I arrived in Gardiner Tuesday evening – greeted on the way in by the most handsome group of five bachelor bulls. They were proudly making their way north – they know the way, and given half a chance they would restore themselves on their lands. I was struck, immediately, by the numbers of buffalo outside of the park – I’ve been coming here for many years and this, by far, is the largest migration I’ve ever seen. And while that should be a beautiful thing, it’s been a devastating thing. According to the most recent report published on IBMP.info (the website of the Interagency Bison Management Plan), 1270 buffalo have been killed or otherwise removed from the population so far. That’s over twenty percent of the population, and it’s only mid-February.
Before sunrise my first morning, I sat with a huge group far to the north of the park border. It was an idyllic scene – hundreds and hundreds of buffalo, in the snow, with a crescent moon in the dawn sky. No hunters arrived there that morning – I guessed the recent snow had blocked the road. These were the lucky ones – they’d made it past the gauntlet of the Park’s trap and the firing line at Beattie Gulch – they’d made it nearly to the end of their allowed habitat, showing just how much farther that habitat needs to stretch. There were over a thousand buffalo out of the Park that morning – the most I’ve ever seen north of the boundary. That early morning was peaceful, but it didn’t last – later that day we think at least six were killed, but it’s hard to count when looking through binoculars at the masses of gut piles from previous kills. That day, the 15th, marked the end of the state “hunt”, so at least it is one less group out there gunning for the buffalo.
My second day here was a bloody one. Morning hunts killed three in the idyllic meadow where I’d sat the morning before, two near the bridge over the Yellowstone River, and another eight at Beattie Gulch. After the killings at Beattie Gulch a lone yearling wandered back and forth in the area, clearly looking for their lost mama. The desperation, the confusion – it is heartbreaking.
The afternoon saw a break in the hunting, so I took the time to tour the horrors of Beattie Gulch. To document, to mourn. I touched fur, and hooves, and noses. Bits here and bits there. Telltale signs of pregnant females. Gut piles everywhere, far into the distance. It’s the battlefield after a war, except this war is still going on. These photos are awful, but important, but they are covered so you can choose to skip them of you wish.
Back in Beattie Gulch at dusk, a group approached the boundary. And the shooters waited. And I waited, trying to will the buffalo to choose a safer path with my thoughts. Most tribes are supposed to stop shooting a half hour after sunset. As it got darker and darker, the shooters lined up in the snow with their guns, and the family group, with a very young, still red yearling in tow, headed closer and closer to the boundary. Another hunt party member and a tribal game warden stood in the way trying to block their path to the safe route through. But the group moved slow, seemingly undecided – and it really looked like they were going to hesitate enough to stay safe for the night. But at 6:18, in the dark, four minutes before the cutoff time, one shot – and one more dead buffalo. The others scattered, back to the relative safety of the park.
Today, Friday, was the worst day yet. At my dawn start I could see the headlights of hunt rigs lining the road by Beattie Gulch, but I didn’t even make it there, as more hunt rigs lined the road by the bridge. Men climbed the hill with their guns towards a sleeping group of buffalo. The buffalo were up and running quickly, but not quickly enough.
Seventeen shots, five dead buffalo, and the rest running for private land and a bit of safety. Again, a lone yearling looks for a lost mother, looking back to where the shooting happened, calling out, unwilling to move on with the rest of the herd.
While documenting that hunt, I could hear the gunshots from the direction of Beattie Gulch. When I got there, trucks lined the roadway, and the orange flags that signify retrievals in process were already up. Eleven were killed that morning, and more later – when they took a break from the butchering to clear the space for more shooting. We think at least nineteen were killed in Beattie Gulch today (plus unborn calves). The rest of the day was a whirlwind – hunts were happening all over, and buffalo were scattering, trying to escape. At least another eight were killed by the bridge, and it seems another six at the idyllic meadow – where again the shooting went until near dark. It brings the death toll for the day to 38 – an insane number for a killing season that runs for nearly six months.
These days with the buffalo, seeing their pain, their struggle, the insane obstacles humans put in their already difficult path to survival – they are long, and sad, but also powerful, and beautiful. This land is amazingly beautiful, but it needs the buffalo. We need the buffalo – they will show us the way. If we’d only let them.