Part Three in The Capture and Killing of Yellowstone's Bison
by Rick Lamplugh
March 8, 2016
This is the third in a series of articles on the capture and killing of Yellowstone’s bison. The first presented the viewpoint of the NPS, the federal agency capturing the bison. The second presented the situation from the perspective of Yellowstone’s bison.
The sun is not yet over the mountains when I pull the car into McConnell River access off Hwy 89. I’m here to interview Stephany Seay, media coordinator for Buffalo Field Campaign. I park behind a dusty Subaru wagon, in front of which stand three members of BFC. One is bent over a spotting scope and the other, Seay, is using binoculars. Both are trying to see what is happening at the NPS Stephens Creek Capture Facility, tiny in the distance across the Yellowstone River and the floor of the Gardiner Basin. Also across the river and about two miles to the north is Beattie Gulch, the area just outside Yellowstone where bison not captured at Stephens Creek are shot by hunters. This winter about 900 bison will be shipped to slaughter or killed by hunters on this landscape in front of us. Seay and Buffalo Field Campaign work to stop the killing.
I approach Seay, and she puts down the binoculars. We shake hands and make small talk for a couple minutes. Several ravens circle and call overhead. A cold wind gusts and my eyes water. We fall silent and watch a big bull bison meander toward the Stephens Creek entrance road. I wonder aloud if he’ll be captured. This year’s capture has begun; 24 bison are in the capture pen. Seay says she thinks the Park Service puts out hay to lure bison into their catch pens. “And we think that they’ve left that group there to entice other buffalo to come.” I pull out a digital recorder, turn it on, and begin the interview.
What would you consider success for Buffalo Field Campaign?
“Success for Buffalo Field Campaign would be for wild bison to be managed as wild bison, for the Department of Livestock’s authority to be revoked, and for wild bison to be able to walk the landscape like any other wildlife.”
So you could imagine bison leaving here safely and walking to Paradise Valley?
How would bison fit in with the cattle, ranches, and ranchettes in Paradise Valley?
“There’s elk down there also and nobody really seems to care. Honestly, buffalo as native wildlife need to take precedence on the landscape, whether on private or public land. If you’re going to live in buffalo country then you need to learn how to live with wild buffalo. If that means building bigger fences to keep your cows in, then take the responsibility to do that. It should not be on the onus of the state, the federal government, or the wildlife to subsidize the livestock industry.”
What about the possibility of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle?
“I don’t want to validate the brucellosis argument at all. There’s so much hypocrisy. The buffalo are being killed supposedly in the name of brucellosis, while elk are migrating freely onto cattle ranches. And buffalo are also being killed in the name of surplus. But there’s no such thing as surplus wild buffalo. Surplus is only a term of domestic livestock. This livestock industry has been running amok and forcing everyone else to compromise to their terms. And it’s time for that to end.”
How do you change that?
“We can stop subsidizing them for one thing, and this Interagency Bison Management Plan is part of the subsidy.”
What do you mean when you say subsidize?
“I mean that the federal government is footing the bill to kill wild buffalo on behalf of the livestock industry. That has to end. Everyone else is paying the price so that you can have this invasive species [cattle] on the landscape.”
Can you talk about Montana law 81-2-120?
“[81-2-120] gives the Montana Department of Livestock the authority to manage wild buffalo when they migrate into Montana. That’s putting the fox in charge of the hen house. That is a huge conflict of interest. Not only do the department of Livestock employees have zero experience in wildlife management, they view bison as a direct competitor for cows. So of course they’re going to manage them in a way that suits the cows only. That law is also the catalyst for the creation of the IBMP. So if we can change that law, get management authority in the hands of wildlife professionals such as Fish Wildlife and Parks, then a lot of this other stuff can start to go away. Repealing or changing that law is definitely one of our top priority efforts.”
What is BFC going to do to repeal 81-2-120?
“Right now we are trying to apply public pressure on the governor to do what he can to support legislation that could amend that law.” [Repealing 81-2-120 would take finding a sponsor who could put forth a bill that could repeal that law. Or it could take a ballot initiative which is not feasible for BFC to take on.]
The NPS has put out an Environmental Assessment which could allow some bison to be shipped from Yellowstone and placed in other sites around Montana instead of being slaughtered. The bison would be quarantined for some time to make sure they are brucellosis free and then released into larger fenced-in pastures. Where does BFC stand on the idea of quarantine?
“We don’t support any transportation or quarantine. We support migration.”
At one time BFC filed a petition to list these bison as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The petition was rejected. You and Chris Ketcham recently filed a suit to gain greater access to the Stephens Creek Capture Facility. What is the tactic behind that lawsuit?
“Clearly they [NPS] don’t want the public to see what’s going on in Stephens Creek. Look at where we are right now. And look at what we have to use to see that there are buffalo in there at all. When they start running these wild buffalo through that capture facility, really bad things happen. We want to show the public what’s taking place, the harm that’s caused to the buffalo, the crazy cowboy mentality that our own Park Service—the guys in green—are demonstrating. Because we think that when the public can see this, there will be much more of an outcry. We ultimately want this trap to go away.”
Montana’s governor recently granted bison year-round access to more land north and west of Yellowstone. What’s BFC’s response to the governor’s move?
“He did a really good thing with granting year-round habitat on Horse Butte [near West Yellowstone]. It’s unfortunate that there are population caps. The most buffalo allowed is around 600 in the spring, and that’s when there are about that many there. However, with that he took away other habitat that they use all the time. And so that’s going to be a big challenge. He also granted habitat north of the Hebgen Basin that is mountainous and that bison won’t use.”
[Seay points across the Yellowstone River and toward Beattie Gulch, where the kill zone begins when bison leave the park.] “Killing at Beattie Gulch has been awful this year. This isn’t hunting. It’s just another aspect of the slaughter. The buffalo can’t even use the habitat they’ve been granted in this basin because they can’t get past that line over there [Beattie Gulch].”
What’s your opinion about how BFC was received in your recent demonstrations in Gardiner, Bozeman, and West Yellowstone?
“Groundswell support is growing. In years past when BFC has marched, we’ve gotten the finger, we’ve gotten the ‘get a job hippy,’ and those kinds of remarks. But this past week it was all positive. A lot of thumbs up, friendly honks. It was amazing. It definitely seems that public support is growing and people are getting really tired of this and understanding this issue more and more.”
What is the biggest success that BFC has had?
“Year-round habitat for bison on Horse Butte. We’ve been fighting for that for almost 20 years. We hear people on Horse Butte say all the time, ‘I moved here because of the wildlife. I want them around.’ They don’t want these agencies to mess with the wildlife. [Yellowstone Village on Horse Butte] is the most profound living classroom of coexistence. It’s a little subdivision in buffalo habitat. Buffalo go out there in people’s yards, giving birth. These guys live with them in their yards. Sometimes they put up a little fence around a tree that they don’t want the buffalo to rub on.”
What would be the biggest failure so far for BFC?
“That this slaughter is still going on. That the Department of Livestock still has authority over the bison and that Yellowstone is still bending over backwards to do their bidding. There are a lot of people who work for the Park Service who do not want to do this. So they’re looking to us to keep pressing the envelope. We’re trying really hard, but we need some help.”
What help do you need?
“We need people to not be afraid to stand up to the livestock industry and to be a strong voice and say, ‘Yes, we want to coexist. We don’t want you [the livestock industry] to keep doing what you’re doing.’ We need more people to have the courage to speak their minds and speak their hearts. We need people to realize that there are alternatives that make a lot more sense. This is a centuries-old range war. It’s not going to change overnight. We’re getting little bits here and there, and the public is waking up more and more. Solidarity for the buffalo is building.”
To read Part One: the NPS viewpoint
To read Part Two: the perspective of the bison
Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.