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Yellowstone’s 2017 Status Report on the Yellowstone Bison Population reveals an awful truth that Buffalo Field Campaign patrols have observed in the field: The Central herd is rapidly declining, driven by mismanagement.

For 20 years our patrols have followed the herd’s migrations, and we’re seeing fewer buffalo on Horse Butte. This summer, Yellowstone’s count showed fewer than half the Central herd remained. Where had they gone?

Managers know Central herd buffalo migrate west into the Hebgen Basin and north into the Gardiner Basin. These distinct migrations doubly expose and impact the Central herd to capture and slaughter, hazing, and hunting firing lines on Yellowstone’s border.

The reality is Montana’s and Yellowstone’s “management” is causing a fundamentally tragic shift in buffalo behavior, migrations, and population structure. Without additional habitat and protections, this last wild population is at risk of extinction.

The Central herd is in dire straits, down to 847 individuals, one-fourth the size it was in 2005. Barring a few radio-collared females, slaughter managers can’t differentiate Central from Northern herd buffalo. Bad decisions are made without any clue where extended family groups captured and killed in the Gardiner Basin come from.

In winter 2011, Yellowstone captured 600 buffalo who were released in the spring. For herd animals, social bonds are a uniting force. Extended family ties spanning several generations can be seen among matriarch-led bands. It’s plausible that when they were released, the bonds formed between the Central and Northern buffalo herds remained. Some Central herd buffalo are now spending summer on the Northern range, a dramatic shift away from the Central herd's rutting territory in Hayden Valley. Loathe to admit or consider it, Yellowstone’s capture program at Stephens Creek likely altered migrations and behavior.

This tragic outcome for buffalo is a man-made artifact.

Drawing a “boundary line beyond which bison will not be tolerated” is an unfounded assumption that’s jeopardizing the last remaining population of wild buffalo, a wildlife species beloved by Montanans, Americans and people worldwide.

Confining wild buffalo to 0.4 percent of the land in Montana amidst an abundance of habitat on public lands is a criminal shame. Montana is blessed with an abundance of public lands. Beyond the Gardiner Basin “boundary line,” National Forests in Tom Miner Basin and Paradise Valley offer ample habitat for a beleaguered population.

In addition to stupid management decisions, a rapidly changing climate can, as Montanans know, quickly change for the worse. Extended drought, inaccessible winter range, and a large out-migration place the entire wild buffalo population at risk.

Amidst these accumulating threats, it’s negligent for managers to recommend capturing and killing up to 1,250 buffalo this winter.

If Montana and Yellowstone can’t show leadership, treaty tribes may be the buffalo’s last best hope. Traditional knowledge and cultural respect should drive decisions for migratory buffalo on National Forests and other open and unclaimed public lands. Powerful livestock lobbies hold our public lands hostage.

The Central buffalo herd needs to recover. Stop capturing in Yellowstone, cease hunting in the Hebgen Basin, and end hazing operations that displace buffalo from habitats needed for survival.

Montana must learn from the buffalo’s knowledge. Let them lead the way. Herd matriarchs require undisturbed habitat to raise healthy calves. Remember the buffalo’s fidelity to rutting territories. Left alone, buffalo will faithfully return to summer ranges within Yellowstone’s interior. Allow natural restoration of wild populations on lands they’ve adapted to for millennia.

For the sake of America’s last wild buffalo – our country’s National Mammal and living icon of true freedom in America – stop driving them towards extinction.

The herd’s wisdom must be heeded before it’s too late.

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Stephany Seay, media coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, wrote this in collaboration with Darrell Geist and Ken Cole, respectively, the BFC's habitat coordinator and executive director. This Montana-based wild bison advocacy group works in the field, in the courts and the policy arena on behalf of the Yellowstone herds.