Sudden appearance of bison on highway have resulted in numerous bison deaths-

Although conditions for the bison that leave west side of Yellowstone Park in the winter, and especially the spring, have been much better in 2009, the sudden migration of buffalo across busy U.S. 191 has resulted in at least 15 dead bison this week. Fortunately, human injury has been minor. The bison are heading for Horse Butte where they calve on its sunny south-facing slope.

The great danger is at night. That is when these wrecks have happened. Bison on the highway are all but invisible in the dark, and they generally don’t move when they see on-coming headlights. Unlike elk and deer, their eyes don’t glow in the headlights. They don’t have a light rump patch like elk.

The bison don’t just cross the highway. They eat the grass on the edges and linger because the warmer roadside is one of the first places grass sprouts in the spring. This year the snow is staying longer than usual due to wave after wave of storms with heavy wet snow.

When bison are on the road, or likely to be, the Buffalo Field Campaign deploys a number of volunteers to slow traffic down, warn them, etc. They have a number of pink neon signs that read “Buffalo Crossing.” They patrol day and night, although 24-hour-a-day coverage is not possible. Moreover, BFC has no official capacity, so they cannot haze the bison off the highway. The result can be frustration among motorists waiting for the bison to move off the highway.

What is needed is for the state of Montana to step up, and use their authority and equipment fill in the gaps, move the bison toward Horse Butte and away from the roadside grass. The Montana Highway Patrol, Forest Service, or whoever really needs to have a presence to protect people, property, and the bison.  If there were a number of one ton dark boulders, lying in the middle of the road, you can bet they would be there. If the boulders kept sliding down the hillside, official personnel would remain until the event was over.

I know from experience in central Utah several years ago,  that the Division of Wildlife there had personnel on the highway to warm motorists and direct elk migration for over a month. Here in Pocatello, Idaho (my home)  there are deer crossings with flashing light signs, red flags, and 3 or 4  plain deer crossing signs in the space of a quarter mile in several sections of highway.

On U.S. 191, there is a flashing sign “animals on road” as you leave West Yellowstone and head north. By the time, you reach the most common bison crossing most motorists may figure they are past the problem. There is another sign where highway 287 joins US 191, but that is just past the problem area for northbound traffic. There is one more sign at Fir Ridge where you drop down into Grayling Creek Canyon, another problem area, but not for bison.

U.S. 191 is a dangerous road not just from West Yellowstone to Fir Ridge, but almost all the way to Bozeman, Montana, due to wildlife, curves, some heavy traffic, and so many roadside memorials to the dead that it distracts your eyes off the highway.

I think this is a place where a lot of stimulus money could be spent to save people, wildlife, and create jobs.

BFC deserve thanks working the highway north of West Yellowstone, but official help is needed.

If you are a Montana resident, visitor to Yellowstone, or if you or your loved ones travel through this region, or if you simply love wild bison your voice is critical! Please contact the following decision-makers and strongly urge them to make highways safer for bison and people:

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer

Montana Department of Transportation
Jon Swartz, Chief of Maintenance
406-444-6157 *

Montana Department of Transportation
Director Jim Lynch

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Region III Director Pat Flowers

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

14 Responses to Warning. Bison migration across US 191 north of West Yellowstone!

  1. Jenn in MT says:

    Yes, this has been such an unfortunate mess. I live in West Yelowstone and it’s such a shame to see the bison’s fur and blood on the highway b/c of people who don’t take the proper precautions and slow down.

    The animals are literally being plowed through.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Ralph. There’s been great response from other advocacy groups since hearing about the news – most of them yesterday afternoon.

    Look for more coming out soon.

  3. bob jackson says:

    If folks don’t panic or cry wolf (Buffalo), in a couple of years of home range establishment outside Yellowstone the moms and grandmother bison will keep the dependents off the road. Yes, they will cross it but it will be more important to occupy home territories than lounge around in areas of danger just for a bite of green grass.

    If one looks at Yellowstone Park the travel ALONG roads occurs where there are dense woods for distances. Or they come to the road to cross on bridges.

    I and too many other hormone pumped young rangers like myself use to bomb along Hayden Valley going 100 miles/hr (ya it was stupid) once the tourists left. But we also knew where not to go that fast. Canyon to Norris was a no-no.

    Most of West Yellowstone US 191 would normally be cross over for bison, not a route to stay along. Of course if the DOL is intent on not letting bison establish homes outside Yell. then this loitering will continue.

    15 bison in one week!! I doubt there is more than that in numbers of bison road killed in YNP in one year (One could look on bear managements road kill report site to find out for sure). Yes, the speeds are slower but the road ditches are a lot narrower in Yellowstone and visibility along the US191 sides of the road is a lot better. I think it breaks out even for chances of hitting a bison. Thus, one has to come back to the fact that bison have no permanent home to go. This is what is causing the loitering and collisions. Until herd order and home is instilled I agree 45 mph speed limits is a must.

    The blame for these deaths has to fall fully on those team players of the Interagency bison group (Yellowstone Park especially).

  4. Thanks, Bob.

    I understand the speed limit has been reduced to 55 mph. I thought 70 next to YNP was just plain crazy.

    However, on a dark night with bison on the highway, there is no chance of seeing a bison and stopping in time.

    I think you are right that the herd will sort this out, so they must be allowed to continue to migrate to Horse Butte and back again.

  5. bob jackson says:

    Adding to what I said before, if the interagency bison team had not allowed hunting of those jim bridger, kit carson scout bulls, associated to those cow-calf groups now hanging around the road, then the roads would have been crossed…and the herds already safely occuplying their new homes.

  6. Alan Gregory says:

    Unrelated to this thread, Ralph, but here’s the link to an interesting article about in-breeding among Isle Royale wolves:

    Thanks Alan. I did a post on this study earlier. It was based on a slightly different article. People need think about inbreeding whenever they hope a species will reoccupy an area based on just a male and female or a handful of individuals.
    Ralph Maughan

  7. Ken Cole says:

    Bob, there have been bulls on Horse Butte for weeks now.

  8. bob jackson says:

    Ken, my man,

    If you went to some other place and there were people who didn’t know you let alone trust you, would they follow you? The role of protector or leader doesn’t happen over night. We are talking families and extended families here and there are limits to each families size. Do you at least acknowledge natures herd animals are composed of families?

    What I said in the earlier post was “associated”. Animals are not freak shows. I suggest you do as I suggested in my earlier post, put yourself in their shoes. You do very well putting yourself in Jewish peoples and the Aryan analogy.

    Now try to go one step further and actually not feel superior to all of the nature you are trying to “protect”. A tip on how to do it is to first think of yourself as dysfunctional (all of us are without natures extended family evolution carrying through to our present lives) and then realize all of your thoughts are based on INDIVIDUAL reasoning, not community or group back ground logic. In a world void of functional groupings individual point of references take front stage.

    For example, individual “talents” such as those humans with scholastic high grades are touted as so important in the “civilized” world when in natures world they are only an equal part of the many “talents” that make that extended family or related grouping succeed.

    Your statement that there are bulls on horse butte in reverse logic is like saying two males from Russia went to Japan but it was so odd that no one there would follow them.

  9. Ken Cole says:

    Here is an article about the collisions:

  10. Ken Cole says:

    Fact of the matter Bob, my man, is that I don’t believe in your hypothesis about Jim Bridger bulls. This year there has been only one bull shot in the hunt and that was near Gardiner not West.

    I do believe that bulls are, many times but not always, the first to explore new areas. That doesn’t always mean that cow/calf groups follow them. If you know anything about the West Yellowstone/Horse Butte Peninsula area you would also know that there is not much grass near the highway other than that right adjacent to it. The rest of this area is dense lodgepole pine forest with pine duff and little grass. Also, in my experience, many cow/calf herds go to Horse Butte long before any bulls ever get there.

    I don’t see much correlation between bulls and cow/calf groups and when/where they tend to travel other than sometimes they end up in the same place. Can you explain to me the cow/calf group that I saw at Beaver Creek a few years ago which is down by Quake Lake? They didn’t have those “Jim Bridger bulls” leading the way and there hadn’t been a hunt for years.

    I do believe that buffalo associate in family groups but I am dubious about your claims that haven’t been independently confirmed and seem to be highly disputed by observations on the ground.

  11. Ken Cole says:

    And, Bob, my man, we’re not talking about Russians, or Aryans, or Nazis or Jews.

  12. Virginia says:

    I can’t contribute any knowledge about cow/calf groups of bison, but in response to the 15 (fifteen!) bison killed in collisions close to the park, I do know that every time we are in Yellowstone, there are drivers who are so impatient with the bison on the roads, honking at them, trying to pass them on the wrong side of the road, and in general, acting like the idiots they have become. Last fall, I thought my husband was going to stop the truck and go and pull one of them out of the car and kick his a__, the way he was harassing the bison families as they tried to walk down the road, not being able to get through the deep snow on the side of the road. It is a travesty that these people cannot slow down for the wildlife in and near the park, or for that matter, anywhere. Again, during my forest service seasonal jobs, we were constantly having to pick up animals killed on roads where there are wildlife signs posted and the speed limits are purposely lower to prevent these deaths. They need to be given a fine for killing our wildlife, particularly if they are speeding.

  13. Stephany says:

    Ralph, thank you so much for reposting this story. Thankfully, since early Monday morning there have been no more buffalo hit. We are running near 24-hour patrols each day, but we are also appealing to the powers that be to help alleviate this issue with better signs, speed limit reduction enforcement, and funding to initiate safe passage projects along this 10-mile stretch of highway. BFC sent a letter to MT DOT, Governor Schweitzer and other MT decision-makers calling for urgent action: And a larger coalition of local and national groups has sent a letter to MT officials and MT’s US Senators. People can really help by contact Governor Schweitzer and DOT’s Jim Lynch, as Ralp posted at the end of his column here. Thank you!

    On to another aspect of the issue:
    Bob, I think a simple point is being missed: Highway 191 plows right through the middle of the buffalo’s migration corridor. Bulls, cow/calf groups, any buffalo trying to access lands outside the park is faced with this asphalt obstacle. Also, as Ken pointed out after years of observation, cow/calf groups, lead by matriarchs (not bulls) typically travel to Horse Butte without having any bull tell them the coast was clear. These are their calving grounds and they return year after year. This year, a handful of bulls emerged from Duck Creek, but only after 60 plus mixed groups emerged and headed to Horse Butte. While there are mature bachelor groups of bulls on the Butte, they usually show up after they’ve checked out Duck Creek and Cougar Creek and later decide they wanna hang with the larger family groups. The cow/calf groups are not there because the bulls cleared a path. In fact, that’s very untypical behavior in these parts. I think a better understanding of the way that buffalo typically use Duck Creek, Cougar Creek and the Madison River corridors would help you get a clearer perspective.
    The highway is not their destination. It just so happens that on the way out of the park, there’s the highway hugged by thick stands of lodgepole forest, and due to plowing there’s a lot of uncovered grass that the buffalo choose to take advantage of. Even in the late spring, the highway provides a lot of grass on the edge of the forests. It’s a simple matter of taking an opportunity, and a matter of a highway being in a very bad location forcing traveling animals to run the gauntlet of semis, SUVs and the plethora of vehicles driven by impatient through travelers. The deadly highway dissects their migration path, that’s the point.
    Rather than arguing what boils down to semantics, which don’t really add up to much in this case, we should be using our collective efforts to contact Montana officials and urge them to use some of the recently allocated $200 million for highway projects on safe passage initiatives. The landscape really lends itself to over or underpasss from Fir Ridge to West Yellowstone.

    Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer

    Montana Department of Transportation
    Director Jim Lynch

    And Bob, you’re welcome to join us in the field any time where we can spend time with buffalo and talk about their varying behaviors. I’m sure we have a lot to learn from each other, but most of all from the buffalo. If there’s anything that buffalo have taught us in the years we’ve been with them it’s that as soon as you think you’ve got them figured out, they do something different. I’m sure you know what I mean. The one thing that doesn’t change, however, is the presence of the highway – no matter who comes out of the park first, the road is still there – and yes, the grass IS greener on the other side this time of year.

  14. Stephany,

    Thank you so much for the update and additional information!



‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey