show you that there is still so much yet to learn.