Thursday, March 12, 2020

A Day in the Yellowstone Bison Migration: A Photo Essay

Each winter bison migrate 40 or so miles from the Lamar Valley to Gardiner Basin. The bison in this photo have passed Gardiner and the famous Roosevelt Arch. They are in the park and walking on Old Yellowstone Trail, a dirt road that meanders the final four miles to the park's northern boundary.  

Bison migrate from their higher elevation ranges such as Lamar Valley, where this photo was taken, when the snow becomes very deep or an ice layer forms. The bison can no longer get to the dried grass they need to survive their annual race between starvation and spring. 

Once in the lower, warmer, and drier Gardiner Basin, bison can again graze. The obvious food in this photo is last year's pale dried grass. But when Mary and I knelt down to explore the ground, we uncovered new green sprouts, all less than one inch tall.

These bison are midway into the basin, two miles past the Roosevelt Arch, two miles from the park border. They are grazing near the National Park Service's Stephens Creek facility, the trap where bison are captured and shipped to slaughter. 

After grazing, bison do what is called "loafing," resting on the ground while an incredibly efficient digestive system squeezes every bit of nutrition from the dried grass and new shoots they migrated in search of. 

Loafing in the Gardiner Basin must be more comfortable then loafing in the cold and snowy Lamar Valley--as the bison in this photo was doing earlier in the winter.

The basin's spring-like temperatures and snow-free range must be pleasant. We watched and laughed as this youngster romped among his matriarchal group, seemingly just for the joy of doing so.

But bison grazing, loafing, or romping near the trap are at risk. This photo shows two of four mounted NPS staff. All are closing in on a group of bison grazing near the trap.

Mary and I watched with anger and sadness while the riders worked as a team to haze the bison toward the trap. After the bison disappeared into a gully, we could hear the whooping and hollering as the riders drove the bison into the trap.

The hazed herd will join all these other bison inside the trap. After blood testing and a short stay the captives will be hauled to a slaughter house. The hides and meat will be distributed to Native American tribes.

These bison, having made it past the trap, graze among glacial erratics, boulders deposited here perhaps 15,000 years ago as glaciers from the last Ice Age melted. Bison are incredible survivors. They have endured numerous Ice Ages and avoided the die offs in which other large species such as mastadons, wooly mammoths, and camels vanished.  

The animal we call bison originated in southern Asia and began migrating northward 2-3 million years ago. Eventually they crossed the Bering Land Bridge and slowly followed their noses to the Great Plains. Some experts believe bison fled to Yellowstone to escape the slaughter on the plains. Today the park contains our nation's last remaining continuously wild bison, and Montana laws confine them to Yellowstone. Of course, bison know nothing of laws and this male migrator, having avoided the trap, is now reaching the tree-lined park border.  

I watched with concern as this migrator walked northward with resolve. The black and yellow sign just left of the bison's tail designates he is on US Forest Service property and no longer protected. The Beattie Gulch Trailhead sign behind him explains some rules of the bison hunt. He doesn't yet know that just one-quarter of a mile away shooters await.

These two bison are part of a group of 25 grazing and walking in a protected area along Old Yellowstone Trail. In the background are shooters waiting for the bison to go where they can be shot. There were 25 vehicles crowding the roadside and at least 35 people watching and waiting. 

Bison that migrate to the basin are shot or shipped to slaughter because they can carry brucellosis. Brucellosis transmitted to cattle can cause a cow to abort a calf and cut into ranchers' profits. But there has never been a transfer of brucellosis from wild bison to cattle. In fact, cattle transferred brucellosis to bison in the early years of the park. Still, ranchers' powerful lobby and the Montana Department of Livestock have branded bison a culprit that threatens their industry and way of life and must be treated as livestock. 

 Meanwhile, elk, like these along Old Yellowstone Trail, are treated as wildlife and can leave the park and go wherever they please. While doing so, elk have transferred brucellosis to cattle more than 20 times. Yet the Montana livestock industry has survived. I believe the industry would continue to survive even if bison were considered livestock and allowed to migrate freely and some transmitted brucellosis to cattle.   

controls the shooting, capture, and slaughter of 
Yellowstone bison our national mammal.

This court-ordered coalition is composed of eight members:

National Park Service
USDA-Forest Service

USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Montana Department of Livestock

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

The Nez Perce Tribe
The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council

The three annual IBMP meetings are open to the public.
If you want to speak for bison,
public comment is allowed at each meeting.
Next meeting: April 8, 2020 in Bozeman, MT.

Rick Lamplugh writes and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

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