by Maryanne Vollers - MotherJones Magazine
The activists of the Buffalo Field Campaign are putting themselves on the line
to try to stop the state-sponsored killing of the nation's last herd of wild
On a sunny March afternoon, with temperatures in Yellowstone National Park
soaring into the 30s, a lanky young man in black-and-purple wraparound shades
lounges on a snowbank next to the waters of Duck Creek. He is watching a small
herd of bison poke around in the shallows, looking for something to graze. He
holds a camcorder in his hand, ready to record any action. Geoff Farinholt is
not some college kid on spring break; he is an activist for the Buffalo Field
Campaign. His job is to watch these hungry buffalo and keep them from crossing
the unfenced park border into Montana. There, just 100 yards to the west,
stacked with fragrant hay, stands a bison capture corral operated by the state
Department of Livestock (DOL).
Once buffalo leave the confines of the park, the state of Montana has the
legal right to kill them. That's because some of them carry brucellosis, a
bacterial disease that can induce cows to abort their first calves and can
cause debilitating fever in humans. If these bison head for the hay, they will
be captured and tested for exposure to the disease, and most likely sent to
The Yellowstone bison are casualties of one of the most anguished, politicized
wildlife disputes in U.S. history. In 1985, Montana's cattle were declared
brucellosis-free, and the state is determined to keep it that way. Once
rampant throughout the United States, brucellosis is now rarely found outside
the greater Yellowstone area. Cattle can theoretically catch it from contact
with bison that carry the disease -- although this has never been demonstrated
outside a laboratory. Still, over the past decade, some 3,000 bison have been
killed in the name of Montana's cattle industry, often on national forest
Mainstream conservation groups have been fighting in the courts and on op-ed
pages to stop the slaughter. But only the ragtag volunteers from the Buffalo
Field Campaign (BFC) have been out on the front lines every day. More than 400
volunteers have cycled through the two-year-old campaign: students, Earth
First! veterans, hippies, New Age dropouts, radical vegans, and curious
wanderers who are willing to live in a cramped log cabin in West
Yellowstone -- one of the coldest places in the contiguous 48 states -- and
risk getting trampled, frostbitten, arrested, and thrown in jail to help save
the last wild herd of American bison.
"It's much more important to save these last few thousand wild buffalo than it
is to preserve the overabundant cattle," says Mike Mease, 38, co-founder of
the BFC. "We need to let the American people know that this is their last wild
herd of buffalo and it's in their best interest to preserve them for their
Every day during the killing season, BFC patrols set out on skis, on
snowshoes, and in vehicles to defend the Yellowstone bison. This can involve
videotaping Department of Livestock operations, stopping traffic on U.S. 191
when livestock agents on snowmobiles chase bison across the road, or
committing acts of civil disobedience. In some cases, campaigners have locked
themselves to stock trailers to slow down DOL operations, or have engaged in
other nonviolent acts for which they are arrested by local sheriffs or
deputized livestock agents. This past winter, BFC protesters set up
30-foot-tall log tripods in the middle of roads to obstruct DOL vehicles, and
then camped out atop the tripods. One blockade lasted more than a month before
deputies used a cherry picker to take it down. But most BFC activists simply
follow the bison around to make sure they stay out of trouble.
Think of them as buffalo bodyguards.
"This is about as close as we like to let 'em get," Geoff tells a visitor as
he scans the herd in Duck Creek. If the buffalo try to leave the park, the
volunteers are trained to "haze," or shepherd, them back to safety.
"Basically, you just throw your hands up and make a little noise and detour
them back the way they came," he explains. And then, as if to test him, two
young bull bison suddenly bolt out of the creek bed and make for Montana.
"Shit!" screams Geoff, leaping to his feet. He and his patrol partner,
whooping and flapping their arms, struggle through the deep snow to get ahead
of the bulls.
"Hee-yahhh! Tshhhhh! Hee-yaahh!"
The bison, which can weigh up to a ton and can toss a grown man like a
beanbag, try to outflank their pursuers by running toward some pine trees. The
volunteers follow, shouting, "Hee-yahh!" Finally, the bison give up and stomp
back to the creek.
"Those two are grounded!" Geoff yells after them, sucking gulps of thin
mountain air. "Bad buffalo!"
But the victory was temporary. Before the winter's end, more than 90 buffalo
had slipped past the activists to be captured and killed in Montana. It could
have been worse. Two consecutive mild winters have meant fewer bison leaving
Yellowstone's high country in search of food. But even with the help of the
weather, the death count might have been higher had it not been for the BFC
volunteers keeping watch on the animals -- and on the livestock agents.
"I think more bison would have been killed without the Buffalo Field
Campaign," says Jeanne-Marie Souvigney of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a
conservation group based in Bozeman, Montana. "They had a tremendous role in
not only keeping this issue in front of the public, but in moving animals away
from the people with the guns."
The state of Montana maintains that it has no choice in the matter -- animal
health officers from other states have threatened to bar imports of Montana
cattle if officials don't control the brucellosis threat. The state's bison
policy is part of an agreement with the federal government that has been
upheld in court. According to Julie Lapeyre, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov.
Marc Racicot, Montana has nothing against bison: It's brucellosis the state
"We're no different than most Americans -- we like wildlife," says Lapeyre.
"We don't like to shoot bison; we don't like to remove bison. However, there
are statutes and rules that have to be abided by, and we have an obligation to
protect our livestock industry and human health."
But even officials of the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
(APHIS), which in the past has threatened to reevaluate the brucellosis-free
status of Montana cattle, now say the state is overreacting to the danger of
brucellosis. "The risk (of transmission) is very, very small, but it is very,
very real," says APHIS spokesman Patrick Collins. "We have to be very prudent
and careful to ensure that it doesn't happen. [But] we think there are other
much more acceptable ways to achieve the policy goal, which is maintaining a
healthy cattle population, without killing scores of bison."
Conservationists say the problem is cattle; ranchers say the problem is bison.
There is a vaccine for cattle, and when it is used with other management
techniques -- such as making sure that bison and cattle remain apart on the
range -- it satisfies federal regulations. That's how Wyoming deals with
brucellosis. But that practice is apparently not good enough for Montana.
While most citizens view the Yellowstone bison as majestic American icons,
nurtured and protected in the park, Montana's cattlemen and the politicians
they support see them as reservoirs of contagion and symbols of a
much-resented federal authority. Clearly this fight isn't just about disease
eradication; it's about power and the control of public lands -- an old and
bitter issue in the American West.
"This whole thing has nothing to do with brucellosis," says Steve Torbit,
senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation. "It has everything to
do with who manages wildlife."
Buffalo Soldiers Take Position
Yellowstone's bison are on the move, and so are their defenders.
A thin crust of snow covers the sage flats and pine meadows of West
Yellowstone, Montana, as the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) swings into its
third season. Volunteers are stacking firewood, setting up teepees, dusting
off skis, and generally gearing up for another season of daily bison-defense
patrols. Sixty-one volunteers have already checked in for the 1999-2000
campaign, and BFC co-founder Mike Mease expects the number to surpass last
year's record of 250 volunteers.
The goal is literally to save the bisons' lives. As the winter grows harsher,
many of Yellowstone's 2,500 bison -- the last wild remnants of the vast herds
that once roamed the US -- are expected to descend from the park's high
country to search for fresh grazing land. This migration is a natural survival
tactic for the bison -- but one that poses a threat to their lives should they
stray over the state line into Montana. Under a 1996 federal law, Montana has
the right to kill any bison found outside of Yellowstone that tests positive
for brucellosis, a bacterial disease that poses a threat to the state's
domestic cattle herds.
Most scientists agree that the chances of Yellowstone bison actually infecting
Montana's cattle are slight. Still, Montana officials say that if they do not
control the brucellosis threat, other states may ban imports of their cattle.
That concern led Montana officials to kill some 1,100 bison in 1996 -- nearly
half the park's population at the time. The slaughter galvanized a group of
activists to form the BFC. Since 1997, the campaigners have worked to monitor
the park's bison and shoo them back to safety when they stray towards the
This year, winter has come later than expected. Snow levels are still low in
Yellowstone National Park, and this has encouraged the main bison herd to stay
at higher elevations within park boundaries. But when the winter storms hit,
the bison will start moving down, looking for better grazing in the valleys
west and north of Yellowstone. When that happens, Montana's Department of
Livestock agents will be waiting for them.
There has only been one fatality this year, albeit a particularly
controversial one. In late September, a dead buffalo was found near a DOL
capture facility, minus its head, cape, hide, and genitalia. Dale Koelzer, who
owns the land on which the facility is housed, has been charged with illegally
killing the animal.
According to US government sources, Montana has not signaled any intention to
relax its official anti-bison policies this winter. In November, the DOL's
executive officer, Marc Bridges, wrote an editorial in local newspapers
announcing the state's intentions to carry out the same
capture-test-and-slaughter program as it had in past years. Bridges ended his
op-ed piece with an ominous observation: "Fortunately, the park's current
bison population is reportedly at least five times above the number scientists
say is required to assure the long term viability and survival of the herd."
In other words, the livestock bureaucrat thinks that 2,000 out of 2,500
buffalo could be killed without harming the last wild herd in America.
"We're afraid the DOL is going to try to kill as many bison as they can this
year," says Mike Mease. "With (Montana) Gov. Racicot going out office next
year, it could be their last chance." When and if the slaughter begins, Mease
says the Buffalo Field Campaign will be ready.
Reprinted under the Fair Use http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html doctrine of international copyright law.
Tsonkwadiyonrat (We are ONE Spirit)