Buffalo walk down U.S. Highway 191. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
Our field season, and the excessively long, drawn-out state and tribal hunting seasons, have officially begun. Here at BFC we are running full patrols in the Hebgen Basin, west of Yellowstone’s border. For the time being, things are thankfully quiet in the Gardiner Basin, north of the Park. November started out quiet, but didn’t stay that way. Only a small handful of reports were coming in about buffalo starting to migrate out of the park. Our daily recons proved to be quiet as those few who did make it from the park kept themselves well hidden. That is until one Thursday afternoon, when a family group from the imperiled Central herd, numbering 32, made an appearance on US Highway 191, near West Yellowstone. Our patrol stayed with them until well after dark, until they cleared off the highway and bedded down for the night. By the following day, more buffalo from the Central herd had arrived, and 32 bison became more than 100. Unfortunately, they migrated to the south side of the Madison River, onto Gallatin National Forest land where they are vulnerable to hunting. Hunters wasted no time, ignoring the information that the Central herd is in dire straights and that bison biologists have recommended that hunting should not take place west of the Park, in the Hebgen Basin. Under treaty right, these hunters killed two bulls and two moms, even though this particular Tribe’s regulations state they are to take bulls only. While tragic, buffalo are strong survivors, highly intelligent, and always full of surprises. Under the cover of night, facing into the shelter of a snow storm, they left that hunt zone.
Buffalo in Houdini’s Meadow a favorite meadow in part of an area we call “the new burn." Buffalo are not safe here. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
Saturday morning greeted us with a fresh blanket of snow and bright sunshine. Our morning patrol, suprisingly, did not see any hunt parties, but, more surprisingly, there was no sign of those buffalo anywhere. They weren’t where they had been seen the previous evening, nor anywhere in that area. There wasn’t even any sign of them - no tracks, droppings, nothing. It's as if they vanished from the landscape. That is until we found them nestled between the houses of Yellowstone Village ~ Hebgen Lake Estates, a small buffalo-friendly neighborhood on Horse Butte, where they are safe from hunting and government harassment. Imagine waking and having more than 100 bison in your yard! While we do see much tragedy in the day to day here at BFC, we also witness the good, the wonderful, the beautiful. Bison, being bison, turned their horns to the storm, using the cover of night and falling snow to move themselves out of danger and left in their wake only the whispers of passing.
Buffalo always face into a storm. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.
After a short time, the majority of this group found their way back to the relative safety of the park. But, unfortunately, not all of them. About 30 buffalo stayed behind, and over the course of the next few days, they moved to other areas of Horse Butte where hunters can kill them. Treaty hunters killed ten more in on Tuesday. That evening, the eve before Montana’s state hunt opened up, swarms of big trucks with state hunting parties arrived to the area. All they have to do is call Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks “bison hunt hotline” to find out if there are buffalo available to kill. But, the buffalo must have sensed their presence and intentions. On opening morning more than half of that group of buffalo had also made their way back to the park, and the remaining few returned to private land near Yellowstone Village, where they can not be hunted. For the time being, they are safe.
It is truly an amazing thing the way in which these large, slow moving animals manage to pull off the greatest of disappearing acts time and time again with profound intellect and surefooted grace. Through the sad times, through the hard times, through the long dark of winter and the renewal of spring we are always in the presence of beauty if one is willing to look for it.
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