WEST YELLOWSTONE – A sign beside the highway heading north out of West Yellowstone flashed, “Animals on roadway – next 10 miles.” It was a clue that Wednesday morning was the start of Montana’s spring ritual of hazing bison back into Yellowstone National Park.
“It’s happening a little earlier this year because everything is greening up faster,” said Montana Department of Livestock rider Jeff Mount as he and five other riders waited for their cue near the South Fork of the Madison River south of Horse Butte.
The occasional beat of helicopter blades served as another clue as a state helicopter flew a low, random pattern around the Horse Butte peninsula.
The pilot was looking for bison sheltering the trees, and after chasing them out, he radioed their locations to the riders.
Every winter, bison migrate around 10 miles outside the park to drop their calves in about 100 square miles of lush, mostly-flat lands between the park boundary and Hebgen Lake. Calves are usually born in late April and May.
Every spring, the DOL — in cooperation with the park, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — forces the bison back into the park, usually by May 15.
Mount and his riders would be herding a dozen outlying bison east across the South Fork and along the southern side of the Madison River into the park. At some point, riders from Horse Butte would herd their bison across the river to join them.
The trek won’t stop there. Buffalo Field Campaign spokeswoman Stephany Seay said the riders take the combined herd another seven miles to Conger Knoll the second day and push them farther into the Firehole River area on the third day.
“Some of these calves are just a few days old, and you can see some are still trailing their umbilical cords,” Seay said, watching bison being herded on Horse Butte. “They’ve already been going for four hours without rest and they’re tired. Especially since the riders tend to herd aggressively.”
A dozen riders rounded up around 300 bison on Horse Butte, an area proposed for year-round bison habitat by FWP because no cattle graze there. The proposal has support from residents and conservationists but the approval process will take a few years.
The air was abuzz with radio calls because also following the bison were a dozen Buffalo Field Campaign workers. They pedaled mountain bikes furiously along the forest roads, marking the progress of the roundup and radioing highlights to the other members.
“The horsemen are trespassing on the Galanis property,” one worker radioed from Horse Butte.
Seay explained that the Galanis family allows bison on their property but denies the state access. So the helicopter must herd the bison off the property to Forest Service land where the riders take over.
Apparently, the riders got too anxious and strayed across the boundary. They all work for the state, and the drive costs less if they can do it in less time.
But, last year’s hazing operation proved there are other ways to save money that benefit bison.
Last year, because of high snowpack and a cool spring, the agencies didn’t move the bison until June 2, more than three weeks later than this year. The majority of the calves had been born so bison stayed in the park. If bison are moved before they drop their young, they try to return to the Horse Butte calving grounds, and riders have to haze them back.
“The DOL didn’t want to wait, but the Forest Service put its foot down,” Seay said. “All the agencies agreed last year that it cut a quarter of the budget.”
Mount, who has participated in hazing operations for five years, said moving the bison earlier this season was better because there would be fewer calves. Seay said the calving season came late this year, and yet awkward young were trailing a quarter to a third of the females.
The riders are supposed to cut out of the herd any mothers that are calving or any calves that are struggling, Mount said.
“It’s not our purpose to stress these animals,” Mount said.
Seay, who has observed bison hazing for nine years, said riders can cut animals out of cattle herds, but it doesn’t work with bison so some calves may perish in the drive.
“Bison are like elephants because they have strong family ties,” Seay said. “A mother won’t allow her calf or herself to be separated from the herd. The riders don’t know that.
“We could learn something from bison about how to be a family.”
Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or firstname.lastname@example.org.