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The Last Migration for 900 Bison

Part Two of The Controversial Capture and Killing of Yellowstone's Bison

by Rick Lamplugh
Feb. 22, 2016

From where I stand alongside Old Yellowstone Trail, an idyllic scene spreads below me. Winter-hungry bison, elk, and pronghorn graze in the large, flat Gardiner Basin surrounded by snowy mountains. A week of sunny February days has melted the snow from the basin floor. Today the temperature is a balmy—and unusual—50 degrees. Channels full of snowmelt flow and froth. Two weeks ago it was 20 degrees and snowing. 

I take a few steps away from the road and then drop onto all fours. The ground is cool and moist. I study the close-cropped vegetation. There, emerging through the dead debris of last year, are scattered blades of new grass, some an inch tall. Those green shoots and the lack of snow have drawn Yellowstone’s bison to this basin. If allowed, they would probably continue their migration into Paradise Valley to the north. Paradise Valley is not paradise for bison, though it is heavy on grass and light on snow. That river bottom valley is speckled with ranches and ranchettes, some owned by residents who don’t want to share their pastures or backyards with bison. 

Though the bison have migrated to Gardiner Basin to survive winter, a deadly gauntlet awaits. If these bison are here in a few days, some will be captured by the National Park Service. Their Stephens Creek Capture Facility sits on the edge of this idyllic scene. Native American tribal members will haul the bison to slaughter. Those bison lucky enough to avoid capture may be unlucky enough to continue migrating into the gunsights of hunters waiting a couple of miles away, just barely outside the northern border of the park.  

This controversial capture and slaughter and hunt are orchestrated by the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). That plan was written 15 years ago by a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies. Later, Native American tribes joined the group. Goals of the IBMP include cofining bison within Yellowstone and reducing the park’s population from 4,900 to 3,000 bison. This winter the plan calls for removing 900 bison. At least 300 will be killed outside the park by hunters. Another 600 or so will be captured in a zone closed to the public by signs along the road for two miles on either side of the Stephens Creek facility. 

I arise from all fours, brush dirt from my hands and knees, and walk back to the road and my car. As I have done on many days over the last month, I’m going to spend the next hour or so driving the five miles through what I have come to call the kill zone. This gravel road, Old Yellowstone Trail, connects the historic Roosevelt Arch with the park boundary, runs through the kill zone and straight to the heart of this controversy. I will drive slowly and stop often. I want to observe these bison and their migration. I want to understand this controversy from their point of view. 

I pull onto the Old Yellowstone Trail and drive toward Stephens Creek. Less than a quarter-mile later, I stop to watch twenty bison grazing alongside the road. The low winter sun makes a halo in the light brown hair along the back of a calf. Just across the road grazes a herd of elk. Both animals carry brucellosis, a disease alleged to be the main reason for confining bison. But elk are not confined to the park, are not captured and slaughtered like bison. Elk are not viewed as livestock, are not under the control of the Montana Department of Livestock like bison. 

These hungry bison—a couple of young males, a lot of females and their offspring—have left their home range some forty miles farther into the park because deep snow or an ice layer makes it impossible to reach the dried grass below. They have migrated here, led by matriarchs who learned this migration route from matriarchs that came before. Along the way, they often walk in the plowed road. That conserves energy, gives them a better chance to win this annual and deadly battle between starvation and spring. If they have an inkling of the danger that awaits them near the park boundary, their desire for less snow and more food overwhelms it. Plus they’ve been migrating for centuries, but only captured in the Gardiner Basin since 1996. Perhaps that is not long enough for the knowledge of danger to have been passed from one generation of matriarchs to the next. 

Migration is a natural part of a bison’s life. In fact, migration is how we came to have bison at all. Two to three million years ago, a much smaller animal in southern Asia began moving north and evolving, according to Harold Picton in Buffalo Natural History and Conservation. They migrated to Siberia and across the Bering Land Bridge to Alaska. They followed their noses south through the Yukon and to the Great Plains. There they grazed with mammoths, mastodons, and camels, writes Michael Punke, in The Last Stand, his book about the saving of bison. Big saber-toothed tigers and dire wolves hunted those bigger grazers. And by 12,000 years ago so did our early ancestors. By the end of the last ice age, many of these huge mammals had become extinct, perhaps because of human hunting, perhaps because of climate change. However the others perished, the ancestors of Yellowstone’s bison survived. 

That migration of millions of years and thousands of miles ended right here. Bison are now trapped in Yellowstone of all places. One hundred years ago, this park became what Robert Steelquist calls a biological ark for bison. By1900 there were only two dozen bison left in the park. Now, after one of the first and most successful wildlife restorations in the world Yellowstone has healthy herds in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. And in the winter, when deep snow locks food away, these bison do what they’ve always done: migrate. Herd by herd some head toward Gardiner Basin and the kill zone. 

I park in a muddy pullout that is high enough above the basin floor to offer the first view of Stephens Creek Capture Facility: a long brown barn, scattered smaller outbuildings, some trailers for hauling animals, various NPS vehicles, and lots of fences. Near the facility entrance road, 35 bison graze and rest, letting their superbly adapted digestive system squeeze all the nutrition possible out of a winter diet of dried grass that has the nutritional content of an empty cereal box. This is yet another adaptation—like migrating—that has made bison such survivors. If cattle were left to fend for themselves in Yellowstone’s winter conditions, they would die.

Leaving the pullout, I motor down the road and onto the flat floor of the basin. Most bison graze within a mile of either side of the Stephens Creek entrance road. One day I counted 80 in a long line that pointed right at the capture facility. With a ridge arising to their left, it would be easy, I imagined, for horseback riders to haze the bison toward the nearby capture pen. Once entrapped they would be tested for brucellosis and forced into holding pens. Several Native American tribes would be notified and arrive with their trailers. They would haul the bison out of the park to a slaughter facility. They would share the meat and hides with tribal members as they have always done. 

I stop the car by some roadside bison and roll down the window. I hear the singing of distant coyotes and the croaking of a passing raven. A mother bison stands like a crossing guard in the middle of the road just ahead. She looks back at her calf and grunts. The calf, horns short, energy high, responds to the mother’s message and bounces across the road. Its head swivels from me to the mother. The bison’s ability to reproduce is another factor in their survival. A female, writes Punke, can have her first calf at three years of age. If a bison herd is well nourished, up to 90 percent of mature cows can give birth each year. 

Mother and calf join the herd grazing in and around a field of glacial erratics. Millennia ago, those boulders were on and inside glaciers that crept down the Yellowstone River, which is just off to my right. Ancestors of these grazing bison roamed this continent when the melting of those glaciers deposited the boulders and ended the last ice age. Thousands of years later when Euro-Americans arrived, at least 30 million bison—a conservative estimate—roamed North America. Bison had even migrated, writes Punke, as far east as what would become Washington, D.C. Yellowstone’s bison could surely use a lobbyist there now.

I drive past these ancient animals among ancient boulders and quickly reach the entrance to the Stephens Creek Capture Facility. Looking down the entrance road, I count 20 bison walking along it, as if planning to turn themselves in. I don’t go in; the road is marked with a sign that reads “Authorized Personnel Only.” My wife Mary and I did go down this road a couple of weeks ago, confined in a big yellow NPS bus. We took a tour that was hosted by NPS and aimed at conservation organizations (we represented Gardiner’s Bear Creek Council) and the media. The tour—held when no bison were around—presented the NPS view of the capture and slaughter controversy. Between February 15 and March 15 this place will be busy with capturing bison. We will return to finish the tour when the animals are being processed and held. 

I drive on, heading for the park’s northern boundary. I steer through a sharp dog leg and then stop in the road near a sign surrounded by bison. That sign explains that Native Americans arrived here about 11,000 years ago. They were looking for the same things that these bison seek today: food and shelter from the winter. 

I navigate another dog leg past grazing pronghorn and along a stretch of road where I counted 35 bison recently. They had migrated beyond the capture facility and were heading toward the park boundary less than a mile ahead. I rolled down my window and yelled “Go back!” They kept walking, drawn I guess by the expanse of grazing land between the road and the Yellowstone River. 

Ahead I see a little pullout on the left, the last within the park. Just beyond that pullout is the parking lot for the trailhead at Beattie Gulch. That parking lot is on Gallatin National Forest land and used by hikers in summer and hunters now. Today in that lot—less than 50 feet outside the park—a man skins a bison that hangs by its rear legs from a hoist mounted in the bed of a pickup truck. The exposed skin is very white. This is one of the 300 or more bison that will be taken by hunters this winter. I watch through binoculars as the man works; he looks confident and skilled. Two other men watch, occasionally pointing at the bison and making comments.  

When I can stand no more, I leave the pullout and the park. About a quarter-mile beyond the hanging bison, three pickup trucks are parked on the side of the road near a gate. That gate controls access to a well-graded road that hunters use to drive their trucks closer to bison they have killed and need to load. These would be bison that weren’t captured at Stephens Creek. To use this road, hunters must obtain a permit—tribal hunters from tribal game wardens, state hunters from state game wardens. Beyond the gate, ravens fly and land and fly again, carrying away the remains of butchered bison.

One Sunday morning not long ago, Mary and I were on Highway 89, the high-speed road that connects Gardiner and Livingston and parallels this section of Old Yellowstone Trail. Though farther away, Hwy 89 is a bit higher and provides a good view of the plateau that hunters access beyond that locked gate. 

That Sunday morning we sat in a pullout and watched a hunt through binoculars. We worried as we counted twenty-nine bison lumbering in a long line toward a row of hunters that stood at the end of that access road. Once the bison came close to the hunters, we heard the popping sound of distant shots. We were shocked to see a bison fall. We were amazed that the rest of the herd did not run. Instead, they circled their fallen member, as if wondering what was wrong. Pop! Pop! Another bison fell. Some of the herd moved toward the second bison on the ground. Pop! Pop! Pop! Two more bison fell. Still the herd did not run. Within minutes, 21 bison lay scattered and still in front of the hunters. We watched with relief as eight survivors turned from the slaughter and in a much shorter line escaped up a draw, heading back towards the park.  

If those eight survivors made it past Beattie Gulch and into the park, they would be safe for a while. On that Sunday, capture operations had not yet started. But if those eight survivors made their way back to the security of herds near the entrance to Stephens Creek Capture Facility, their days are numbered. This winter’s quota has not yet been met. 

Comments? Questions? I welcome your feedback. Email me at ricklamplugh@gmail.com 

How to get involved in the Stephens Creek issue: 

Until February 29, each of us can give input into the idea of having bison held in quarantine facilities.  To comment 

In fall there will be another public comment period on a draft of the new bison management plan. That would be the next time for each of us to give input.

The IBMP meetings are open to the public. For schedule and locations  

Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and wrote the bestselling In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as a paperback or eBook on Amazon. Or as a signed copy from Rick.


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