Yellowstone Causes Tragic Shift in Bison Behavior; IBMP Plans Large Kill for Coming Winter

By Stephany Seay, Darrell Geist, and Ken Cole

2017 10 05 01 001 BFCseay 800

A female buffalo separated from her family group who will all be killed, is held in a sorting pen at Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek buffalo trap, where she waits before being loaded onto a stock trailer that will take her to the slaughter house. BFC photo by Stephany Seay

Yellowstone National Park has just released their 2017 “Status Report on the Yellowstone Bison Population,” and it reveals what we feared: the Central Herd, who migrates west into the Hebgen Basin, and also north, into the Gardiner Basin has declined by nearly half. BFC patrols in the past few springs had noticed that we were seeing about half the number of buffalo coming to their calving grounds on and around Horse Butte. We looked for them inside the Park, but found very few. We contacted Yellowstone’s bison biologist, Rick Wallen, who suggested we look in the places we already had. Where had they gone? Well, the harsh reality is that, the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) is causing a fundamental and tragic shift in the buffalo’s behavior and migration patterns. Of course, Yellowstone will never admit this, heck they don’t even want to acknowledge that the Central and Northern herd have different genetic structures, much less what they are doing to the buffalos’ genetics as they arbitrarily slaughter them.

Agency science is nothing but a tool for politics. Whom does Yellowstone serve?

Managers know that buffalo from the Central Herd migrate west into the Hebgen Basin and also north into the Gardiner Basin, and are doubly exposed and impacted by capture for slaughter operations and hunting. After the winter slaughters of 2005–2006 and 2007–2008 the Central Herd was decimated, their numbers stagnated, and declined by nearly half in the last year. The Central herd is in dire straights. Yellowstone biologists don’t have anything to differentiate Central from Northern buffalo except for a handful of radio collared females — they have no clue where the other family members who are captured and killed in the Gardiner basin come from. They do not know, nor do they seem to care what the significantly damaging cumulative impacts of their management schemes are doing to our country’s last wild, migratory buffalo populations.

2017 10 05 01 002 BFCseay 800

During 2011 more than 600 buffalo were captured and held for nearly five months. Buffalo from both the Northern and Central herds were captured and lived in confinement for so long that buffalo from different family groups — and even different herds — formed strong bonds. It is likely that when they were released, these buffalo stayed together, some leaving their home ranges and families to stay with the new friends. BFC photo by Stephany Seay.

They may be loath to admit it, or not willing to consider it, but Yellowstone National Park’s capture program at Stephens Creek may have altered the population structure, behavior, and social bonds of around 600 buffalo held in captivity and released during the spring of 2011. Social bonds are a uniting force in a herd animal like the buffalo, and extended family ties spanning several generations of buffalo can be seen among matriarch led groups. It is altogether possible that when this cohort of buffalo were finally released after months in captivity, the bonds formed between the Central and Northern herds were so strong that they stayed together on the Northern range. Based on Yellowstone’s report of radio-collared females, there is some evidence indicating Central herd buffalo are now spending their summer in the Northern range, a dramatic shift away from the Central herd’s rutting territory.

2017 10 05 01 003 BFCseay 800

The entire Yellowstone population declined by 12%, reduced – through slaughter, hunting, and quarantine — to just 4,800 animals. BFC photo by Stephany Seay.

The outcome for buffalo is tragic. Managers tell us and want us to believe everything is fine. But the fact is Yellowstone National Park’s and the state of Montana’s unnecessary and intensive management scheme has altered the buffalo’s population structure for the worse. As a consequence, we are witnessing the Central herd rapidly disappear. With more buffalo on the Northern Range, more will be killed when they migrate into the Gardiner Basin killing zone.

With the very structure of the buffalo’s population being artificially manipulated and altered, threats outside of management – extended drought, winter range freezing under ice – make the whole population much more vulnerable to extinction. It is utter negligence on the part of Yellowstone National Park and the state of Montana, who are crushing the future of the sacred buffalo, our country’s national mammal.

2017 10 05 01 004 BFCseay 800

A view of Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek buffalo trap where more than 700 buffalo were captured and shipped to slaughter last season. Yellowstone and their IBMP cohorts, caving to pressure from Montana’s livestock industry, intend to kill between 600-1,200 buffalo this coming year. Whom does Yellowstone serve? BFC photo by Stephany Seay.

So what do the Park biologists have to say to managers in the face of evident human mismanagement? Among other things, they recommended that “[s]ome captured bison may need to be held at the Stephens Creek facility through winter and released in spring to meet these removal composition objectives.” Ho-hum off we go to manage another man made disaster…

Their recommendations:

  • About 600 bison would need to be removed from the population during winter 2017-2018 to stabilize population growth… We do not recommend removing more than 1,250 bison, which would be greater than 25% of the current population.
  • When possible, bison should be removed in proportion to their occurrence in the population (73% adults, 12% yearlings, and 15% calves; 46% females and 56% males). Some captured bison may need to be held at the Stephens Creek facility through winter and released in spring to meet these removal composition objectives.
  • Population management actions during winter 2017-2018 should focus on bison breeding in northern Yellowstone (i.e., the northern herd) by using telemetry data to inform the timing and magnitude of removals.
  • We recommend using harvests in Montana and culling at Stephens Creek to meet population management objectives…
  • We do not recommend management removals or state and tribal harvests of bison in the western management area in Montana. Bison migrating west of the park during winter are almost entirely from the central breeding herd, which has decreased substantially in abundance during recent years.

TAKE ACTION! The only solution here is an immediate moratorium on Yellowstone’s capture-for-slaughter scheme. We must not allow them to move forward with their killing plans. Year after year we try to stop this, so we are going to have to try even harder now. We need you to stand with us on the front lines. And we need you to let Yellowstone’s Superintendent Dan Wenk and Montana Governor Steve Bullock know that we will not stand by and allow this to happen: / 307-344-2002 – / 406-444-3111.


  1. Isabel Cohen Avatar

    How dare they do this to these wonderful wild buffalo herds!

  2. Gail Avatar

    It’s all so bizarre and happening right under our noses. It seems that efforts of advocates and even citizens with a general interest, are fragmented and limited by the innumerable other atrocities being committed against our wildlife and environment. It seems the best course is to support as generously possible the organizations that litigate on behalf of the animals.
    I wish mainstream media would devote at least a bit of air time to other issues such as this.

    1. Isabel Cohen Avatar

      Yes, it’s disgusting alright. Check out Wildlife Services. Google it and see the damage they are doing to hundreds of thousands of birds and animals a year in the name of sound management (at the request of the farmers and ranchers and anyone else who asks them, poisoning them and shooting them. No one has even heard of Wildlife Services and they hide in the Dept. of Agriculture, which authorizes all their nasty deeds!

  3. Joan Avatar

    I have added a link to this update on my video (link below)as I think the whole world should see what is happening in Yellowstone Park and why they are doing nothing to stop the slaughter.

  4. Patricia Randolph Avatar

    Again – we need organizations who care about wildlife to educate the public that working at the ROOT of all wildlife killing is the fact that state and federal agencies that MAN handle our wildlife and public lands are structured to be funded primarily on killing licenses. Until we force change to structure them on GENERAL PUBLIC FUNDS either by a fee or by the wildlife watching funds that are 10-40 times the taxes paid in by hunters and trappers to state tax coffers and twice to federal ( but are not organized to fund what we actually want and are thrown into the general public funds to fund oil and fracking and factory farms).
    Until we change that basic structure, we will never have safe wildlife or democracy in governing our public lands and wildlife – we need a first time democratic system.

  5. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Not to beat a dead horse, but the esteemed wildlife biologist Don Peay who Predicted the extermination of Yellowstone bison by wolves, and the Julius Streicher of the anti-predator world, none other than the exaulted Mr. Rockholm, who’s recent posting of an old video predicts the bison demise, addles one’s mind with the irony of this situation.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      It certainly does, when the demise of the Yellowstone bison will be because of humankind, and not the indigenous. How terribly ignorant and sad, for these people to be doing this.

      1. Isabel Cohen Avatar
        Isabel Cohen

        Once again, I repeat myself: HOW DARE THEY DO THIS???

  6. Isabel Cohen Avatar


  7. Zita F Avatar
    Zita F


    1. Isabel Cohen Avatar

      I am sick of reading things like this! Why do we have to put up with the slaughter of our precious wildlife?

  8. Louise Kane Avatar
    Louise Kane

    Ken Cole
    Congatulations on your new position
    They are fortunate to have you
    Thank you for all your work and that of your organization
    I’ll be sure to call and to post widely
    As Patricia points out without radical change in wildlife management agencies we won’t see much change
    Reforming state wildlife agencies must be prioritized

  9. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    We have to put up with it because neither party gives a damn. Trump and his cronies may be bad, but there’s a very poor excuse for an alternative.

  10. B Sortland Avatar
    B Sortland

    Attn: “Yellowstone’s Superintendent Dan Wenk and Montana Governor Steve Bullock! We will not stand by and allow this to happen! The only solution here is an immediate moratorium on Yellowstone’s capture-for-slaughter scheme. You MUST NOT move forward with your killing plans !!!”

    What are you not understanding about this?! WAKE UP !!!

  11. Sarah Johnson Avatar
    Sarah Johnson

    What right do we as humans have to decide what species of animal will be allowed to servive? And in allowing only some and not all by our choice, we are inevitably wiping ourselves out in the end for nothing is sustainable if the chain is broke.

  12. Maico Avatar

    As we know, bison are an annually migratory species, needing to come down off te long-winter Yellowstone plateau.
    Te mere fact that restricted bison can survive and still reproduce in excess of mortality there should not blind us to long-evolved behavior, which can be well-defined as cognitive/emotional need.

    Because I’ve been observing the constraints on wolf dispersal from YNP, engaged in by all three surrounding states, the CDC/WHO-looking infectious disease eradication maps and practices come immediately to mind.

    These draconian barriers to the natural vagility of bison should be shocking to all Americans.

    We know that bison contributed in key ways to the once-vast prairie and mountain valley ecosystems, precisely due to their mobility, cropping grasses to a very limited extent (unlike restricted European Bos cattle). From historical accounts of bison-dependent tribes and others who recorded their movements, along with more recent observation and experiment, that this passing-cloudlike mobility was ever the norm, even though perhaps 60 million plains bison along with millions of other large and medium ungulates existed.

    State governments tend to have teir posts sought and filled by some of the wealthier exploitative elements, Montana and Wyoming being two cases in point. Unfortunately, even more socially enlightened federal administrations still hold to the fiction that happiness is money and this pursuit is or should be prioritized over all else.

    Such a culture leads very obviously to dissociation with te biological earth as it is, even though we remain utterly dependent upon it.

    Human management like economics, inherently seeks the goal of self- and ingroup-enrichment at the expense of lives and ecosystem components not perceived as contributing to ingroup social status, for that is really what all “wealth” is. We have seen agrarian societies practicing relatively equal community norms, as the Amish and others. Such as the Amish seem quaint from the outside; when asked why they use horses to drive buggies and plows, but not for direct personal transport, the answer given is that “sitting on a horse makes a man too prideful.”

    There is some appropriate analogue to that observation:
    Visit any community, and the most exploitative will have the loudest voice, always the most emotional. Whenever we gather into communities larger than an extended family, contention begins to loom larger than acceptance and amicability. We are evolved to violently fragment, as remaining in local numbers beyond those which allow stable local ecosystems is sure deterioration and greater mortality.

    Bison themselves exhibit a different fission-fusion style. Few of you know that at night, that late afternoon ambling toward tighter herding you may have observed, is very coesive. Bulls will sheperd the groups uphill from tje lush valley bottoms, calves protected within the unit.
    I have not explored the sociality of bison – who leads, who decides. It seems seamless in the darkness.
    Individuals, though, always vary, and communicate clearly their preferences when encountered; they know humans as predators, yet signal their arousal and spatial preferences in noncombative ways long before any defensive action is taken. They are more cognizant of us and our attitudes than most humans are of even teir own species.

    So, in the end, I have no answers other than giving way to the imperatives of this native, who needs to reattain its ecologically effective part in the sustaining of life on much of the continent.
    For the tragic present moment its lives are negated insubstantial, abyssally subservient to the accumulation of mere social status among overbloomed populations of a primate dissociated from the real world, increasingly self-absorbed by abiotic, dead, technologies.
    I do not know if intraspecies strife , disguised as politics and management decisions, can or will ever resolve again into an inclusive, whole, community.
    Those who speak for wolf or buffalo, gather momentary lip service by other individuals; but the shiny flickering, banging, clicking toys and self-aggrandizement always inundate all else within moments, hours, days, the turn of a head.


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.

We do not accept unsolicited “guest” authors or advertising.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ken Cole