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Two pregnant buffalo in the Blacktail Plateau, where the Northern herd have their calving grounds. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

The Gardiner Basin has changed rapidly in the past month. Just a few short weeks ago, eight hundred gentle giants were roaming freely throughout the Basin. Outside of the trap where those confined for slaughter were being held, family groups were seen in every direction from north to south. In the last weeks of March, some were taken by hunters, but the majority started their southward migration towards Yellowstone’s interior, heading for spring calving grounds. The Gardiner Basin is nearly empty of buffalo now.

This week’s Gardiner patrol had some time to venture into the park to check on the buffalo who moved on. We visited with Northern herd members, traveling through the Blacktail Plateau where we saw a few hundred, thankfully including a lot of pregnant females. They are entering their calving grounds and preparing to give birth in the next few weeks.

We traveled further south, into the Lamar Valley, where we saw fewer family groups. Towards the northern edge of the Lamar, there was tons of buffalo sign, but, there we encountered mostly mature bulls, who look like winter has really taken a heavy toll on them. Ribs and hip bones protruding, they are doing their best to keep themselves alive until the sun enables the re-greening of the earth, when buffalo can get fat again. Outside of the dangers of “management”, early spring is the most deadly time for buffalo, as many will succumb to the challenges of a long winter.

In the higher elevations of the Hebgen Basin, west of Yellowstone, spring migration is on the verge of happening. We had a few false starts as small family groups began to arrive, then disappeared, hopefully going to get friends, let them know the coast is clear, and it’s all right, now, to make their way towards their calving grounds on and around Horse Butte.

The buffalo migrating West are all from the imperiled Central herd, who were not spared by hunting or slaughter. We are anxious to see how many buffalo migrate west this spring. Over the past few springs, those numbers have dwindled, and we fear that after this intense killing spree, their numbers will be even fewer. Snow is rapidly melting, and the season of mud is upon us. With temperatures still freezing at night, it’s a hard time for grazing in such conditions, and the best food is found along the banks of creeks, rivers, and their tributaries. Soon, the snow will give way to the waxing sun who will work his magic, wakening the life-giving green and growing ones who have been asleep for so long.

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Pregnant and afraid, these adult female buffalo are being held for slaughter inside the sorting pens of Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek buffalo trap. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

For the buffalo who still remain inside Yellowstone’s trap being held for slaughter — approximately 100 — along with another 120 who will remain in captivity “for quarantine purposes” — the natural challenges and blessings of living wild and free are a thing of the past. The trap is nearly empty. There are almost no buffalo in the outer catch pens, and horses have moved in to fill in those spaces. But, there have also been no shipments to slaughter this past week, and very few last week, so we can only surmise that the buffalo who remain inside the trap are being held in the dungeons of the sorting pens, where we can not see.

It is highly likely that with the hundreds of buffalo who were so quickly shipped to slaughter, the killing facilities had reached capacity, and so, the buffalo who are still captive at the trap are being held by Yellowstone until the slaughter facilities can make room to kill more buffalo. In these sorting pens, the walls are high and dark. Buffalo can’t see relatives in the other pens. They are walking around in feces, bumping into walls, banging into each other, panting and terrorized, not knowing where they are or why this is happening to them. What have they done to deserve such malicious treatment? Haven’t they always given everything they can to ease life, create life? Why this unforgivable betrayal?

Regardless of the inactivity at the trap, it is crawling with law enforcement. Likely, it's a response to the recent direct actions that took place in early- and mid-March. Actions that succeeded even though Yellowstone had boasted they had heightened security on the premise. In the past week, patrols have witnessed the wasting of federal tax dollars in the form of law enforcement, working overtime, to just sit at the trap for hours upon hours. For days in a row, upwards of seven marked and unmarked law enforcement vehicles were seen just driving around in circles or parked and idling, doing nothing but wasting money and harming the air. These are just some of the lengths that Yellowstone will go to to defend that which they know is wrong.

Next week, Wild Buffalo Defense’s Wolf — one of the men who locked down at the access road to Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek buffalo trap — will have his hearing. Wolf plead not guilty to his charges of a closure violation, obstructing a government function (i.e. buffalo slaughter), and obstructing a government worker. He will appear before federal judge Mark Carman on April 4th, at Yellowstone’s “Justice” Center, in Mammoth, Wyoming. Please attend the hearing to show support and solidarity for his courageous actions, or if you can’t make it, please consider contributing to the Wild Buffalo Defense Legal Fund to help Wolf and the others who risked their freedom in an attempt to halt and draw attention to Yellowstone's slaughter of the country’s last wild buffalo.

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Buffalo Field Campaign will continue our fight for the buffalo for as long as it takes. The future of this bull, and all of his relatives — present and future — depend on your support of our work. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

When buffalo aren’t even safe inside Yellowstone National Park, where in the world can they find protection? It is a constant misconception that Yellowstone protects wild buffalo, or that because buffalo have National Mammal status, that this also grants them automatic protection. Neither are true, sadly. That’s one of the many reasons why Buffalo Field Campaign is working so diligently on a variety of fronts.

Fueled by our first-hand experience from being on the ground with the buffalo, we have a unique understanding of what buffalo “management” really looks like, so we have the distinct position of being able to fight hard for them in the courts and policy arenas to gain them legal protections that will change the course of the status quo. Our Endangered Species Act petition won a round in late-January, when United States District Judge Christopher R. Cooper ruled  that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service illegally denied Endangered Species Act protection to the wild buffalo of Yellowstone, forcing them to reconsider their negative finding and review all of the ‘best available science.'

The ESA process is a long, bureaucratic battle, but winning this round is a huge step towards a real victory. We are also continuing to push the U.S. Forest Service to list American bison as a Species of Conservation Concern on national forest lands. Such a listing would mean, among other things, that wild buffalo would be able to use more of their habitat on forest lands, rather than being confined to small swaths of “tolerance zones" dictated by Montana livestock interests.

The Gallatin National Forest is preparing for another series of public meetings to discuss alternatives to their Forest Plan Revision, which is where our Species of Conservation Concern listing request will be considered. April meetings will be announced next week, so stay tuned for your opportunity to continue to participate in this important public process.

Without your continued support, we would not be able to be here on the front lines, nor the courts or policy arena, defending wild buffalo on the ground they choose to be on, advocating for their lasting protection. Our field presence is the foundation for all of our work for the buffalo. Please help keep us there so we can continue to help this sacred, keystone species; our relatives, the buffalo.

Wild is the Way ~ Roam Free!