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.
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.