A buffalo scratches an itch on a frosty willow. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
What a strange start to the coming Winter; we hardly have any snow to speak of, though temperatures have been pretty cold, dipping down into the negative 20’s some mornings. They feel even colder without the insulation of snow. Hebgen Lake has been singing freezing songs for a few weeks now, the tone getting deeper as the ice gets thicker. Beautiful frosty mornings, sometimes thick with fog and crystalline hoar frost, give way to the intensity of the sun on cloudless days. But, they tell us some snow is on the way. We shall see. For now, this seems to be a boon for the buffalo as the grasses are still visible and easy to access.
It should come as no surprise that the bond between mother and baby buffalo are incredibly strong. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
Most of the buffalo who are currently in Montana’s Hebgen Basin are staying safe, though such was not the case for two adult females from the imperiled Central herd. Wildlife officials are recommending that no hunting take place in the Hebgen Basin, to offer some protection to the Central herd, but these recommendations are falling on deaf ears. Over the weekend a mom and baby who were oddly staying separate from their family group were parted from each other forever. They had left the shelter of some private land where we had been watching them from for a few weeks, and ventured onto the top of Horse Butte, which is Gallatin National Forest land. A hunter killed the mom, leaving the calf with no one. We knew the mom. She was a buffalo who we had been watching closely last spring, as she had a pronounced injury which gave her a pretty significant limp. But buffalo are really tough and she was a strong survivor. As our field season drew to a close, we never saw her with a calf. But later in June, Geddy and Cindy spotted her again and saw that she had given birth. Hunters rarely know the stories of the buffalo whose lives they take. Needless to say, we were really worried about the fate of the calf. We had hoped that the little one would find the rest of the herd who were not too far on the other side of the Butte. A baby buffalo all alone in the world has very little chance of survival.
This gorgeous female, decorated with frost and pine needles, was part of the group who headed back into Yellowstone a few days ago. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
The following morning, patrols spotted a small group of buffalo leaving Horse Butte, heading towards Yellowstone. They had broken away from the rest of the family group who were still in the safety of buffalo-friendly private land. We had no idea why they decided to leave. Between where they had come from to where they were going, they were extremely vulnerable to being hunted. We stayed with them as they made their way, wishing they would pick up their pace and get to the Park. But, hunters spotted them less than two miles from the boundary. The hunters pulled over, three humans got out of their truck and headed into the thick woods. The buffalo immediately responded, making an about face and headed deeper into the woods. We thought the buffalo would head back to safety. We thought the hunters would never be able to catch up. But, we were wrong. The buffalo turned back around, again heading towards the Park, but the hunters were ahead of them now. They crossed Highway 191 and less than 1/2 a mile from Yellowstone, an adult female was taken. She, too, was a mother, but at least her baby had the safety of the herd, who made their way into Yellowstone where hunting is prohibited.
A young bull beds down next to one of our Buffalo Safe Zone signs put up by a homeowner in Yellowstone Village. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
The buffalo who haven’t left Horse Butte remain safe for now, on the buffalo-friendly land owned by the Fields family, and also in Yellowstone Village where they are fiercely loved. But that hasn’t stopped hunters from arriving, driving through the neighborhood to scope out buffalo they may not access. Indeed, Montana has a Bison Hunt Hotline that hunters can call to learn if buffalo are out of the Park or not. No other wildlife species is given away like our National Mammal is. With the others safe, our main concern was for the lone calf. Will she find the others? Will she perish alone? Then, just the other day, we were checking on a solitary bull who we’ve been seeing on and off along the Madison, and as we walked out to take a look, we spotted the fresh tracks of a single buffalo calf heading straight for the Park. It had to be her! Another patrol checked around the top of Horse Butte, where the mom had been shot. They found a lot of evidence of their presence, but no baby. While we can’t be 100% sure, given the circumstances, we feel confident that the lone calf left the Butte and is now in Yellowstone, hopefully joined up with the other buffalo who went back there just days before.
A nice surprise! Two bulls appeared along Highway 191, inside Yellowstone, about 10 miles north of the Hebgen Basin. Buffalo are rarely seen here anymore, but maybe times are changing. If you’re traveling between Bozeman and West Yellowstone, keep your eyes out for these big boys. Photo by Jaedin Medicine Elk, Buffalo Field Campaign.
Thank you for making it possible for us to be here on the front lines, standing in defense of the last wild buffalo!
WILD IS THE WAY ~ ROAM FREE!
P.S. Although we are not able to bring in new volunteers due to Covid, we are pleased to announce that we have hired a Mouse Coordinator who has set up a living space in the bathroom of our main cabin. She is an ermine, the smallest of the weasel family. She is very curious, somewhat elusive, and extremely good at the tasks laid before her. Mouse poop has been pretty scarce since her arrival.