The search continues for dozens of bison reported missing from two holding pens at Yellowstone National Park. Authorities say the animals escaped when somebody used bolt cutters to open up a fence. Park officials are calling the incident a crime.
It’s a windy and unseasonably warm winter day in Yellowstone National Park in Montana. Spokesperson Morgan Warthin is standing in the middle of a massive, empty valley.
“Yellowstone is like, so big," she says. "Where do you begin to look?”
Warthin is searching for bison that were set free last week. That’s when they discovered the holding pens had been sabotaged by an unidentified person or group of people.
Now the bison are scattered across an area larger than Delaware and park officials have launched a criminal investigation to find out what happened.
“I didn’t believe it when I was first told,” says park bison biologist Rick Wallen.
Finding these animals won't be easy, he says, because there are thousands of bison in Yellowstone.
The only thing that sets the escaped animals apart is a tiny ear tag which can be hard to spot from long distances.
"Bison, in the winter time, are incredibly furry animals," says Warthin. "And so the fur, being so thick, covers up those tags. So it can be difficult to see the tag”
Before the bison went missing, Yellowstone park officials hoped to send them to nearby Fort Peck Indian reservation in Montana.
It was part of an effort to help the animals avoid what’s become an annual and controversial slaughter of bison in Yellowstone.
This slaughter is driven by fear.
Some ranchers in Montana worry if bison leave the park, they’ll infect cattle with a deadly disease called brucellosis. It can cause pregnant cows to abort their young.
While there’s never been a confirmed case of bison infecting cattle in the wild, ranching is big business in Big Sky country.
“There was a great deal of fear that brucellosis infection in wild bison would create an epidemic infection in the cattle of Montana,” Wallen says.
So under court order, Yellowstone is forced to ship bison to slaughter if herds get too big. But by creating a new herd on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the park service hoped they could save some of those animals.
They quarantined 52 bulls in big fenced paddock for more a year to insure they were disease free.
But the state of Montana wasn’t convinced the paddock could serve as an approved quarantine facility. So, the bison languished there until someone cut ‘em loose.
Now they’re back in the Park, hanging out with other wild buffalo. Yellowstone officials have to start from scratch.
“I think there’s a sense of loss," Warthin says. "I mean, a lot of hard work was put into testing these animals and all that work, all that effort is gone.”
Now the question is who allowed these animals to escape. There are different theories, but park biologist Rick Wallen says he suspects animal rights activists could be involved.
“Folks that hate seeing wild bison contained in fenced facilities,” he says.
Folks like Chris Hurley, a coordinator with the Buffalo Field Campaign.
Hurley’s got stringy, black hair, a beard and buffalo patch on his jacket with e. pluribus unum written underneath.
I meet him at the north entrance of Yellowstone. He claims his group had nothing to do with the animals’ escape.
“Something like that from the campaign would be kind of detrimental to anything we’re trying to achieve," he says. "We don’t… it would fall back on us in a hard way and we might lose a lot. So it’s not condoned. We don’t agree to those kind of things.”
That being said, he’s kind of happy someone cut the animals loose.
Hurley says all Yellowstone bison should roam free. Even if it means they could be taken by hunters along the park’s boundaries.
“If they were be shot at a firing line in Beatty Gulch as a wild animal that seems better than spending their lives in captivity," he says, "Once their in that facility they will never be wild animals again. After years of domestication and being fed and being watered just to be shipped to end up on lands somewhere is just insulting to this… which is our national mammal.”
Park officials say they’ve spotted some of the missing bison more than five miles away from the holding pens. But, they don’t plan to round them up like cattle because they’re still wild animals.
They hope the bison return on their own.