A bison calf lunges into the mechanical livestock squeeze chute, bucking and kicking, its lashing hooves and horns clattering against the metal frame.
It struggles for half a minute, huffing, sometimes bleating in its alien enclosure. At the right instant, a Yellowstone National Park worker thrusts a lever and the “Silencer” squeeze chute closes its jaws, encasing the animal in a corset of metal bars and collars.
With the bison immobilized, a biologist notes the animal’s age and condition and collects a blood sample. The Silencer weighs the animal and after a few minutes releases it to bolt down a maze of alleys in Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek corral complex.
The calf gallops into a holding pen separated from its mother for what may be the first time. It has torn its sensitive horns off and bleeds from both sides of its head. Green feces smear its face. It wears a sticker on its rump — a number that links it to its vital statistics. This is the end of one bison’s trail in the northwest corner of the world’s first national park. Most wild bison trapped here are shipped to slaughter.
...Hunters just outside the park’s northern boundary have killed an estimated 410 bison so far this winter. Dozens of wounded animals escaped back to Yellowstone. And as the Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary year, it contributes to the cull by capturing 150 bison in its own roundup.
...A park agreement with the State of Montana calls for killing 600 to 900 of the estimated 4,900 bison in Yellowstone this winter. Yellowstone began its trapping when the Montana hunting season ended Feb. 15. The park operation ends today.
“Many people are uncomfortable with the practice of culling bison, including the National Park Service,” Wenk said in a statement. “The park would gladly reduce the frequency and magnitude of these operations if migrating bison had access to more habitat outside the park or there was a way to transfer live bison elsewhere.”
While the park works to revise its plan with Montana, however, it rounds up buffalo and ships them to slaughterhouses. As bison amble north along the Yellowstone River to migrate to lower elevations and food outside the park, a drift fence directs some of them toward the capture pens at Stephens Creek. When enough congregate in a large pasture, workers close the gates. Later, Park Service cowboys cut large bulls from the herd and set them free; the 2,000-pound beasts would destroy the sprawling complex of corrals, processing chutes and pens.
The processing scene unfolds just after sunrise. Four mounted park rangers charge at 75 pastured bison, yelling, yipping and waving as they spur their mounts to gallop across the half-acre pen. An SUV helps the horsemen provoke the rush. In seconds the startled herd stampedes toward the pen’s far end where the enclosure narrows into a long, eight-foot-high plywood-lined alley.