The Hunts

Two bull buffalo show distress over the gut pile of a dead buffalo.
Buffalo mourning their dead.

There are two separate buffalo hunts: a hunt run by the state of Montana, and several hunts conducted by various tribes hunting under treaty right. We should be clear in expressing that these are not “fair chase” hunts, nor even really hunts at all, but an extension of the slaughter. Hunters are being used by the state of Montana to facilitate the destruction of the last wild buffalo.

The State Hunt:
Regulated by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP), the state hunt allows for 80 tags to hunt buffalo in both the Gardiner and Hebgen Basins, plus an additional five tags for a backcountry hunt in the Absaroka Wilderness. The state will issue additional tags if there is a very large migration into Montana. The state hunt runs from November 15 through February 15. MFWP hosts a “bison hunt hotline” that enables “hunters” to simply make a phone call to see if there are buffalo migrating out of Yellowstone National Park and where to find them.

Treaty Hunts:
There are currently seven tribes who hunt under treaty right. These include the Nez Perce Tribe (ID), The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribe (MT), Blackfeet (MT), Shoshone-Bannock (ID), Yakima (WA), the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation (ID), and the Northern Arapaho (WY). Each tribe sets their own hunting seasons, regulations, and quotas. In the end, this means that the buffalo can be hunted year-round, though typically most tribes hunt between November and the end of March, just weeks before buffalo calving season begins.

A dead buffalo lay bleeding on the ground just past a sign marking the border of Yellowstone National Park

The Dangers of these “Hunts”
What better way for the infamous Montana Department of Livestock to have the spotlight turned off of them and onto hunters? These so-called hunts really are an extension of slaughter, and hunters are being used by the state to facilitate the destruction of the buffalo. In the Gardiner Basin, where both the Central and Northern herds migrate, hunters line up at Yellowstone’s north boundary and wait for family groups to cross over the park boundary where they can be killed.

The hunters have a sense that they are in a race with Yellowstone’s trap, and there is so much competition with the state hunt and seven treaty hunts, that there is very little patience, and certainly no “fair chase.” While Montana and Yellowstone have set the hunt up for failure, having hunters do their dirty work, the hunt itself is a travesty that is preventing wild buffalo from restoring themselves on the lands that are their birthright and creating conflict between those who should be the strongest allies.

Two bloody buffalo heads lay discarded on the snow.

In the Gardiner Basin, buffalo rarely ever make it further than Beattie Gulch, just over the northern park boundary, unable to access another eleven miles of habitat to the north. Because of trapping and hunting they can barely access one square mile out of the 75,000 acres of habitat they’ve been granted in the Gardiner Basin. The Travertine/Jardine/Eagle Creek area used to be teeming with buffalo, but since the hunt began, very few buffalo are found there now. Family groups of twenty to thirty buffalo at a time are gunned down at Beattie Gulch in the span of five minutes; often buffalo are hit but not killed – jaws blown off, gut shot, fleeing back into the Park to either die a slow, agonizing death or be “dispatched” by park rangers.

Pregnant female buffalo continue to be gunned down just weeks prior to calving season, leaving baby buffalo in the gut piles of their mothers across the Beattie Gulch landscape.

In the Hebgen Basin (near West Yellowstone), where only the imperiled Central herd migrates, hunting has been publicly discouraged by wildlife officials because of the dire straits the Central herd is in. While it is not fair that Yellowstone puts the conservation burden on hunters rather than curtailing their capture-for-slaughter and quarantine operations in Gardiner, this plea has been flat out ignored by hunters. When buffalo migrate into the Hebgen Basin, if they don’t make it to the buffalo-friendly residential neighborhood of Yellowstone Village rapidly, they are gunned down. Often, when the first family groups leaving the park face hunters, the rest flee back into the relative safety of the park, not to be seen again until spring.

Three skinned buffalo lay in a snowy roadway.

As in Gardiner, buffalo are unable to access the tens of thousands of acres of year-round habitat they’ve been granted. Over the course of the last ten years, and even more significantly and ironically since most hazing has ceased, fewer and fewer buffalo migrate into the Hebgen Basin. While Yellowstone’s trap is a huge culprit, this change in migratory behavior is, in large part, a direct result of the hunt.

In either Basin, hunters are teaching the buffalo not to migrate in the direction of restoration. They are also killing off migratory memory and changing the herd dynamics by taking so many of the matriarchs who lead the family groups.

Read about the other tools of buffalo mismanagement.