Buffalo migration has begun in earnest. As the snow deepens, the life-giving grasses are increasingly harder to come by. Survival depends upon moving to lower elevation lands where food is more plentiful and where their huge heads don’t have to plow away so much snow. Some of the gentle giants have made their way west, down from Yellowstone’s interior, while hundreds more are heading north into the Gardiner Basin. Migration itself  - just walking the earth — is a heavy chore this time of year; the buffalo’s massive bodies must trudge through snow that can come up to their shoulders, or even deeper. Winter is a formidable challenge, and many will not survive, though chances of survival increase exponentially when they reach the habitat they seek. But it is not only winter who the buffalo must face. Following the relief of finally making it to lower elevation habitat, the buffalo are then met by a much more dangerous and numerous threat: humans. Along both boundaries, hunters, who have only to call a state-run “buffalo hunt hot line” to find out if the native bovines have left Yellowstone’s boundary, await their easy prey. Unless the buffalo make the hard choice not to migrate and remain in the park, or unless they can access private lands where hunting is not allowed, they don’t stand a chance. 

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A number of wild buffalo were shot this week on National Forest land near Gardiner, Montana. Photo by BFC/Jim Pissot

On Wednesday morning, in Gardiner, BFC patrols were monitoring a group of buffalo who had migrated across Yellowstone’s north boundary, somehow successfully making it through the infamous chokepoint of Beattie Gulch. But on this morning, making it past the Gulch was not enough. Hunters with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes caught up with the buffalo on public land, shooting and killing six. Shortly after these buffalo were killed, another seven were also killed by hunters. This is only the beginning of what is shaping up to be a very deadly winter for our national mammal, the country’s last wild, migratory buffalo.

Very soon, wild buffalo will not be safe even within Yellowstone’s boundaries. Yellowstone National Park has stated that they may open their Stephens Creek buffalo trap as early as next week, much earlier than in recent years. This trap is a buffalo’s worst nightmare (Video). Hunters, of course, would rather be the ones to do the killing, so there is a race against the trap to kill as many buffalo as possible before Yellowstone’s capture operations begin. That’s pretty much where the conversations about buffalo “management” (read: killing) begin and end: who will get to kill the most and how? There is no regard for the buffalo’s needs or what is best for these herds, the landscape, or their wild community members, nor the buffalo's long term viability; those who participate in the “management” of wild buffalo come from a fundamentally human-centric perspective. Yellowstone claims they must slaughter, as their hands are tied due to Montana’s intolerance. Montana deflects the blame back to Yellowstone. Hunters assert that they should be the ones to kill since the buffalo are going to be killed anyway. This lack of accountability, coupled with the lazy acceptance that buffalo are “going to be killed anyway,” needs to be challenged. The false premises that wild buffalo are overpopulated, that they pose a brucellosis threat to livestock, and the intolerance (read: prejudice) of livestock interests against native wild buffalo are the driving forces — however unjust and untrue — behind the senseless killing.

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A bull bison craters through deep snow to access the grass below. In winter, a buffalo will spend one third of their grazing time moving snow around with their huge heads. This cratering also benefits other ungulates such as deer and elk. Photo by BFC/Stephany Seay

What can we do?  Montana would like everyone to believe that this is a state issue, but our last wild buffalo are of global significance. The ongoing actions against them dangerously impact the country’s national mammal who are also the world’s most important bison population living within and around the world’s first national park, a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Each of us must challenge Montana  and insist that the Montana Department of Livestock be relieved of their authority over wild buffalo. We do this by insisting that wild buffalo be respected like wild elk in Montana, and that Montana state law MCA 81-2-120 be repealed or amended (Action Alert).  Then, we go even further, doing everything we can to gain Endangered Species Act protection for Yellowstone’s wild buffalo. BFC and Western Watersheds Project are fighting for these protections in the courts, and you can help support our efforts by contacting your members of congress (Action Aler) to ensure that the funding is in place to do so. Lastly, we know that contacting decision-makers and challenging policy is never enough alone — we need people on the ground with us, to stand in defense of the buffalo. 

Please consider joining BFC on the front lines (Volunteer Page) and if you can’t make it in person, please support our work (Donate Now) so we can remain here. Together we can continue to make a lasting, positive difference for wild buffalo.

~ Stephany