Snow continues to fall here in Yellowstone country, but not yet quite enough to drive the buffalo down to lower elevations. Here in the Hebgen Basin, west of Yellowstone National Park, buffalo remain absent. Patrols are out every day, through all hours of the day, monitoring migration corridors and looking for the gentle giants; except for a small few who we can view deep inside the Park, and only then from a spotting scope, none are to be found.

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BFC volunteer, Frances, and volunteer coordinator Gator, view Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek buffalo trap through a spotting scope. We have to use a spotting scope because of the massive federal closure surrounding the trap, set in place to keep the public from bearing witness. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

This quiet lull in field activity granted us the opportunity to take new volunteers and coordinators on a field trip to the Gardiner Basin, along Yellowstone’s northern boundary. On a frigid Monday morning, we packed tightly into one of our patrol rigs and slowly — due to treacherous road conditions — made our way to Gardiner. Volunteers were given a thorough field orientation of these northern lands and and learned about all the complications the government sets before the last wild buffalo. In Gardiner, everywhere a buffalo turns can be a means to their end. We viewed the “Buffalo Wall” at Yankee Jim Canyon, where state and federal agencies maintain a 7-foot tall fence that climbs up steep mountain slopes, complete with a “cattle” guard across US Highway 89, in a sorry effort to keep buffalo from accessing prime habitat in the Paradise Valley, though elk and other wildlife are free to move around it. While this massive obstruction does prevent easy migration, over the years buffalo have managed to find their way around this veritable dam. We ventured on to view the captive buffalo within USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service’s GonaCon and now quarantine facilities. We also took a good, long look at Yellowstone National Park’s Stephens Creek buffalo trap, where 22 once-wild bull buffalo remain in confinement for quarantine purposes. The buffalo imprisoned in these facilities are visibly despondent, and their physical condition pales in comparison to their relatives who currently live wild and free. Captivity is a cruel institution, yet, hundreds of wild-born buffalo will be subjected to this maltreatment — never to migrate again — if Yellowstone and the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service get their way this winter. Federal agencies working cooperatively — using your tax dollars — to destroy the last living wild remnant of these Pleistocene survivors. Many will lose their lives to slaughter, while others will lose their freedom to quarantine, with some of the latter ending up in zoos. Many multinational “green” groups hail quarantine as a solution to the slaughter of our national mammal, but, such support is a thoughtless and careless quick fix to satisfy the human ego. Quarantine is a domestication program, a livestock paradigm, and ultimately a tool of the oppressor. It still involves slaughter, rips buffalo families apart, takes them from their wild homes, and results in wild-born buffalo living behind fences -- and even in zoos -- for the rest of their lives. Quarantine, like slaughter, serves only the human, not the buffalo nor the land, and in fact takes away not only the buffalo’s wild integrity, but removes enormous amounts of biomass that should be food for predators and scavengers. Like most critical thinkers, volunteers could not fathom any justification for such brutal and disrespectful treatment of these sacred keystone species. After some discussion, we ventured on to tour other portions of the Gardiner Basin where buffalo hunting takes place. Volunteers were shocked and angered to view the bottle neck corridor, just a mile north of Yellowstone’s buffalo trap, where buffalo who make it past the trap must funnel through to reach their winter ranges. Most buffalo who move through here never make to to winter ranges because they are met at the Park boundary by hunters, who have little choice in where they have opportunity to find buffalo, because Yellowstone and Montana keep them so confined.

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A relatively young mature bull buffalo offers his best side to his BFC admirers. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

After learning about all the macabre “management” actions the buffalo endure year after year, just before dark we made our way to our North Camp to have dinner and talk about the things we had seen that day, sharing ideas and potential strategies. We also delighted in the fact that the next morning, we would head into Yellowstone’s Blacktail Plateau to check on some of the buffalo and hopefully see a few of these friends up close and personal. After a night’s rest, we woke early, had breakfast, and with hopeful hearts headed into the Park. As much as we want to see wild buffalo everywhere, these days it is a bittersweet relief when the buffalo are absent from Montana, and hence, safe from human “management” activities. It’s a conflicting feeling, to be sure, but, much to our delight, there were no buffalo anywhere near the Gardiner Basin. The hundreds of buffalo we did see were spread throughout the Blacktail Plateau all the way to Tower Junction. Herd after herd, buffalo looked content and also simply happy to be alive. One group of buffalo we spent some time with — a heard of just over 100 — had springs in their steps and were feeling frisky in the cold winter air. A solitary mature bull approached this group “pronking” (jumping up with all four legs leaving the ground at once) and got not a few others all riled up to share in the fun. All of us were laughing with the buffalo, comparing how it must feel to be so free, when miles north in the lower elevations of the Gardiner Basin, so many traps, government plans, and other human obstacles threaten this natural right.

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BFC volunteers Ryan, Ollie, and Fritz, take photos of a large group of buffalo we spent time with near Yellowstone’s Tower Junction. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

To make it back to BFC’s base camp before dark, we turned around at Tower Junction, sending love and saying farewells to the buffalo as we moved past group after group, and headed north into the Paradise Valley. The Paradise Valley is a big wide-open expanse of grass, hemmed in to the east by the Absaroka mountains and rolling hills to the west, a landscape that should host thousands of wild, migratory buffalo. For the time being, wild buffalo are locked out of this valley, but when the day does come that they are free to roam, this beautiful stretch of land through which the Yellowstone River flows, will lead the buffalo towards the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, where they can begin to make their way into north and eastern Montana, and on towards the Great Plains of their own accord. Given the treacherous driving conditions, we chose the longer route home which, instead of going through the usual Gallatin Canyon route, took us through the Madison Valley, another huge and largely empty expanse of grasslands through which the Madison River flows. Buffalo who migrate west from Yellowstone into Montana, will eventually follow this choice habitat to reestablish themselves throughout much of Montana. The Madison Valley could easily sustain thousands of wild buffalo, but again, currently, state and federal “management plans” forbid them entry. However, on any given day in the winter months, a traveller going through this valley is almost guaranteed to see herds of elk, sometimes numbering in the thousands. Elk have been blamed multiple times for transmitting brucellosis back to cattle, a disease that livestock interests claim is the reason the buffalo should be held prisoner in Yellowstone. Though, there has not once been a documented case of buffalo transmitting this bacteria back to cattle. So, why are elk free to roam and not the buffalo? State and federal buffalo managers will hem and haw, coming up with the most ridiculous excuses in response to that question, none of which are bullet proof or even logical. In truth, the war against wild buffalo remains the same as it always was: a centuries-old range war over the grass and who gets to eat it, as well as a continued genocide of both wild buffalo and the Native people who evolved with them.

Enlightened, inspired, and more than frustrated with the status quo, the volunteers who got to experience this field trip are well on their way to becoming some of the most solid wild buffalo advocates these gentle giants could hope for. The buffalo call their people, and when you hear this call, you have no choice but to listen. Thank you for making it possible for us and thousands of volunteers to be here. We give thanks to the many volunteers who heed the call of the buffalo, and come to stand in their defense.

Wild is the Way ~ Roam Free!