Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Inside Look at Capturing Yellowstone's Bison: A Photo Essay

The Stephens Creek Capture Facility run by the National Park Service is a central cog in a controversial bison management plan. Two concepts sit at the heart of the plan: migration and social tolerance. Bison naturally migrate out of Yellowstone each winter in search of grass not locked away under ice or snow. The state of Montana has limited tolerance for bison outside the park near Gardiner and West Yellowstone. State officials claim this is because some bison are infected with brucellosis that can be transmitted to cattle. But there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle.

This unfounded fear of brucellosis was one factor leading to the creation of the IBMP, the Interagency Bison Management Plan—a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies and some tribes. The IBMP calls for the capture of bison at Stephens Creek and for their shipment to slaughter in Montana. It also calls for a hunt just outside the park to further reduce Yellowstone's bison population. 

Along with members of the media and conservation organizations, I toured the Stephens Creek facility in the winter of 2016 and 2017. I represented Gardiner’s all-volunteer Bear Creek Council. Below are fourteen photos I took during the tours. I've added captions that explain how bison are handled at Stephens Creek. Click on a photo to enlarge it.

Processing begins as four NPS employees on horseback ride into the pen that holds captured bison. During the 2016 tour we observed the shipping of 30 bison and the processing for later shipment of 75 more. During the 2017 tour, we saw 41 bison shipped and 65 more processed.

Shouting, whistling, and waving their hands, the horseback riders run the bison toward a second pen.

The bison are hazed from the second pen into a long chute. This chute leads to a device with the brand name “The Silencer.”  NPS employees use long poles to prod the bison out of the chute and into The Silencer, one at a time. 

The Silencer performs a number of functions. Here, in 2016, a park bison biologist waiting to work stands to the left of the machine, while a supervisor on the catwalk makes sure the machine is ready for bison. (As of 2017, NPS painted over The Silencer brand name on the equipment.)

We watched many bison go through The Silencer. They bucked and kicked and grunted, the whites of their frightened eyes obvious. Once a bison is in The Silencer, an operator slides levers that moves the sides of the machine inward, squeezing the animal and holding it in place. Once the bison is still, a bar pushes the animal’s head to the side and holds it there so the biologist can draw a blood sample. The large needle used to draw blood is in the biologist's right hand. 

In addition to a blood draw, each bison is weighed, and its sex, age, and brucellosis status are determined. 

In 2016 an employee showed us the blood samples. An NPS bison biologist analyzes the samples at a small lab at Stephens Creek. A positive test result means that a bison has been exposed to brucellosis, but does not necessarily mean that the bison can transmit the disease now. Test results, says NPS officials, are not used to determine which animals are shipped to slaughter. Instead, they use them to understand the disease status of the population and to identify a few animals that are appropriate for brucellosis research studies.

After release from The Silencer, bison are directed to various holding pens, depending on age and sex. In the photo, are female bison seen through a small hole in one of the sheets of plywood that cover the fence of the holding pens. NPS officials say that if bison can't see past the plywood, can’t see an escape route, they stay calmer. 

These captured calves--born the previous spring--were waiting to be shipped to slaughter in 2016. This view is from a catwalk above the holding pens. An armed law enforcement ranger accompanied each of us when it was our turn to observe from the catwalk. About eight employees work on the catwalks. They handle the opening and closing of gates and keeping bison moving. Four other employees take care of drawing blood and gathering data at The Silencer. Workers often communicate with hand signals.

Once a bison has been processed and assigned a number by a tag placed on its back, it's ready to be shipped. The blood on this bison is from an injury to this animal or from rubbing against another injured bison.

A trailer from a Native American tribe backs up to the loading gate, and the door of the trailer is opened. Bison are released from the holding pen and hazed down a chute. NPS employees prod the animals with long poles from above to make them step from the loading gate through the open door of the trailer. 

In 2016, sixteen bison were put into one of these trailers and fourteen in the other. Once the bison were loaded, the trailer was sealed. The trailers left together, followed by a Montana Department of Livestock law enforcement officer in a DOL truck. The officer was armed and ready to shoot the bison in case there was an accident and a bison escapes or was injured. This procedure is required by the state of Montana since these bison may have brucellosis. 

By the date of our 2017 tour, about 1,000 bison had been captured, sent to slaughter, or killed by shooters outside the park. We were told that as many as 1,300 could be killed this winter. The NPS has submitted an Environmental Impact Statement to replace the original bison management plan that is seventeen years old and requires this capture and slaughter and hunt. In 2016, an NPS spokesperson told us that they have outgrown the old plan. In 2017, a different spokesperson said that it could be up to ten years before a new plan is in place. In the meantime, this capture and slaughter and hunt will continue.

 Since 1952 the image of a bison has appeared on the arrowhead patch—the official emblem—worn by NPS employees. In the days that I spent touring Stephens Creek, I heard numerous NPS employees state that they do not want to be sending these genetically pure bison to slaughter. However, they added that they are required to do so by the IBMP. I was also told that the Montana Department of Livestock wants a quicker return from Yellowstone's current population of around 5,000 bison to the IBMP target of 3,000. To reach this target population, of course, even more bison must be killed. 

As of March 1, 2017:

650 bison have been captured at Stephens Creek.
At least 470 of those bison have been shipped to slaughter houses.
The remaining captured bison will also be shipped to slaughter.

For more info on the IBMP, including a schedule for 2017's meeting. IBMP meetings are open to the public. The next meeting:

April 6, 2017 at the Holiday Inn West, 315 Yellowstone Ave., West Yellowstone, MT

To read my post: "Firing Squad: The Reality of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

In the Temple of Wolves
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  1. Good report, Rick. Many thx.

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