Friday, May 19, 2017

How to Call Your Legislators

Mark Jahnke used to work on Capitol Hill as the person in charge of all the incoming phone calls to his Senator's office. A friend of mine (thanks, Vaughn!) sent me Mark’s insider tips to make calling your reps easier and quicker. Here they are:

1. Give your name, city, and zip code, and say "I don't need a response." That way, they can quickly confirm you are a constituent, and they can tally you down without taking the time to input you into a response database. 

2. PLEASE ONLY CALL YOUR OWN REPRESENTATIVES! Your tally will not be marked down unless you can rattle off a city and zip from the state, or are calling from an in-state area code. I know you really want to give Mitch McConnell a piece of your mind, but your call will be ignored unless you can provide a zip from Kentucky. And don't try to make this up; I could often tell who was lying before I even picked up the phone from the caller ID. Exceptions to this are things like Paul Ryan's ACA poll. 

3. State the issue, state your position. "I am opposed to a ban on Muslims entering the US." "I am in favor of stricter gun control legislation including background checks." "I am in favor of the Affordable Care Act." That's it. That's all we write down so we can get a tally of who is in favor, who is against. It doesn't matter WHY you hold that opinion. The more people calling, the less detail they write down. Help them out by being simple and direct. 

4. Please be nice! The people answering the phones on Capitol Hill already had the hardest job in DC and some of the lowest pay as well, and for a month now their jobs have become absolute murder, with nonstop calls for 9 hours every day. Thank them for their hard work answering the phones, because without them our Senators could not represent us.

What does this sound like?

"Hi, my name is Mark, I'm a constituent from Seattle, zip code 98***, I don't need a response. I am opposed to any ban on Muslims entering the United States and I encourage the Senator to please oppose implementation of any such ban. Thanks for your hard work answering the phones!"

This is how I wish every caller had phrased their message. It makes it easier for the people answering the phones and takes less time and emotion than a long script. I know that you want to say why, but keeping it short and sweet helps the office answer more calls per hour, meaning more people get heard. The bigger the tally, the more powerful our voice. Also, when you're reading off the same script as 100 other callers that day... well...they can tell.

Pick one issue each day, use this format (I am in favor of _____ or I oppose ______), and call your 2 Senators and 1 Representative on their DC and State Office lines, and you'll be on your way to being heard.

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

Photo of interior of Montana’s state capitol building by Rick Lamplugh

Friday, May 12, 2017

Trying to Understand the Killing of the Canyon Pack's Alpha Female

Canyon Alpha Female photo by Leo Leckie
The death by poaching of the Canyon pack’s alpha female angers and saddens me. In the few weeks before she was shot, the white wolf was spotted twice walking alone at night down a main street of Gardiner, bothering no one, heading north. After the first sighting, an informal network of locals formed to try and find the alpha female, watch her movements, and make sure no harm came to her. We spent hours hiking and driving just north of Gardiner. We kept each other informed via text, email, phone, and talking along the roadside. My friend Leo and I were lucky enough to see her early one morning, unharmed and moving through the sage just north of town, not far from where she was found shot a couple of weeks later.

That so many people immediately came together to try and protect a wolf that had stepped out of Yellowstone, speaks highly of Gardiner residents. Unfortunately there are other people who want to see wolves dead. This time the killers succeeded. Was the shooter a local? Someone from elsewhere? No one knows.

Gardiner, located at Yellowstone’s north gate, sits at the center of a wolf controversy. The town is bordered by two Wolf Management Units of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP). Wolves that step paw outside the park can be legally shot in those units during wolf hunting season. (When the Canyon alpha female was shot, wolf hunting season had long since closed. And her body was found inside Yellowstone, not in one of the hunting units.) 

Some time ago, Leo, my wife Mary, and I attended a public meeting in which MFWP staff came to Gardiner to hear comments on the wolf quota in those units bordering Yellowstone. Should the number of wolves killed be higher, lower, or the same? Though MFWP may have wanted a number, they heard much more. They heard the range of local opinion about wolves.

After learning of the poaching of the Canyon alpha female, I found myself thinking again and again of that meeting and the thoughts and feelings revealed there about wolves. Thoughts and feelings that I’m sure are echoed across the US. Thoughts and feelings that may help to understand the white alpha’s death.

The Meeting

We are in the multipurpose room of Gardiner’s K-12 school. Three long rows of cafeteria tables are set up for the public, with about thirty people seated at them. Most of the people in the front and middle rows want to see fewer wolves killed. Many are locals, some are wolf watchers from elsewhere. In the back row sit a smaller number of people, most want to see more wolves killed in the unit.

Sam Sheppard, regional MFWP supervisor, greets us and asks that we be respectful of each others’ opinions. He explains that his staff is here to listen to our comments, not to have back-and-forth discussions with us. 

A man in the back row raises his hand and says with a hint of frustration, “So does that mean we can’t ask questions?” 

Sheppard, maintaining his even tone, tells him questions are permissible but the meeting will not be a back-and-forth between staffers and attendees. Then he opens the meeting for public comment.

photo by Leo Leckie
After a few people speak, Bonnie, a representative of the Sierra Club, stands and says, “People come [to Yellowstone] from all over the world for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a wolf in the wild, and that chance is undeniably reduced with hunting on the park borders, as we saw in a recent study.” She adds that in a recent year hunters and trappers killed more than 200 wolves in Montana.

A man in the back row stands and says he was born and raised here in Gardiner. For his entire life, his family has worked as outfitters—helping clients hunt wildlife. He believes that the tourism to see wolves in Yellowstone “should not dictate what we do with Montana wolves in the 313 area.” He seems to frame this wolf controversy as the federal government bullying the state of Montana—a position western conservatives take on many political issues.

“This is Montana,” says Sheppard, breaking his own rule on the back and forth. “This is not Yellowstone National Park North.” He explains that the park operates on a preservation model—wolves aren’t hunted in Yellowstone. But Montana uses a conservation model—wolves are hunted. 

Another man from the back row says, “If wolves stay in the park, we won’t affect them at all.”

“The fact of the matter,” replies Sheppard, “is that animals don't recognize political boundaries. This species [wolves] is linked to the elk. That is their primary grocery and they’re going to follow the groceries.”

Shauna, a Yellowstone guide in the front row, explains how the killing in a legal Wyoming wolf hunt of 06 (oh-six)—the famous alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack—affected her income. She lost more than $2,000 in tips after that one wolf was shot. Her comment creates a buzz in the back row and generates a few minutes of back and forth between pro- and anti-wolf attendees, until Sheppard puts both hands into the air and quiets the room. “This,” he repeats, “is not going to be a back and forth.” 

From the back row, another man asks angrily, “So we can’t ask questions?”

Sheppard brings both arms across his chest and states firmly, “There is not going to be dialogue going back and forth among the audience.”

The room falls silent except for the rustle of three men in the back row, whom I assume are members of the anti-wolf congregation. They stand up, tug at their baseball caps, and march out. Watching them go, I figure they did not come to have a productive conversation; they came here to fight. They will never agree with protecting wolves. They want wolves gone. And when wolf hunting season arrives, they will make that opinion known with bullets.

After the three leave, a man who spoke before from the back row breaks the silence with a diatribe against the Sierra Club’s political influence. He sounds as if he sees this controversy as the Sierra Club overpowering the Montana commission that sets the wolf hunt quotas. 

When he finishes, Ilona, chairperson of the wolf committee of Gardiner’s all-volunteer conservation group, the Bear Creek Council, asks Sheppard, “Can we allow everyone in this room to make their first comment before we go to second comments?” 

“That’s fair enough,” says Sheppard with a nod.

Doug, a local who sells spotting scopes to wolf watchers, asks Sheppard if we can have a simple show of hands of how many people support the two-wolf quota as opposed to six.

Sheppard shakes his head and says, “I value everyone’s comments, but what I’ve found in the past is that if there is an overwhelming majority, that may silence some people.” He pauses and then adds that the staff wants “to hear what people think and have to say.”

From the back row someone yells, “Shoot the wolves!” While this prompts laughter in the back row, it draws concern from the middle and front rows. Is there any way, I wonder, to bridge such a chasm?

Linda, co-owner of a local ecotourism business, stands and says that she too suffered financially after 06 was shot. When the Lamar Canyon pack scattered, there were fewer wolf sightings, and that led to fewer wolf watchers. Her business income was off for two years. 

Mary stands and says she would like to see the quota in Unit 313 reduced to zero. I want to applaud her statement of conscience. The reality under Montana law is that there cannot be a permanent buffer zone around Yellowstone where zero wolves are taken. There can only be a quota that is subject to change. Only three small units in the state have quotas. Unit 313 and one other border Yellowstone. The third unit borders Glacier National Park. Anywhere else in Montana the combined maximum hunting and trapping bag limit was five wolves per person during the last season.

photo by Leo Leckie
After a couple more people speak, I comment. I encourage the MFWP biologists to establish a management goal that recognizes tourism and research as a priority for setting wolf quotas near Yellowstone and Glacier. This is an idea Ilona shared with me in one of our many conversations concerning wolf management.

Nathan, chairperson of the Bear Creek Council and co-owner with Linda of an ecotourism business, stands and says that he too was raised in Gardiner. He graduated from the Gardiner School. Having any wolves killed in 313 “is like Russian roulette. You don’t know if the wolf that is killed is one that is going to be known to wolf watchers and tourists.” He recalls the boycott of some Gardiner businesses after 06 was killed.

Nathan’s comments draw opposition from a man in the back row. “There’s probably a lot of folks who weren't here or who don’t remember that once upon a time Gardiner was a much more thriving town that was busy all summer, all fall, and a good portion of the winter.” He looks around the room and adds, “There are a lot of us who have lost economic stability due to the lack of management [of wolves]…” 

He refers to a time when elk hunters with guns boosted Gardiner’s economy. Now the money comes primarily from ecotourists armed with spotting scopes. 

Judging by the comments tonight, when it comes to the economic impact of wolves, the pro-wolf and anti-wolf sides share little common ground. One side says that their incomes fall when wolves are killed. The other side says that their incomes fall when wolves are not killed.

Sheppard steps close to the front row of attendees, stops and scans the faces before him. He appears to be composing himself. Then he nods as if giving himself permission to speak. “Across the state of Montana, wolves are an accepted part of the landscape, much more so than here. I’m going to ask you to think about this: Why is poaching so much greater here in the Gardiner Basin than anywhere else in the state? That’s a fact.” He pauses to let that shocker sink in. “I would ask all of you in this room, on both sides of this issue, to look inside yourself and answer that question.”

Shauna asks Sheppard, “Does that imply tolerance is lower here or is that because we know our wolves and we know when they go missing?”

Sheppard nods his head thoughtfully, then divulges that he has lived and worked as a wildlife agent in other communities including McCall, Idaho (a state infamous for hunting and poaching wolves). He tells us that people in these other locales could not poach any wildlife without someone calling to tell him about it. But no one calls him to report poaching in Gardiner.

I don’t want to believe that Gardiner is Montana’s top wolf-poaching area. And I’m not alone. I can feel the discomfort in the room as Gardiner residents, both for and against wolves, try to digest Sheppard’s statement. 

Final Thoughts

But, today, with the Canyon pack’s alpha female having been poached just outside of Gardiner, I find it difficult to deny that charge. No one knows yet who shot the wolf. It may or may not have been a local. I sure hope it wasn’t.  

photo by Rick Lamplugh
The National Park Service has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual responsible for this criminal act. The wolf advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies has offered a $5,000 reward as well. If you have information that could help with this investigation, please contact the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch (ISB). Your tips will be confidential. You don't have to tell them who you are, but please tell them what you know:

CALL the ISB Tip Line 888-653-0009
TEXT to 202-379-4761
ONLINE and click "Submit a Tip"
MESSAGE via Facebook @InvestigativeServicesNPS or Twitter @SpecialAgentNPS

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bison Babies Signify Survival

photo by Rick Lamplugh
Yellowstone’s bison babies mark spring’s arrival and something more. These beauties with their curly red-orange hair, their long legs, and their big black eyes that see the world anew are living proof that the park’s bison population will recover from another winter of the brutal capture and hunt.

When born, each calf weighs between thirty-three and sixty-six pounds. Once a calf slides out of mom and onto Yellowstone’s soil, things happen quickly. Within thirty minutes, the calf can stand and nurse. Within one week, it can eat grass, drink water, and start identifying other plants to eat by watching its mother. Within seven to twelve months, it will be weaned and have developed the large digestive tract with multiple stomachs that make bison superior to cattle, deer, or elk at wresting sustenance from winter’s dried grasses.

When a calf stands beside its mother, it’s easy to see how they differ. The calves don’t yet have the prominent shoulder hump. That crane of muscle and bone will come later, enabling them to swing their big adult heads and plow up to eighteen inches of snow from life-sustaining dried grasses. The calves don’t yet have the bouffant hairdo some adults sport. The calves are not the same color; they won’t begin turning brown until July.

It’s hard to imagine this tiny and helpless animal growing to 2,000 pounds if a male and 1,100 pounds if a female. It’s also hard to imagine that one day they will be able to sprint at thirty-five miles an hour, turn on a dime, and hurdle a five-foot-high fence. 

As spring progresses, these calves will play, running and jumping and kicking up their small hooves. That play develops physical strength and teaches them the rules of the herd. One rule they should learn quickly is to not stray far from the group. Hungry grizzly bears and wolves may pick off stragglers. Though a mother will fight to defend her calf, she has limits. Under the commonsense rules of nature, it’s better for the herd if the mother withdraws, loses the calf, and saves her own life, so she can produce more offspring later. 

As the calves mature, some will die from the trauma of a hard winter, from falling through thin ice of a lake, colliding with a vehicle, or giving birth. But adult bison, with their large size, sharp horns, incredible speed and agility, and willingness to defend one another, lose few members to predators. As their capture inside Yellowstone and slaughter just outside the park prove, man is the only predator these bison need to fear.

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Calling to Protect Wolves and Wildlands

Photo by NPS
Wolves are marvelous animals. Given the right number, solid teamwork, a lot of determination, and a bit of luck, a pack can bring down a bison, an animal that weighs at least ten times as much as a single wolf. Right now we have the opportunity to attempt something as challenging. All it takes is making a phone call or two to your US senator or representative.

Here’s the situation: For the federal government to continue operating, the House, the Senate, and the White House need to approve a funding bill by April 28. Must-pass bills such as this have previously been used to sneak through anti-wildlife legislation that lacks enough support to pass on its own.

This must-pass bill could be used in that way too. According to the Endangered Species Coalition, there are currently more than thirty proposed bills in this congress that could harm endangered species or the Endangered Species Act. Any one of them could be passed by adding them to the funding bill. Some of the most concerning proposals would:

  • Kick wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin off the endangered species list and allow these states to open wolf hunting and trapping seasons immediately. (S. 164)
  • Prevent the US Fish & Wildlife Service from protecting the greater sage grouse—a bird that has lost a substantial portion of its habitat to oil and gas extraction. (S. 273)
  • Put up costly and unnecessary barriers to citizens that petition the government to protect species under the Endangered Species Act. (S. 375)
  • Give states control over when to kick Mexican gray wolves off of the endangered species list—even if scientists and experts deem them in need of protection. (S. 368)

Here’s where you come in: Call your US senator or representative right away and ask him or her to pass a "clean" government funding bill without any amendments—like the ones above—that gut protections for wolves and other endangered species or give away control of America's public lands.

Calling is surprisingly easy and much more effective than sending an email or signing a petition. Most likely you will leave a message or a voice mail. You don’t have to be an expert. You’re a concerned citizen and your senator or representative needs to hear your opinion.

Thank you for taking the time and effort to make the calls. With a big enough team, lots of determination, and a little luck we can help protect wildlife and wildlands. (And I’d love for you to comment on this post as to how your calls went.)

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversies. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Public Lands: A Blessing or a Curse?

Photo by Rick Lamplugh
In March, Mary and I left cold, snowy Montana hoping for warmth and sun in southern Utah. We weren’t disappointed. We hiked on lots of public land: a national conservation area, national monument, national parks, and state parks. We were stunned by the beauty of Utah’s deserts and mountains—and  we were thankful the wildlands had been protected from development.

But many Utahans rail against public lands. Some claim that locking away three-quarters of their state’s land stifles entrepreneurship and stunts economic growth. Is that true?

During our three weeks in Utah, we encountered many other visitors. Like us, they were spending on food, lodging, gas, and keepsakes. Obviously, tourism is alive and well. But what about Utah’s economy as a whole?

Once home, I studied the 2017 Economic Report to the Governor that the Utah Economic Council prepared. I found:

  • Utah’s job growth rate was among the highest in the nation. Unemployment was exceptionally low. Wages increased during 2016.
  • Utah’s ski resorts and national parks hosted a record number of visitors last year. Tourism contributed to strong job growth.
  • Utah’s rate of population growth was the highest in the nation. The number of people moving to the state was the highest in a decade. Experts predict the population will keep growing and fueling a construction boom.
  • The Economic Council lists risks to Utah’s economy. Having too much public land is not among them.

In another report, CNBC ranked Utah as the nation’s top state for business. The state’s economy ranked third in the nation. CNBC says the state has developed innovative industries and has a collection of big and small companies that rivals California’s Silicon Valley. The report identifies risks to Utah’s economy. Having too much public land is not among them.

A prospering economy in a state with abundant public lands is not unique to Utah. The Atlas of Yellowstone reports that studies of the economic benefits of public lands found “…counties in the West with wilderness, national parks, national monuments, and other protected public lands…stimulate economic growth.” And what’s more, lands with greater protection have stronger positive effects on growth.

The people who complain the loudest about public lands are those who crave access for ranching, farming, forestry, wood products manufacturing, mining, and fossil fuel development. These industries have been around a long time and have lobbyists and political friends who make sure complaints about public lands are heard. They scream that these industries are staples of the West and the jobs they produce must be protected.

But they don’t admit that these extractive industries contribute fewer and fewer new jobs in the new West. The total number of jobs in these industries accounted for only three percent of all the jobs in the West, according to the Atlas of Yellowstone.

Far from making a case for selling off public lands, Utah provides economic and picturesque proof that public lands and a growing economy can exist side by side. Wildlands and the economic vitality they foster should be protected from those who want to privatize them and greedily tear them apart.

To enjoy a slideshow (photos and music) of the incredible Utah public lands we saw.

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Inside Look at Capturing Yellowstone's Bison: A Photo Essay

The Stephens Creek Capture Facility run by the National Park Service is a central cog in a controversial bison management plan. Two concepts sit at the heart of the plan: migration and social tolerance. Bison naturally migrate out of Yellowstone each winter in search of grass not locked away under ice or snow. The state of Montana has limited tolerance for bison outside the park near Gardiner and West Yellowstone. State officials claim this is because some bison are infected with brucellosis that can be transmitted to cattle. But there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle.

This unfounded fear of brucellosis was one factor leading to the creation of the IBMP, the Interagency Bison Management Plan—a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies and some tribes. The IBMP calls for the capture of bison at Stephens Creek and for their shipment to slaughter in Montana. It also calls for a hunt just outside the park to further reduce Yellowstone's bison population. 

Along with members of the media and conservation organizations, I toured the Stephens Creek facility in the winter of 2016 and 2017. I represented Gardiner’s all-volunteer Bear Creek Council. Below are fourteen photos I took during the tours. I've added captions that explain how bison are handled at Stephens Creek. Click on a photo to enlarge it.

Processing begins as four NPS employees on horseback ride into the pen that holds captured bison. During the 2016 tour we observed the shipping of 30 bison and the processing for later shipment of 75 more. During the 2017 tour, we saw 41 bison shipped and 65 more processed.

Shouting, whistling, and waving their hands, the horseback riders run the bison toward a second pen.

The bison are hazed from the second pen into a long chute. This chute leads to a device with the brand name “The Silencer.”  NPS employees use long poles to prod the bison out of the chute and into The Silencer, one at a time. 

The Silencer performs a number of functions. Here, in 2016, a park bison biologist waiting to work stands to the left of the machine, while a supervisor on the catwalk makes sure the machine is ready for bison. (As of 2017, NPS painted over The Silencer brand name on the equipment.)

We watched many bison go through The Silencer. They bucked and kicked and grunted, the whites of their frightened eyes obvious. Once a bison is in The Silencer, an operator slides levers that moves the sides of the machine inward, squeezing the animal and holding it in place. Once the bison is still, a bar pushes the animal’s head to the side and holds it there so the biologist can draw a blood sample. The large needle used to draw blood is in the biologist's right hand. 

In addition to a blood draw, each bison is weighed, and its sex, age, and brucellosis status are determined. 

In 2016 an employee showed us the blood samples. An NPS bison biologist analyzes the samples at a small lab at Stephens Creek. A positive test result means that a bison has been exposed to brucellosis, but does not necessarily mean that the bison can transmit the disease now. Test results, says NPS officials, are not used to determine which animals are shipped to slaughter. Instead, they use them to understand the disease status of the population and to identify a few animals that are appropriate for brucellosis research studies.

After release from The Silencer, bison are directed to various holding pens, depending on age and sex. In the photo, are female bison seen through a small hole in one of the sheets of plywood that cover the fence of the holding pens. NPS officials say that if bison can't see past the plywood, can’t see an escape route, they stay calmer. 

These captured calves--born the previous spring--were waiting to be shipped to slaughter in 2016. This view is from a catwalk above the holding pens. An armed law enforcement ranger accompanied each of us when it was our turn to observe from the catwalk. About eight employees work on the catwalks. They handle the opening and closing of gates and keeping bison moving. Four other employees take care of drawing blood and gathering data at The Silencer. Workers often communicate with hand signals.

Once a bison has been processed and assigned a number by a tag placed on its back, it's ready to be shipped. The blood on this bison is from an injury to this animal or from rubbing against another injured bison.

A trailer from a Native American tribe backs up to the loading gate, and the door of the trailer is opened. Bison are released from the holding pen and hazed down a chute. NPS employees prod the animals with long poles from above to make them step from the loading gate through the open door of the trailer. 

In 2016, sixteen bison were put into one of these trailers and fourteen in the other. Once the bison were loaded, the trailer was sealed. The trailers left together, followed by a Montana Department of Livestock law enforcement officer in a DOL truck. The officer was armed and ready to shoot the bison in case there was an accident and a bison escapes or was injured. This procedure is required by the state of Montana since these bison may have brucellosis. 

By the date of our 2017 tour, about 1,000 bison had been captured, sent to slaughter, or killed by shooters outside the park. We were told that as many as 1,300 could be killed this winter. The NPS has submitted an Environmental Impact Statement to replace the original bison management plan that is seventeen years old and requires this capture and slaughter and hunt. In 2016, an NPS spokesperson told us that they have outgrown the old plan. In 2017, a different spokesperson said that it could be up to ten years before a new plan is in place. In the meantime, this capture and slaughter and hunt will continue.

 Since 1952 the image of a bison has appeared on the arrowhead patch—the official emblem—worn by NPS employees. In the days that I spent touring Stephens Creek, I heard numerous NPS employees state that they do not want to be sending these genetically pure bison to slaughter. However, they added that they are required to do so by the IBMP. I was also told that the Montana Department of Livestock wants a quicker return from Yellowstone's current population of around 5,000 bison to the IBMP target of 3,000. To reach this target population, of course, even more bison must be killed. 

As of March 1, 2017:

650 bison have been captured at Stephens Creek.
At least 470 of those bison have been shipped to slaughter houses.
The remaining captured bison will also be shipped to slaughter.

For more info on the IBMP, including a schedule for 2017's meeting. IBMP meetings are open to the public. The next meeting:

April 6, 2017 at the Holiday Inn West, 315 Yellowstone Ave., West Yellowstone, MT

To read my post: "Firing Squad: The Reality of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Firing Squad: The Reality of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

photo by Rick Lamplugh
Mary and I look across the Yellowstone River and the wide, flat snow-covered Gardiner Basin. Beyond the basin rise low foothills, soft in early morning light. Above them looms the snowy flank and top of rugged Electric Peak. 

We take turns scanning with binoculars along the floor of the basin to a creek and a thin line of conifers that marks Yellowstone Park's northern border. Just beyond that border is Beattie Gulch in Gallatin National Forest. There, during the current hunting season, winter-hungry bison that step over the invisible park boundary in search of grass not buried under deep snow are shot by hunters. 

Hunter is the wrong word. Those people we watch through binoculars in Beattie Gulch today—there are at least fifty of them, some in camo, some in bright orange vests—are not hunters. They are shooters—a firing squad, really. They stand in the open, within sight of their pickup trucks, their guns ready, waiting for bison to unwittingly enter their field of fire. 

We count twenty-nine bison, walking in a long line toward the firing squad. The animals seem oblivious to danger. Why shouldn’t they be? They spend most of their lives in Yellowstone protected from hunting. We watch and worry as they close in on the firing squad. Then we hear the first shots, popping sounds at this distance. We are shocked to see a bison fall and amazed that the rest of the herd does not run away. Instead, they circle their fallen member, as if wondering what’s wrong. Pop! Pop! Another bison down. Some of the group moves toward the second bison on the ground. Pop! Pop! Pop! Two more bison fall. Still the rest don’t flee. 

Within minutes, twenty-one bison lay scattered and still in front of the firing squad. We feel some relief as the eight survivors turn from the slaughter and in a much shorter line escape Beattie Gulch and climb up a draw, heading back towards the park. One limps, perhaps wounded. 

Mary and I sit silent, sad, and angry. We know that if today’s survivors make it back into the park they will be safe for a while. But their days could be numbered. Though these eight escaped the firing squad today, the annual capture of bison by the National Park Service (NPS) at the Stephens Creek Capture Facility within Yellowstone is underway. 

This controversial hunt outside the park and capture within the park are required by the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). That plan was written in 2000 by a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies: the NPS, US Forest Service, USDA-Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana Department of Livestock, and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks. Three Native American groups, the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, and the Nez Perce Tribe, joined the coalition a few years later. Goals of the IBMP include confining bison within Yellowstone and reducing the park’s population from 5,500 to 3,000 bison. 

photo by Rick Lamplugh
This winter the plan calls for removing up to 1300 bison. Many will be killed outside the park by shooters—like the ones we just saw slaughtered. Many others—which may include those eight survivors—could be captured and interred at Stephens Creek. From that facility, Native American tribal members will haul the imprisoned bison to slaughter houses in Montana.

Managing Yellowstone’s bison with confinement and death is done in the name of protecting cattle from brucellosis. The disease can be transmitted from elk or bison to cattle and cause infected livestock to abort calves and ranchers to lose money. But there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transfer from bison to cattle. Ironically, the transfer originally went in the other direction: cattle transferred brucellosis to bison in the early days of the park when cattle were kept in Yellowstone to provide milk and meat for visitors.

Elk, on the other hand, have transmitted brucellosis to cattle numerous times. But elk are not confined to the park, are not captured and slaughtered like bison. Elk are not viewed as livestock, are not under the control of the Montana Department of Livestock as bison are once they leave the park. Elk are considered wildlife, as trophies, to be hunted and stuffed. Bison are used as brucellosis scapegoats to be confined and killed.

The IBMP’s bison management evokes protests from locals, Montanans, and people all across the United States. This year’s protest started in early January, after the hunt began and before the capture started. 

Since moving to Gardiner, Mary and I have become drawn physically, emotionally, and intellectually into this life and death struggle. We have joined the Bear Creek Council, a local all-volunteer conservation group where we can work as part of a team to confront the bison controversy. Mary has found news reports and scientific papers detailing the management of bison and elk. I have used that information and our field observations—such as watching the firing squad—to write several articles about the bison slaughter. We have attended meetings where those for or against killing bison speak and sometimes shout opposing views. We have joined about fifty others in a sunset protest march down the main road in Gardiner against the inhumane treatment of bison. The march was organized by Buffalo Field Campaign, a regional activist group that has been fighting for years to end the capture and hunt.

But watching those bison fall this morning is not talking, reading, or writing about senseless killing. This is seeing and hearing it. This is feeling the anger and shock and sadness. This is all too real, and no matter how much we dislike it, the controversial killing will not end anytime soon. Neither will the protest against it. 

As of March 1, 2017, 417 bison have been killed by the firing squad. Another 14 bison were wounded, escaped back into Yellowstone, and then had to be killed by NPS employees. 

This post adapted from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year's Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy.

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Tribute to 06, the Smart and Strong Alpha Wolf

Photo by Leo Leckie
Across the snow-covered valley floor from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, 06 and her Lamar Canyon pack encircle a bull elk. He has backed against a large, uprooted stump and has his front hooves in a shallow braid of Rose Creek. He is six-feet tall at the shoulder with 6 X 6 antlers and has several ways to kill a careless wolf. 

From where we wolfwatchers stand, the elk and wolves are less than a half-mile away, visible with the naked eye, and amazingly detailed through the spotting scope. The air buzzes with excited chatter about how this life-or-death drama may unfold; wolves succeed in only one of every five attempts. The Lamar’s last confirmed kill was three days ago. They must be famished; they have been gnawing on bones at old kill sites. Feasting on this elk who could weigh 700 pounds is crucial—but not guaranteed. 

This bull could be a good choice of prey by 06 for two reasons. First, a big elk means more meat for every member of her pack. Second, this bull is probably exhausted after last fall’s rut during which he may have collected a large harem, slept little, expended lots of energy, and not grazed enough to completely recharge. Now, after several months of below-freezing temperatures, deep snow, and poor grazing, he could be even more depleted, more vulnerable. 

The wolves crouch, charge, and nip at the elk’s legs. The elk, head up, charges at them. The wolves retreat. The elk backs into the creek. This give and take repeats several times, until 06 and her pack curl up in the snow in a long, loose line that starts near the elk and stretches eastward. Though the temperature is below freezing, each wolf looks like a dog sleeping on the hearth. All except for 06. Although at the end of the line and farthest from the elk, she never takes her eyes off of him. The elk, head high, still as a statue, glares right back.

When 06 finally stands and stretches, the alpha male, 755M; his larger brother, 754M; and two younger wolves join 06 and move toward the elk. With no hesitation, the elk charges, making the wolves dodge and feint. 06 moves to the elk’s front. She’s famous among wolf watchers for lunging at an elk’s neck, crushing its windpipe, and hanging on until the elk suffocates. Is that what she’s going to do now? 

Or is she trying to entice him to chase her? If he chases, his unprotected rear becomes a perfect target for the rest of the pack. Those bites would not kill him outright, but if he bleeds, he’ll weaken. That would make delivering the eventual death blow easier, and she and her pack would eat at last. But this elk is experienced; he stands his ground and protects his back. The wolves return to resting, again curling up in the snow. Score round two for the elk.

Photo by Karen Withrow
A while later, I can’t pull my eyes away from the scope as the elk backs up a few steps and then stops. He watches 06 and her pack. They don’t move. He backs away again. Stops. Stares. Three wolves raise their heads. None stand. The elk turns and with no pursuit strides away, a hundred yards, a quarter-mile, a half-mile. He stops. 

Amazing! Is 06 going to just let the bull escape? I notice that Rick McIntyre of the Yellowstone Wolf Project has arrived, and I decide to ask him what he thinks. I walk over and wait until he has finished whispering observations into his digital voice recorder. Then I ask if he thinks the elk has escaped, if the feast has fled. 

He studies the scene and then turns to me. “Oh, this isn’t over,” he says with a smile. “The pack will have no trouble tracking that elk later.”

I feel like smacking my forehead and yelling “Duh!” Of course these noses-on-four-legs can track this animal. Why didn't I think of that? Embarrassed but still curious, I ask, “Do you think the wolves know this elk?”

“Very likely they do. Either by scent or appearance. This is probably not his first encounter with the pack. He’s old enough to have had others. And he’s fit enough to survive this one, too.” 

McIntyre turns back to his scope, grabs the voice recorder, and whispers a few notes. As I turn to leave, somebody yells, “The wolves are up!” 

I snap my head toward the stand-off and see 06 and her pack, noses to the snow, drifting to where the bull stands, a cliff now protecting his rear. I sprint to my scope (as much as you can when wearing heavy, insulated boots) and zoom in. The wolves form a horseshoe around the elk who charges one; it scoots away, but a second leaps at his rear. The bull spins and lowers his head, shakes his thorny rack side to side. A wolf could die if an antler punctures an internal organ. The whole pack backs off and settles down to rest. The elk takes round three.

This match has been on for five hours this morning and who knows for how long last night. Though the elk seems to be standing his ground, I wonder if he is in fact losing ground. His body must be firing adrenaline and burning energy at a high rate, but we have yet to see him eat, drink, or rest. And 06 has her pack resting again; they may be winning this battle of energy attrition.

An hour or so later, the elk finally lies down. Instantly, 06 is on her feet, charging and nipping. The elk jumps up. Other pack members join in until there are eight of them, circling and snapping. 

“This might be it!” a woman shouts. 

The elk lashes out with a front hoof. A hoof to a wolf’s head can mean instant death, and one to a wolf’s side can mean slow death from internal bleeding. The wolves give ground. The elk takes round four.

At 6 p.m., eleven hours since we set up our scopes, 06 stands and saunters past the elk and down the valley. It’s a determined walk, one that tells her pack that this hunt is over. Perhaps—as McIntyre said—she knows this bull and has decided that bringing him down right now isn’t worth the energy or risk. Whatever her motive, her family falls in line and follows. The elk, defiant to the last, charges a couple of youngsters who come too close as they pass. 

The wolves’ stomachs must be growling as they climb a slope and leave the valley floor after another day without food. But at the ridge top, 06 and her pack join in a rough-and-tumble reunion.

The elk stands and watches them before he meanders a short distance to graze where dried grass pokes through snow. I’m surprised that he makes no attempt to leave this dangerous area. Does he figure that the danger has left him? Or is he just too drained?

Early the next morning, my wife Mary and I slip and slide up the muddy, snowy, and rocky flank of Ranger Hill, beside the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Last night through our cabin window--we live at the ranch all winter while volunteering there--we heard a lot of wolf howling. At breakfast we learned that a conspiracy of ravens and an eagle were circling in the area of yesterday’s stand-off. Was it a victory chorus by 06 and her pack? We’re climbing for a view, to see if there’s a carcass and some meat-drunk wolves. 

Halfway up the hill, Mary stops and searches with binoculars. A moment later, she whispers that she sees lots of wolves on a kill. 

Photo by Leo Leckie
I follow her directions and zoom the spotting scope in on 06, pulling a strip of meat from a carcass that’s halfway submerged in Rose Creek. A raven perches on the antlers. I count twelve points. This must be the big guy from yesterday, the one who shook that rack defiantly at the pack.

Though it had appeared the battle was over when 06 led her pack away from the valiant elk, she was just preparing her next move. She and her pack had drawn blood, and none of her family were injured. Though they hadn’t feasted, she knew there was another day; she could find the bull later by the scent from his bloody wounds. And time would give her an advantage. So she left, gave the elk a false sense of security, and then she circled back. She did not let the bull rest; he must have been very tired from the stand-off. She did not let the bull recuperate; he had lost blood from the pack's earlier bites. Instead, 06 did what she was famous for: used her experience and leadership to once again feed her family.

On a winter day in 2012, O6, led her family out of Yellowstone and toward the rising sun. No one knows why she chose to travel fifteen miles east of the park and into a Wyoming’s Wolf Trophy Game Management Area. Maybe she went in search of migrating elk. Maybe she went in search of 754M, her alpha male’s brother, a wolf with which she had also mated. Several weeks earlier in the area to which she was heading, he had become a fatality in a legal Wyoming wolf hunt. Whatever drew her, she never returned. On December 6, 2012, 06 became a trophy. 

The deaths of 06 and 754M disrupted the delicate family structure of the Lamar Canyon pack. They were not the only Yellowstone wolves killed in the 2012-13 wolf hunt. A total of twelve park wolves were killed. Six of them wore collars that provided valuable scientific information. Data from 06’s collar shows that she spent ninety-five percent of her time within the park. She was used to the presence of people—she had been observed by thousands and thousands of park visitors—and this would have made her an easy target outside Yellowstone.

While hunting wolves is not currently allowed in Wyoming, special interest groups are fighting tooth and nail to bring back the Wyoming wolf hunt. In Montana, there are two hunting districts just outside Yellowstone’s northern border where wolves can be taken, disrupting other wolf families and forcing numerous wolves to choose new leaders, new roles, new lives.

Perhaps the best tribute we can pay to 06 is to keep fighting to stop the hunting of wolves everywhere.

This tribute adapted from a chapter of In the Temple of Wolves.

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller