YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — A bison calf lunges into the mechanical livestock squeeze chute, bucking and kicking, its lashing hooves and horns clattering against the metal frame.
It struggles for half a minute, huffing, sometimes bleating in its alien enclosure. At the right instant, a Yellowstone National Park worker thrusts a lever and the “Silencer” squeeze chute closes its jaws, encasing the animal in a corset of metal bars and collars.
With the bison immobilized, a biologist notes the animal’s age and condition and collects a blood sample. The Silencer weighs the animal and after a few minutes releases it to bolt down a maze of alleys in Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek corral complex.
The calf gallops into a holding pen separated from its mother for what may be the first time. It has torn its sensitive horns off and bleeds from both sides of its head. Green feces smear its face. It wears a sticker on its rump — a number that links it to its vital statistics. This is the end of one bison’s trail in the northwest corner of the world’s first national park. Most wild bison trapped here are shipped to slaughter.
Such is the ignominy accorded to a beast the U.S. Senate has nominated as the national mammal, a noble player in Western history and the emblem of the very federal agency that’s supervising its demise. Because some are infected with the bovine disease brucellosis, stockmen deride bison as an infectious threat to their livelihoods and lawmakers classify them as a species in need of disease control. Keeping potentially infected bison off public grazing land north of Yellowstone helps ranchers ensure livestock health, cull supporters say.
Hunters just outside the park’s northern boundary have killed an estimated 410 bison so far this winter. Dozens of wounded animals escaped back to Yellowstone. And as the Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary year, it contributes to the cull by capturing 150 bison in its own roundup.
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk has seen enough, he said at a forum in Jackson recently. What goes on with bison at the park’s north border near Gardiner, Montana, he said, “would make most of you sick to your stomach.”
A park agreement with the State of Montana calls for killing 600 to 900 of the estimated 4,900 bison in Yellowstone this winter. Yellowstone began its trapping when the Montana hunting season ended Feb. 15. The park operation ended March 15.
“Many people are uncomfortable with the practice of culling bison, including the National Park Service,” Wenk said in a statement. “The park would gladly reduce the frequency and magnitude of these operations if migrating bison had access to more habitat outside the park or there was a way to transfer live bison elsewhere.”
While the park works to revise its plan with Montana, however, it rounds up buffalo and ships them to slaughterhouses. As bison amble north along the Yellowstone River to migrate to lower elevations and food outside the park, a drift fence directs some of them toward the capture pens at Stephens Creek. When enough congregate in a large pasture, workers close the gates. Later, Park Service cowboys cut large bulls from the herd and set them free; the 2,000-pound beasts would destroy the sprawling complex of corrals, processing chutes and pens.
The processing scene unfolds just after sunrise. Four mounted park rangers charge at 75 pastured bison, yelling, yipping and waving as they spur their mounts to gallop across the half-acre pen. An SUV helps the horsemen provoke the rush. In seconds the startled herd stampedes toward the pen’s far end where the enclosure narrows into a long, eight-foot-high plywood-lined alley.
In a frenzy of thundering hooves and tossing horns the herd crowds into the alley as a park worker swings a large stock gate closed behind them.
For about three hours park workers haze and prod the bison from alley to chute. Each animal eventually ends up at the mouth of the Silencer squeeze chute where a worker wielding an electric cattle prod urges the reluctant ones in.
Bison biologist Chris Geremia kneels beside a trapped bison’s massive head and gets to work. “We’ll look at the teeth,” he said. “You can age them up to about five years.”
He checks body fat. “We run our hand down the back of the animal.” He and a colleague draw blood. One of them slaps a numbered sticker the backs of calves.
“Ten-eight-zero,” ranger Brian Helms calls out from a catwalk atop the squeeze chute as the contraption weighs an animal. He’s given hand signals to indicate what pen the bison below should be hazed into. Workers on catwalks open gates to the appropriate pen as each animal is released into the maze of alleys.
After workers sort 75 bison, two shippers back horse trailers to a loading chute. Workers on the catwalks haze and prod 15 animals into one trailer.
“Hey, hey, hey!” herders yell. “Get them to go up front.”
The bison push, crowd, climb on one another.
“Hey, one more! Get it!”
“Got it, they’re in!”
A driver secures the trailer’s gate and adds a padlock and chain as an agent from the Montana Department of Livestock inspects the extra security.
As he documents the scene, activist Mike Mease can’t hold back. “How do you sleep at night?” the co-founder of Buffalo Field Campaign asks the shippers. He’s not supposed to heckle the workers and they don’t respond.
Nor can campaign member Stephany Seay suppress tears. She sued the park earlier in the year seeking access to view Stephens Creek activities. “I promise you we’re going to stop this,” she tells the bison. “I’m so sorry. We love you.”
The bison responded, Seay said in an “Update from the Field” post on the group’s website. “They were the only ones telling the truth,” she wrote of the bison. “The audio coming from the buffalo, imprisoned and violated in the trap, was the stuff of nightmares.”
Buffalo Field Campaign has monitored bison movements, trappings and hunting around Yellowstone for 19 years. Nine thousand one hundred and thirty-nine bison have been killed since 1985, the group says. The campaign operates with volunteers in a frugal and communal grassroots effort based in West Yellowstone, Montana, along with a field-camp rental cabin in Gardiner.
After witnessing the Park Service processing last week, Mease climbs a knob in the evening to monitor a herd that’s moving toward Stephens Creek. As he looks into the sun, the stiff breeze tugging at his clothes, he’s hoping the bleating of captured calves doesn’t draw the lead cow to the trap. “It’s a sad day when you don’t want bison to be bison,” he says.
Lying atop a lookout knob with his eye to a spotting scope, 19 year-old volunteer Moritz Hartig reports numbers and movements. A native of Leipzig, Germany, he comes from a country where large-scale wildlife migrations are rare. Hartig’s parents had taken him to the Alps. Spectacular as the mountains are, there’s little more there but birds, he said. “I wasn’t really in touch with wildlife.”
So when he saw a documentary about Yellowstone National Park and Buffalo Field Campaign he became “pretty impressed” with the activists. “I was looking for something after high school,” Hartig says. “I always wanted to go to the U.S.”
In the wide-open West, he’s witnessing dynamics seen in few other places on the globe. “I’ve never been to a place with so much death and life at the same time,” he says. “There’s so much wildlife everywhere — that’s what’s good about this place.”
A few miles north of the lookout knob, down the Old Yellowstone Trail, two Park Service patrol cars later escort trailers full of bison until they are outside the park. There the trailers roll off the dirt road and onto Highway 89’s asphalt carrying the bison to slaughter.
The park is hoping for a change from a capture-and-kill operation it agreed to after settling a suit brought by Montana. It is working to update its cooperative management plan by this summer and is studying whether calves that test negative for brucellosis can become seed animals for tribal herds on Indian reservations.
“We’re hoping for greater tolerance of bison in Montana,” says Amy Bartlett, a park spokeswoman who’s repeated that phrase time and again this winter. “Bison should be treated as wildlife.”
Some stockmen remain rigid. They’re pinched between two government agencies: on one side the U.S. Department of Agriculture could seize a cattle herd that’s infected with brucellosis, on the other side the National Park Service that wants bison to run more freely.
The Marias River Livestock Association, for example, favors a Yellowstone bison population of 3,000 or fewer. Yellowstone believes the “food-limiting carrying capacity” of the park to be 5,000 to 7,000 bison. The livestock group seeks to separate bison from livestock “by space and time.” It wants authorities to haze bison back to Yellowstone in May, suppress brucellosis by vaccination and cull the herd.
Despite the continued resistance, “the conversation has shifted some,” Bartlett says. Several years ago the USDA relaxed its brucellosis-infection regulations to reduce impacts to Montana stockgrowers. It collapsed the area in which ranchers would see repercussions should brucellosis infect one herd.
“With this new designated surveillance area, it ensures the disease can be managed and it is not going to impact the entire state’s livestock industry,” said Stephanie Adams, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Buffalo Field Campaign itself recently honored Mont. Gov. Steve Bullock for expanding the area bison are tolerated outside West Yellowstone.
Yet old positions seem difficult to abandon. “There has never been a documented case of wild bison transmitting brucellosis to livestock,” Buffalo Field Campaign says. But that may not be a reason to justify wholesale natural migration even to public lands, Yellowstone responds. “The lack of documented transmissions is a testament to the diligent management efforts put forth by the state of Montana and the NPS to prevent co-mingling of bison and cattle during the time period when transmission is most likely,” the park says.
The capture operation costs Yellowstone $1.2 million a year, up to $100,000 of which is spent on shipping and distributing bison from Stephens Creek. The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, which gets the meat, processed almost 120 animals last year, it said in an annual report. Tribal members received some 25,000 pounds. The cost for the program was about $2 per pound.
Conservationist Adams watched the processing last week and didn’t like what she saw. “It was an experience that I’m glad we were able to go watch,” she said. “I do not think it’s an activity that should be going on — this is not how we treat wildlife.
“I think there are opportunities … that will allow us to treat bison more like the wildlife they are.” But uncertain politics cloud the future. Depending on the shifting political scene, “we might be stuck watching what we watched this week for eight more years.” To reform bison management, “we need that political courage to get it done.”
Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile.com. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming.