The first period of Montana’s ill-conceived, and poorly planned buffalo hunt comes to a close on Dec. 31st. So far, four bull buffalo have been shot in the Gardiner area where only five permits were issued for the first period. In the West Yellowstone area, where twenty permits were issued for the first period, only four buffalo have been killed. With only the four bulls in Yellowstone Village out of the Park and no other buffalo close to the border, the chances are growing that some hunters will get skunked. Unlike other hunts where hunters often can’t find an animal, in the buffalo hunt, hunters get skunked because there simply are not buffalo in the state.
A combination of factors seems to be causing the relative dearth of buffalo beyond the border. Although it is cold, there has been relatively little snowfall. According to one report, no more than 14 inches of snow are on the ground well into the Park’s interior. The Park Service recently released a report stating that the vast majority of buffalo are still on their summer ranges. Weather is one of the greatest factors determining when and how many buffalo will move out of the Park. Last year the buffalo moved in response to an early snowfall. This year, the migration is delayed. The second factor, of course, is that there are over 1000 less buffalo in Yellowstone this year due to the Park Service and DOL’s massive slaughter last winter and spring. With less buffalo in the Park, there is less pressure for buffalo to move and more unoccupied spaces to move into before leaving the Park’s boundaries.
So as the hunters go home steaming mad, with no buffalo, a lot less money, and a distasteful feeling for the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission and their decision to issue too many permits given the current management circumstances, BFC volunteers are enjoying this quiet time in the winter cold with our four large friends in Yellowstone Village. But our minds and hearts are not quiet. Our thoughts often turn to the 47 buffalo calves held hostage at the quarantine facility in Corwin Springs, Montana. How do we stop this from continuing? How can we prevent them from getting their greedy hands on 100 more innocent buffalo calves? What can we do to protect the 47 calves if the experiment is stopped? Will they just slaughter them anyway? That threat has already been made. Will they keep them and use them as “research animals” for some other ghastly purpose?
Twice a week now, we meet to discuss the quarantine and make plans to bring attention to this atrocity. In the meantime, letters to newspapers are being written, video footage is being edited, contacts with buffalo advocates are being renewed and revitalized around the issue, and events are being planned for the near and more distant future. This issue is crucial to the future of the buffalo and is so much a telltale sign of how the agencies view the buffalo and wildlife in general. To them, the buffalo are “seeds” to be harvested from a tainted source, cleaned up, and domesticated so as to be more easily manipulated, and replanted elsewhere. The source, one of the most unique wildlife populations in the world, the spiritual center of North America, is to them a dirty place. In their minds, it is a cesspool, a reservoir of disease. It must be “disinfected” at any cost. But if they can extract some of the buffalo genes and replant them somewhere else, then at least all is not lost. What a valiant effort! Why don’t we understand? How can we oppose quarantine? It’s the only way.
Ah, the mind of the scientist, bureaucrat, and manager. Always looking for the complex solution. Missing what’s right in front of their noses. Assigning blame to the subject, rather then examining the overall picture. So willing to sacrifice, as long as the hardship is borne by the other. The buffalo don’t have any problems of their own. They are one of the most well-adapted species on the planet. Yet they are always the subject of the harshest management decisions. Experiments are conducted as if the buffalo need help, need science and technology. What they really need is to be allowed to be buffalo. They need the scientists, the bureaucrats, and the managers to leave them alone. They are the wild and we are their advocates, speaking the words that we see in their eyes and feel in our hearts; LET US BE!
* Potential Changes to the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP)
The efforts of buffalo advocates from throughout Montana, across the country, and around the world are beginning to bear fruit. Buffalo Field Campaign has recently learned that the five agencies that “manage” Yellowstone’s wild buffalo have come to agreement on several “adaptive” changes to the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). The agencies met several times during the summer as result of Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s request that the agencies agree on some changes to the Plan that allow for more tolerance of buffalo. Whether these changes are all the Governor has in mind is unknown. Certainly, there is still a long way to go for the Governor to fulfill his campaign promises of two years ago.
Hopefully, this is merely the first step toward substantive change that truly benefits buffalo for future generations. The adaptive changes to the IBMP are as follows:
1. Strategic Hazing: This applies to all buffalo out of the Park but within Zone 2 of the IBMP from October 15 through May 15. At the discretion of the State Veterinarian, buffalo will be hazed from “higher risk” areas to “lower risk” areas outside the Park. Risk is defined in terms of brucellosis transmission and property damage. The logic here is that buffalo may be hazed to public lands outside the Park from private property instead of hazing them all the way back into the Park.
2. Tolerance for Bulls: Single or small groups of bull buffalo may be tolerated, at the discretion of the State Veterinarian, within Zone 2 from October 15 through May 15, if the risk of brucellosis transmission and property damage is deemed low. The logic here is that bulls present a lower risk of brucellosis transmission than female buffalo and therefore should be allowed greater tolerance. The difference between this and strategic hazing as described above is that the determination of risk will be based more on the individual buffalo than on the particular space they occupy.
3. 3000 Population: All agencies admit that 3000 is NOT a target population or population goal for the Yellowstone buffalo herd. The agencies agree that 3000 is to be viewed only as a trigger point for additional management options. This change is more symbolic than practical in terms of agency actions. The agencies will still use the 3000 number to justify the slaughter of buffalo without brucellosis testing. However, the agencies, particularly the Montana Department of Livestock, will no longer publicly state that the herd is above population objectives when it numbers more than 3000.
As you can tell, these “adaptive changes” are no panacea for the buffalo, who will continue to be hazed, captured, and slaughtered based on the perceived risk of brucellosis transmission. The Montana State Veterinarian still has the ultimate authority to determine if buffalo will live or die in Montana. The truth is that there are NO high risk areas or high risk buffalo. There has never been a documented transmission of brucellosis from wild buffalo to domestic cattle. The agencies are still focused on managing the buffalo rather than managing the cattle, a more easily controlled element.
However, these are steps in the right direction and the agencies promise more to come. There is currently an IBMP meeting scheduled for January 31st from 4 to 8 PM in Bozeman where the agencies will announce these changes and accept public comment. Stay tuned for more details, including the meeting location, which has yet to be announced. Buffalo Field Campaign will be there to participate and document and we encourage anyone in the area to attend and advocate for the buffalo.
* Mourning Buffalo: a BFC Patrol Journal
Friday Will and I hiked down to Koelzer’s gate. Two nights before, away from our watchful eyes at dusk, a bull buffalo was shot on the property. The bull had had a younger bull in his company. We were now searching for this younger, surviving, bull. We saw the blood stains of his fallen companion and feared that he would return to the kill site to seek his friend. We saw no sign of him, so we trekked through the snow to find him or his sign. The day was warm and the snow too sticky to ski. We trudged along Duck Creek and into the Park, seeing no buffalo. As we approached a stand of willows Will spotted tracks and a dropping and we knew a buffalo had recently been there. We started heading north for Sandy Butte when suddenly a frisky bull buffalo came crashing through the trees, heading in our direction.
We were startled and the buffalo seemed less than thrilled with our presence. His friend and mentor had just been killed by members of our species. The bull sparred with the trees and danced around and we knew we should get out of his way. I have never held any fear for the buffalo, but this one was pained and clearly did not appreciate our presence. We moved out of his way, knowing he was stressed at the loss of his fellow bison.
The wind was howling, adding energy to the bull’s dance. We stood aside and watched from a respectful distance. Will climbed a nearby tree and watched the bull dancing, sparring, running, and making his way west, toward the kill-site. We followed at a distance, respecting his confusion and observing his anger and grief. When he got to a thicket of firs, he stopped to graze and we watched him. When he moved we moved too, fearing he was heading to Koelzer’s and not knowing what other buffalo killers might await him there, as we knew there were other gunners in town.
We watched him walk through the gate and head straight for the bloody snow that was all that was left of his companion. He sniffed, then licked, the blood. Just as he did this, the weather changed dramatically. The wind picked up a notch and the temperature dropped. The bull continued to sniff and lick the buffalo blood-stained snow. Snow started falling, pelting us in the wild wind. Will continued to shoot video though his hands and eyes were freezing. The bull kept at his ritual. He would stop and lift up his head and open his mouth as if in wonder and sudden understanding. He licked more blood, eating the red snow, and turned in slow circles. Where was his friend? This was the spot where he had last seen him alive. Heard the fire sticks crack… he bolted only to find himself alone.
The bull stood in the storm, tail lifted, a look in his eyes belonging only to the persecuted buffalo… He was in his mourning ritual. He swayed in that gory spot for what seemed years. I sang a song to let the buffalo know that they are loved and that we wish them well and will continue to fight like hell for them to be wild and free. I sang a song for the fallen buffalo to help him on his way.
And the young bull mourned. He circled, sniffed, licked, ate the snow, and lifted his head high and opened his mouth. Will videotaped in awe as I sang too softly for human ears. The and bull walked on, down the bloody trail marking where his friend’s body was dragged by the gunners. On toward the trap that has tortured too many of his sacred relatives. The storm intensified. Will and I donned another layer of clothes and moved up the hill along the fence-line, watching the buffalo search for his friend. To the North of the trap he paused, stopped by a locked metal gate. Suddenly he bolted as if under pursuit; but nothing visible chased him. Did he find his friend’s heart and the stomach full of all the good grass they had grazed together? The storm pressed on, pinging us with ice and wind so strong we had to turn away from our vigil four times. The buffalo broke to a slow walk and back toward the kill site to pay one last respect before carrying his great young bulk into a dense thicket of trees in the relative shelter of Yellowstone.
The next day I went back with Brock. We didn’t find the buffalo but we did find his lonely trail and we only can hope the bull’s loneliness brought him back to the company of his own.
We pour our hearts out and send love and strength to him and all his kind with the passion of great dreamers who will see buffalo roaming wild and free.
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Buffalo Field Campaign
PO Box 957
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
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