Thursday, February 23, 2017

Firing Squad: The Reality of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

photo by Rick Lamplugh
Mary and I look across the Yellowstone River and the wide, flat snow-covered Gardiner Basin. Beyond the basin rise low foothills, soft in early morning light. Above them looms the snowy flank and top of rugged Electric Peak. 

We take turns scanning with binoculars along the floor of the basin to a creek and a thin line of conifers that marks Yellowstone Park's northern border. Just beyond that border is Beattie Gulch in Gallatin National Forest. There, during the current hunting season, winter-hungry bison that step over the invisible park boundary in search of grass not buried under deep snow are shot by hunters. 

Hunter is the wrong word. Those people we watch through binoculars in Beattie Gulch today—there are at least fifty of them, some in camo, some in bright orange vests—are not hunters. They are shooters—a firing squad, really. They stand in the open, within sight of their pickup trucks, their guns ready, waiting for bison to unwittingly enter their field of fire. 

We count twenty-nine bison, walking in a long line toward the firing squad. The animals seem oblivious to danger. Why shouldn’t they be? They spend most of their lives in Yellowstone protected from hunting. We watch and worry as they close in on the firing squad. Then we hear the first shots, popping sounds at this distance. We are shocked to see a bison fall and amazed that the rest of the herd does not run away. Instead, they circle their fallen member, as if wondering what’s wrong. Pop! Pop! Another bison down. Some of the group moves toward the second bison on the ground. Pop! Pop! Pop! Two more bison fall. Still the rest don’t flee. 

Within minutes, twenty-one bison lay scattered and still in front of the firing squad. We feel some relief as the eight survivors turn from the slaughter and in a much shorter line escape Beattie Gulch and climb up a draw, heading back towards the park. One limps, perhaps wounded. 

Mary and I sit silent, sad, and angry. We know that if today’s survivors make it back into the park they will be safe for a while. But their days could be numbered. Though these eight escaped the firing squad today, the annual capture of bison by the National Park Service (NPS) at the Stephens Creek Capture Facility within Yellowstone is underway. 

This controversial hunt outside the park and capture within the park are required by the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). That plan was written in 2000 by a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies: the NPS, US Forest Service, USDA-Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana Department of Livestock, and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks. Three Native American groups, the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, and the Nez Perce Tribe, joined the coalition a few years later. Goals of the IBMP include confining bison within Yellowstone and reducing the park’s population from 5,500 to 3,000 bison. 

photo by Rick Lamplugh
This winter the plan calls for removing up to 1300 bison. Many will be killed outside the park by shooters—like the ones we just saw slaughtered. Many others—which may include those eight survivors—could be captured and interred at Stephens Creek. From that facility, Native American tribal members will haul the imprisoned bison to slaughter houses in Montana.

Managing Yellowstone’s bison with confinement and death is done in the name of protecting cattle from brucellosis. The disease can be transmitted from elk or bison to cattle and cause infected livestock to abort calves and ranchers to lose money. But there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transfer from bison to cattle. Ironically, the transfer originally went in the other direction: cattle transferred brucellosis to bison in the early days of the park when cattle were kept in Yellowstone to provide milk and meat for visitors.

Elk, on the other hand, have transmitted brucellosis to cattle numerous times. 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 as bison are once they leave the park. Elk are considered wildlife, as trophies, to be hunted and stuffed. Bison are used as brucellosis scapegoats to be confined and killed.

The IBMP’s bison management evokes protests from locals, Montanans, and people all across the United States. This year’s protest started in early January, after the hunt began and before the capture started. 

Since moving to Gardiner, Mary and I have become drawn physically, emotionally, and intellectually into this life and death struggle. We have joined the Bear Creek Council, a local all-volunteer conservation group where we can work as part of a team to confront the bison controversy. Mary has found news reports and scientific papers detailing the management of bison and elk. I have used that information and our field observations—such as watching the firing squad—to write several articles about the bison slaughter. We have attended meetings where those for or against killing bison speak and sometimes shout opposing views. We have joined about fifty others in a sunset protest march down the main road in Gardiner against the inhumane treatment of bison. The march was organized by Buffalo Field Campaign, a regional activist group that has been fighting for years to end the capture and hunt.

But watching those bison fall this morning is not talking, reading, or writing about senseless killing. This is seeing and hearing it. This is feeling the anger and shock and sadness. This is all too real, and no matter how much we dislike it, the controversial killing will not end anytime soon. Neither will the protest against it. 

As of March 1, 2017, 417 bison have been killed by the firing squad. Another 14 bison were wounded, escaped back into Yellowstone, and then had to be killed by NPS employees. 

This post adapted from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year's Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy.

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

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  1. Powerful stuff, Bro. The title chose the piece could not be more appropriate, unfortunately. Keep up the good work!

  2. I felt that deep in my soul as you described what you two saw. Thanks for the work you do to try to help them.

  3. This is infuriating and the fact that you are writers and photographers who additionally take an involved, informed, and caring advocacy role and Stand is so needed. The title Firing Squad says what is happening clearly and unwaveringly. Thank you for bearing witness , giving voice to the bison, and giving readers an opportunity to bear witness and make their own decisions about the advocacy that they might decide to involve themselves in.

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