GARDINER, Mont. — This is the modern answer to the buffalo jump.
On Tuesday, instead of bison being chased off a steep prairie bluff, they were herded by mounted horseman and an SUV into Yellowstone National Park’s Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility. Inside, workers drew the bison's blood, aged them by their teeth, weighed them and tagged them for Wednesday’s shipment in livestock trailers to a meat-processing plant for slaughter.The end game is partially the same — to provide American Indians with wild bison meat — but it’s also a way to reduce Yellowstone’s burgeoning bison population of nearly 5,000 animals and for the park to keep peace with the neighboring state of Montana. Montana has constrained the bison to federal lands immediately adjacent to the park out of concerns that the animals may spread the disease brucellosis to cattle, which can cause pregnant cows to abort.
“We’re hoping for a greater tolerance of bison in the state of Montana. That’s what we’d like to see,” said park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett as she guided a bus full of 15 members of the media and filmmakers to the bison capture facility just north of Gardiner on Tuesday.
The park, state and other tribal and federal partners are in the early stages of creating a new bison management plan that would guide efforts such as this culling. One of the options being considered under the new plan is allowing some of the bison to be quarantined and eventually shipped to tribes. The park has built new corrals for such a possibility.
The new proposals don’t please everyone, though.
“We’re not just dealing with the state of Montana. This is the world’s most important population of wild bison,” said Stephanie Seay, of the bison advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign.
Photo and video
Seay attended along with a videographer to capture footage and photos of the bison processing to help spread the word about what’s going on in Yellowstone. The loud banging of the bison as they struggled into a squeeze chute for processing made her feel ill and she later wiped away tears while talking about the animals.
“People have to see what’s going on,” she said.
That’s Yellowstone’s objective, as well, said Bartlett. “Our goal is to be more transparent.”
The corrals and chutes in the processing and holding facility are 8 feet tall and heavily built to handle the large animals. Panels of plywood screen the bison from public view, meant to keep the bison calm as they are prodded and pushed with long poles and paddles into different areas by workers atop the catwalks.
The heavily built structure reminded Los Angeles documentary filmmaker Will Lyons of the massive walls built around dinosaurs in the fictional movie “Jurassic Park.” Photographer Michelle McCarron, who hails from Ireland but recently moved to Jackson, Wyo., said people in her European homeland are “shocked” that such roundups of bison still occur, let alone in an American national park.
Yellowstone’s goal this winter was to cull a large chunk of the bison herd — 1,000 animals. So far, the mostly tribal hunts of bison have resulted in almost 400 bison being shot, mainly in the Gardiner Basin not far from the park’s corrals. About 150 bison are expected to be shipped to slaughter on Wednesday. Tribal hunts are expected to continue until the end of March.
Public access to the bison corrals has always been closed off, partly because the area includes a Park Service shooting range, along with a storage area for trailers, old equipment, vehicles and a shop. Bison supporters have long decried the closure, saying the operation is kept out of the public’s view to hide what is going on.
“We’re trying to be transparent, but we can’t keep it open 24-7,” Bartlett said. “There’s also been some vandalism in the past.”
Seay was one of the complainants in a lawsuit filed to gain greater access to the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility. Bartlett said that suit was filed after the park had already been working on providing controlled public access to the site.
“Unfortunately from the outside it looks like we’re only doing it because we got sued, but that’s not the case,” she said.
On Tuesday photographers and videographers were allowed up on the catwalks and about 15 feet from the squeeze chute to take photos and capture film images. The park also provided footage to those attending. GoPro cameras were set up by Yellowstone photographer Neal Herbert at different locations to capture video.
A park ranger cautioned the visiting media at the beginning of the day that although the chances of a bison breaking loose were small, if that should occur the photographers must all return to the bus in a speedy but orderly fashion. One veteran photographer said under his breath that there was no way he was returning to the bus if a bison got loose. Instead, he would be shooting photos of the escapee.
Only a little more than 100 years ago, bison like these still roaming Yellowstone blackened the Great Plains. The air must have been filled with dust and the loud noise of their communal grunts and bellows as they journeyed.
Tribes revered the animals for sustaining their people in body and spirit. The bison’s contribution to native society earned them a place in the Indian pantheon, a great beast of spiritual power.
Yellowstone’s corral and capture facility are as far removed from those times as we humans are from traveling by foot and dog travois. Yet in this jet-fast world of instant communication the question of how best to keep these few remnant wild animals as free as possible, within constraints, is at least still being discussed, debated and worried about.