The impending bison slaughter.

National Park Service hazing buffalo inside Yellowstone National Park © Ken Cole
National Park Service hazing buffalo inside Yellowstone National Park © Ken Cole

The snow is deep, in fact it’s 130% of average in Yellowstone this year. That makes for a bad situation if you are a buffalo there. Do you try to stay in the Park where you can’t get to the food that you know is under all of that snow or do you follow your instincts and move to lower elevation where there is less snow? Either way, you’re screwed if you’re a buffalo.

This year, with an estimated population of 3,900 buffalo in Yellowstone, things are reaching a tipping point and a mass exodus of buffalo is likely to ensue.

What will await them when they leave the Park? Well, this year, there have been over 100 bison killed outside the Park, mostly by tribal treaty and sport hunters according to the Buffalo Field Campaign (full disclosure, I am a long time volunteer and board member of BFC), one was hit on the road as a result of being orphaned during the hunt and unable to trudge through the deep snow on its own, and another one was shot by Montana officials after it left the Royal Teton Ranch after being captured, tested and marked in an obscenely expensive program which is vaunted by the government and “conservation” groups for its greater “tolerance” towards bison outside of Yellowstone National Park.

That experiment hasn’t gone too well. The buffalo aren’t behaving the way, or staying where the government wants them to so they have been chasing them around on horseback trying to keep them on the RTR.

Another 64 bison are being held at the Stephens Creek Capture Facility inside Yellowstone National Park. These buffalo were captured as part of the program to allow 25 brucellosis free bison to use Royal Teton Ranch for the next few months. Originally the Park promised that they would release these buffalo back into the Park but have since said that are considering slaughtering them. They still haven’t decided what to do yet and you can contact the Park to ask them to release these buffalo as promised. Here is the contact information for Colin Campbell the deputy regional director for operations in Intermountain Region of the National Park Service.

PHONE: 307-344-2003

The buffalo are on the move now. Judging by past seasons with harsh winters this one is shaping up to be a very tough one and the harm caused to the genetic health of the herd could be irreparable. If a large scale slaughter were to once again take place without careful examination of the genetics of the herd then the could face a loss of genetic diversity that cannot be regained. The problem lies in the fact that there is no examination of the impacts that these slaughters have on the herd. We now know that the bison in Yellowstone are one of the last, if not the last genetically pure herd left in the USA. They are also severely limited in their genetic diversity due to the bottleneck they went through in the late 19th Century.  The population is derived from only 50 or so individuals.

Recent unpublished data indicates that these bison may have compromised mitochondrial DNA and unregulated culling may negatively impact this herd.

It has also been shown that the bison population consists of at least two, and possibly three, herds with high fidelity to certain breeding grounds within the Park. This means that if the culling continues to be unregulated there will likely be unequal impacts to the herds and the implications are unknown.

It is time to take a step back and thoroughly examine the genetics of the bison in Yellowstone so that we can understand the implications of different management actions being conducted. To do otherwise places the long term health of these last genetically pure, and free roaming bison at risk and would require the intervention of the Endangered Species Act in place of this inadequate state and federal management.


  1. Elk275 Avatar


    I have read that 25 buffalo were moved to four square miles of forest service land on the west side of the Yellowstone River. Is that land part of the old Trestle Ranch that was purchased from the RTR some years ago? There is really no place north of Yellowstone Park for buffalo to go in the winter. All of the Forest Service land in that area is higher elevation with heavy snow cover and little available grass with the exception of Cinnabar Basin which is fenced and private. All of the lands which have grass are small private acreage’s and fenced. Yes, it is tuff being a buffalo.

  2. Ken Cole Avatar

    I’m not familiar with the detailed history of the land purchases but those 25 buffalo are the buffalo that were captured then released as part of the RTR deal. After they were released they swam across the Yellowstone River. They were then hazed back. One of them was shot and killed yesterday by Montana agents.

    As far as your statement that “there is really no place north of Yellowstone Park for buffalo to go in the winter”, I would respond that that is a matter of perspective. What other species is limited in this way? There aren’t any. Elk, deer, wolves, grizzlies are all allowed to use the areas outside of the Park. Why not buffalo? Other than the bullshit brucellosis argument what other arguments are there? Why is there this special distinction made for buffalo? It’s a native species just like the other species I’ve mentioned. None of those other species are specifically fenced off of private property even though they may not be welcome by some. They certainly can’t be shot willy nilly without regulation.

    Part of my response is an exercise but I truly think these questions really need to be answered and debated.

    1. Save bears Avatar


      Those questions have needed to be answered for the over 20 years I have been asking them…

  3. Alan Avatar

    Now I see the DOL is talking about feeding these bison (the 25) so they will stay put.

  4. Bill O'Connell Avatar
    Bill O’Connell

    How about on the east side of the Yellowstone, where those bison swam to?
    Cedar Creek is a pretty good-sized drainage, purchased for big game winter range. And then you have the Dome Mountain “Wildlife” Management Area. That is the winter range. Plus of course the Dome Mountain Ranch, where bison would be more than welcome. Google that ranch, and check out manager Jim Klyap’s blog. A few years back, a handful of scout bulls made it to within “300 yards of history” before the DOL killed them. If they’d have made it to the Dome Mountain Ranch…

    North of there, it gets complicated. I hate to draw lines, but Six Mile Creek isn’t too bad of one…

  5. Alan Avatar

    “…If they’d have made it to the Dome Mountain Ranch…” DOL would have still killed them. Remember, property rights mean nothing to them.

  6. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    There are a couple cases this week where DOL did respect property rights. I’m not going to share details right now, but one of the cases was amusing to say the least.

    Their respect of property rights is entirely arbitrary, though, and in the end, they don’t care.

    I suspect, though, if DOL ever violates a place like Dome Mountain Ranch that it wouldn’t be quite like the other places they violate (famously over here the Galanis Ranch every year with their helicopter). It will create more of a stink over that issue.

    I haven’t been writing much about the buffalo this year over the internet, as I’m working on a much larger project based on my year here volunteering. I have to say it is so bad out there; I’ve known how bad it was from over a decade following this and a couple years volunteering intermittently. Doing so full time has been a tragedy that is breaking me. And, while people sit around thinking of appropriate lines for the buffalo, it sounds very hollow when you see the things I’ve seen this winter and that others here I know have seen year after year.

    I’d encourage people to come get slices of that experience both in Gardiner and in West. That invitation is always open, and we’d be happy to show people around. Rarely a day goes by without a tragedy.

    1. JB Avatar

      Webmaster’s note. This “JB” is associated with Dome Mountain Ranch, and so a different person than JB who has been commenting here for years. Ralph Maughan
      – – – –
      Thanks Colin for your depth of research and facts. You can bet Bison are welcome here at Dome Mountain Ranch. It’s the right thing to do. Sifting through all the misinformation that’s out there is the tough part. I commend you all for researching the facts.

      For the record, I don’t believe “hunting” them is the answer unless sound biology provides the proof-not politics. I believe they need an opportunity to re-establish age old habitat, just like all the wildlife that make it here from Yellowstone Park. If given the opportunity to be wild, they will amaze you in their survival instincts. The same elk we see lounging on the green grass at Mammoth hot springs are the same that venture well beyond areas of the highway we all see from 89 South.

      I can attest that there is bountiful food sources in addition to Dome Mountain itself. Public and private lands. Bison are YOUR WILDLIFE, not livestock. It’s important to recognize the difference in habitat and available food north of Yankee Jim Canyon where we have the kind of wind that burns off the heavy snows. I visited the Daily Fields two days ago…there’s a foot of grass just sitting there.

      Several have been crossing the river at the Game Check Station just south of Yankee Jim Canyon, I’ve heard some people comment that they then want to use the highway…through the canyon. I’ve only seen them do this when forced/hazed.

      I believe they want to follow the more historical trail through the old Slip and Slide area like the elk do, but it’s here that they get into trouble.

      Millions of tax dollars and broken promises have occurred via dealings with the RTR for many years, these are your tax dollars. The area the bison are hazed into doesn’t appear to have any food? This is a very severe winter, and it sounds like it isn’t going to get any better.

      My fears that someone would suggest DOL manage other wildlife like they have bison was introduced today in Helena. This is a bad idea…quite silly when you think about it. What’s next, vaccinating mice because they have Hanta Virus? Talk about job security.

      As long as I’m here I’ll continue to fight for what is right. I suggest you visit my friend Glenn Hockett at the Gallatin Wildlife Association,

      He’s worked tirelessly and just returned from Helena. It’s important that your words and passions be heard in Helena.

      Visit the site that allows you to electronically vote and comment. One person can make a difference. Imagine what would happen if we all spoke louder. If I can be of service, please do not hesitate to contact me.
      Jim “JB” Klyap, Dome Mountain Ranch

  7. Alan Gregory Avatar

    A damn shame. I remember thinking the same thought upon seeing, in the early 90s, a trio of domesticated bison along a rural road in south-central Nebraska.

  8. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    62 bison are being released. One bison was killed in captivity on January 12 (they are just informing us, not sure of the cause), and they apparently had one fewer there than they had (as apparently they can’t count).

    On the whole, better news, and the thanks has to go out to all you who put pressure on NPS to do what they originally said they were going to do when they captured these buffalo.

    Thanks for all your help (we are short on good news out here, and this helps),


    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      Do you think the taxpayers and “conservation” groups will ask for their money back? Will they get it back?

      Why don’t we just stuff more money down a rat hole?

    2. Savebears Avatar

      I don’t know Ken,

      It is very disheartening to see what continues to happen and with three new bills introduced in Montana, including one to try and classify them as livestock…things are really getting depressing…

    3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      2010 was a very bad election. People with opinions that normally wouldn’t get 10% of the vote got elected, and that happened, IMO, because the economy did not get better for the average person. It got worse, and Democrats were in power. It is a 2-party system. Right wing nuts have taken over the other party. Democrats in office seemed reluctant to fight back. Therefore, Democrats couldn’t stir up their supporters.

      These right wing crazies will probably soon disgrace themselves and get voted back out of office, although they will probably do a lot of damage first. Sick people will die, more will lose their jobs, the crazies might initiate violence, and they will certainly take a swipe at wildlife. They will go after all but a few common high profile animals — deer and elk. They will also try to privatize wildlife — turn it into alternative livestock. Governor Otter of Idaho has made it clear that is how he sees wildlife — worthless if it is wild.

  9. Ken Cole Avatar

    Buffalo Field Campaign patrols today witnessed the capture of at least 300 bison by the National Park Service in Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek trap. This failed management plan must end.

  10. Glenn Hockett Avatar

    I went to the House FWP committee hearing on Representative Bill Harris’ HB 214, which would “authorize the management of all buffalo or bison as livestock”. There were more opponents than proponents, but both the Montana Stock Growers Association and the Montana Wool Growers supported the bill. There is still time to voice your opposition to this bill by calling 444-4800 and leaving a short message for the entire House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee.

    As well, a landowner friendly bill, if not a bison friendly bill was unfortunately tabled today – SB 148. This bill would have required 24 hour notification and permission before the Department of Livestock could enter private property to “manage” bison. This would have help protect the private property rights of those, such as JB, in favor of bison.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole