RFN Report: Could Things Be Winding Down in Gardiner? – 3/5-8/23

A female buffalo is seen in profiles in the snow.

Roam Free Nation cofounders, Stephany Seay and Jaedin Medicine Elk, made another journey to Gardiner, Montana this week. As we entered the Gardiner Basin, there were buffalo everywhere. Hundreds and hundreds of the gentle giants graced the land, spread out all over the Basin. We were, of course, anticipating the worst, especially with so many buffalo out, but to our pleasant surprise, there were hardly any hunters there and not much killing relative to how terrible this season has been. At first we started to wonder if maybe the hunters had realized that they killed way too many buffalo (one is too many from this imperiled population) and decided to hang up their rifles. We were wrong.

A family group of buffalo walks in the snow at dusk or dawn.

The second day we were there, there was a single buffalo killed at the infamous Beattie Gulch. The next day two were taken: one at the gut pile-covered Beattie Gulch, and another in Cutler Meadows, which is the buffalo’s northernmost habitat where they are “tolerated.” On our last day there, two more were killed at the Cinnabar River Access, which is between Beattie Gulch and Cutler Meadows. While it really sucks that more buffalo were killed, it was not the killing frenzy that we have so often witnessed and come to expect. One of the hunts was actually the most respectful we’ve ever seen. A group of hunters started at Cutler Meadows, where about 200 buffalo were grazing and playing.

The buffalo knew something was up, and as soon as they saw the hunters, they all fled over the hills and onto Church Universal & Triumphant (CUT) land, where no hunting is allowed. However, there was still a bachelor bull group there and we though for sure at least one of those big boys was doomed. To our surprise, the hunters got in their vehicles and headed out. We kept an eye out and followed. Unfortunately, there was a family group at Beattie Gulch, and that’s where the hunters went. But, they didn’t just start blasting away. They took their time. A very long time, in fact. This kind of patience is so rare. When one of them finally pulled the trigger, the buffalo went down with a single bullet – another thing is is also very rare. We share this not to celebrate the hunt in any way, but just to give some credit where it’s due. That kind of patience and skill is almost never seen during these “hunts.”

A truck trailer is filled with the parts of dead buffalo.
A Montana Department of Livestock truck and trailer cart away the wasted parts of dead buffalo from the killing fields of Beattie Gulch. Photo courtesy of Yellowstone Voices.

These hunts, as we’ve said, are really just an extension of Yellowstone’s slaughter. This year has been the worst yet, as you know if you read our report. Beattie Gulch has, as usual, seen the worst of it. It is so very bad that there are literally gut piles spread everywhere just feet from each other. Hundreds and hundreds of them. A lot of the locals complain about them, worried about waking grizzly bears, and the sad unsightliness of it all. They are a danger to any scavengers who will eat them because they are full of lead. Well, the Forest Service and the Montana Department of Livestock are doing a little “clean up” of these gut piles at Beattie Gulch. What other hunt do you know of has such horribly concentrated gut piles that humans feel the need to clean them up? That they are doing so is yet another testament to horrific nature of this unjustifiable slaughter.

A group of buffalo cross the road in front of a semi truck and another vehicle

During our time there, with nearly 1,000 buffalo spread out in the Gardiner Basin, the most dangerous thing was the highway. Many different groups of buffalo were east of the Yellowstone River and up along Highway 89, a dangerous stretch of road for wildlife. During the daytime buffalo are usually safe from collisions, though some residents have very little tolerance for wildlife on or near the road and make some pretty stupid moves, like not slowing down when passing a herd. There were plenty of signs up to help warn traffic, but too often those warnings are ignored. The worst time for buffalo along the highway is at night, when thy are almost impossible to see until it’s too late. Luckily, while we were there, no buffalo were hit. Some elk, however, were not so lucky. These collisions could so easily be avoided if Montana would get it together and implement safe passage infrastructure. It’s a no-brainer, especially right on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. The Gardiner Basin is one of North America’s largest wildlife migration corridors, used by buffalo, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, big horn, wolves, grizzlies, and many others.

A big bull buffalo sits in the snow.

Since the hunt started in 2005, big bull buffalo have been a major target. So much so that we began to see them less and less. In fact, in the high hills way above the Yellowstone River to the east along Jardine and Travertine Roads, which used to be teeming with buffalo, bulls all but disappeared from there. You hardly see any buffalo on those lands these days. But with the snowpack inside the Park making life so difficult for the buffalo, we were seeing tons of massive bulls on lands along the Yellowstone. We hope they play it smart and stay out of the hunt zones until things settle down by the beginning of April. All buffalo are works of magic, but it is really something to be in the presence of those really big, mature bulls. Another thing we were seeing were adult females with multiple yearlings. This means their moms were killed. Luckily buffalo do adopt, giving the babies a bit of a better chance for survival.

On a quiet late morning we decided to check out the new road that leads you into Yellowstone from the north entrance. Many of you probably recall the intense flooding that took place this summer. Inside and outside the park, roads were washed out, houses floated down the river, and lives were lost. As it was the peak of Yellowstone’s visitation season, they rapidly went to work trying to get that part of the park reopened. They did not repair the old road that took you through the canyon, along China Garden, and the Boiling River. They built a new road to the west, on an old re-grown roadbed. The road is nuts! It’s very steep and very windy and we have no doubt it will cause some trouble. It was also quite boring. No more hot soaks in the Boiling River.

A billboard over a fence says, "There is no hunt. It's Slaughter!" and shows a long hunter shooting into a herd of buffalo.
Photo courtesy of Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

All in all, our time there was mostly pleasant, spending quality hours and days with the buffalo. It is always so healing to be in their presence. As another small service to them, we are working with our allies at the Alliance for the Wild Rockies to draw more attention to the farce of the “hunt.” On Monday, a billboard reading “There is No Hunt. It’s Slaughter!” was put up in Helena, Montana. On Thursday, another billboard was put up in Billings, Montana along I-90. There will be two more going up very soon – one that hunters leaving Gardiner will most certainly see. Maybe it will give them pause to understand that they are being used as tools by Montana livestock interests to facilitate the destruction of the last wild buffalo. Our accompanying opinion editorial can be read here and our latest press release here.

Wild is the Way ~ Roam Free!

~ Stephany & Jaedin, RFN Cofounders