There is no denying the cultural significance of bison especially to native tribes for whom the great species has always been a significant, sacred animal long before May 2016 when it was declared our “national mammal.” The official mammal of Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas, it features in the name of cities and towns across 18 states and quite ironically is the ambassador species featured on the US National Park’s own logo. In Montana, however, bison — or buffalo, as we more often like to call them — are a thorn in the side of a state that acts like it wishes the species didn’t exist.
Bison lie at the centre of a dark truth hiding in Yellowstone, the nation and the world’s first national park. At the behest of the state of Montana, the sixth-largest cattle producing state in the country, free-roaming Yellowstone bison are systematically slaughtered to protect ranchers. The ranchers’ stated bison problem, despite no evidence of even one case of transmission, is the disease brucellosis, which causes cattle to abort their fetuses. But in a state where all but a few thousand acres of 7.8 million acres of public land are leased for grazing, many believe that the real issue is not brucellosis, but grass. In the American West, few issues ignite as much rancor as land use and at the heart of the discord in Montana lies the buffalo.
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One dawn on a freezing morning in March 2016, I waited with a small group of local journalists, conservationists and filmmakers gathered in Gardiner, Montana. Across from us, the famed Roosevelt Arch loomed large, marking the northern entrance to Yellowstone park. We had come to bear witness to one of the most controversial acts of “wildlife management” within the US National Park system. The irony of managing wildlife within a national park can stretch the boundaries of even the broadest imagination. Yet when one considers the Indigenous people dispossessed of their land to create those parks, nothing is a surprise and all is questionable.
Due to public pressure and a lawsuit, officials had offered a highly coordinated viewing at their Stephens Creek facility, where they process and ship to slaughter some of the American public’s last wild buffalo. Loaded on a bus, we were hauled into the facility inside the park boundary line and kept at a carefully controlled distance, initially unauthorized to even get out of the bus. It was not the first time I’d laid eyes on this place, but it was the first time I was seeing it a close quarters. Fencing, wire and wood boards hid from view anything happening within the pens and chutes that shuffle buffalo to their untimely deaths. As such, much of the information and footage we gathered was censored. The place was eery and made me uncomfortable, but what did I expect from a death camp for buffalo?
Pat Povah runs a 1,600-acre ranch on the border of the park about five miles south of West Yellowstone. I caught some time with him as he blew through town on a quick motorcycle road trip before blazing a trail back to his winter home in California. Povah, who used to run the concessions in Yellowstone Park before he lost the contract, reminisced and recounted stories of the wild west days of his youth. When we got around to talking buffalo, he denied that they were a migratory species and stated that the animals only left the park because they were starving. According to Povah, well-managed wild buffalo have no reason to migrate. Instead, every spring, starving (not migratory) buffalo cost him in broken fences, disturbed pastures and brucellosis testing. In his opinion, the problem is too many buffalo and a park that fails in its job of “managing” a wild herd. Buffalo roaming outside the park wasn’t a viable option in Povah’s mind because “you can’t just let the population expand into a world that’s been developed by human’s.”
The solution arrived at to appease ranchers like Povah was to force Yellowstone to better manage buffalo before they left the park. In an area of almost 2 million acres, Yellowstone officials now say that the park’s carrying capacity is around 3,500 animals. Hence the slaughter of almost 10,000 of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo in the last decade to reach that number. To ease the problem of migrating buffalo, employees of Montana Fish & Game, Department of Livestock, Yellowstone National Park and sheriffs forcefully haze them back to the park. Others believe that the way to deal with the issue effectively is to manage buffalo numbers through carefully monitored hunting within the park and to increase their room to roam. Under treaty rights, only tribes can legally hunt Yellowstone buffalo that wander outside the park. No hunting is currently permitted by anyone in the park.
The story of the buffalo post-colonizer era is probably one of the most savage acts of wildlife crime ever perpetrated by man on the animal kingdom. It is estimated that upwards of 60 million buffalo were slaughtered for their hides, and in an act of genocide, to starve the Indigenous peoples of their most important source of food. Fast forward a hundred years and not much has changed. Around 500,000 buffalo are in existence in the United States, but most of these are “beefalo” — buffalo interbred with cows and treated as such on commercial ranches across the country. For America’s last genetically pure buffalo, a situation exists that see a wild species increasingly treated like a domesticated species. Yellowstone buffalo are some of these last remaining wild buffalo, and slowly, it seems they, too, are being phased out.
On that winter morning at the Stephens Creek facility, I stood in the dirt of the world’s first national park and watched as buffalo were forcibly prodded by park employees into a squeeze chute. Every animal roared in pain and fear as they were immobilized by the brutish machine, called the “Silencer.” Many bled from injuries across their bodies and had horns ripped off as they struggled to escape. At the helm of the controls were the very people meant to protect them.
I watched in quiet disbelief as two park biologists, Chris Geremia and Doug Blanton took blood samples from each animal to test for brucellosis before sending them to slaughter. From slaughter facilities, the meat gets distributed to Native tribes. I wondered if this was how they envisaged their vocation when they decided to become biologists for the national park system. To me this would seem like the worst kind of cruel joke. In Yellowstone, biology — the study of life — twisted its knife in the back of America’s national mammal. The decimation of a wild species, disguised as conservation, unfolded before me in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. I felt betrayed by the national park system and I was pretty damn sure that if every caring American could see this, they would feel it too.
At my shoulder stood Mike Mease and Stephany Seay, co-founder and media coordinator respectively of the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC). The BFC is a non-profit group based in West Yellowstone that has worked for almost two decades to stop the slaughter. Along Hebgen Lake in the big sky country of Montana lies a humble group of cabins and yurts that serve as its headquarters. From there, hundreds of volunteers from around the country and globe have put in thousands of hours campaigning for the rights and lives of the Yellowstone buffalo.
The BFC wages a grassroots campaign that ensures that everything carried out in the name of buffalo by the state, national park system and ranchers is documented and recorded. Nothing happens to Yellowstone’s buffalo without a BFC lens on it. Their media library includes thousands of hours of footage from hazes, shootings and meetings concerning the species. Their daily morning, noon and night patrols count buffalo roaming inside and outside park boundaries, in government traps and big wheelers on way to slaughter houses. I doubt if even the government’s numbers are as accurate. In early 2016, Seay and journalist Christopher Ketcham, with the help of lawyers from the Animal Legal Defense fund, citing their First Amendment rights, sued the national park to view the roundup for slaughter of the buffalo. This was how I ended up as a witness that morning at Stephen’s Creek. In March 2016, largely due to two decades of BFC campaigns, the state granted for the first time, year-round access for buffalo to an area outside of the park where they go to calve.
I recall a night in the middle of the winter along Route 191 watching BFC volunteers as they set up signs and traffic lights warning passing motorists of buffalo on the road. The highway borders the park and crosses the buffalo’s migratory path. Outside the national park that inspired a world of national parks, there exists no infrastructure whatsoever to aid in the safe passage of migrating herds. It could only be described as an epic failure at state and federal level, as 18-wheelers barrel full speed and head first into the national mammal.
On April 6, 2016, I attended a public meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) in West Yellowstone, Montana. The IBMP, a group of federal, state agencies and tribal councils was established in 2000 to deal with the politics of the various interests at stake in the case of Yellowstone’s buffalo. I witnessed Rick Wallen, head bison biologist for Yellowstone, deny that fatalities or injuries occurred at Stephens Creek, despite the fact there is plenty of visual documentation to disprove this. One local woman remarked that she found the IBMP too large to achieve anything. She questioned how a group could claim to represent the interests of everyone when not one member of the agency represented the public who live on the park boundaries.
In September 2016, wildlife conservation groups sued the federal government for failure to protect the Yellowstone bison under the terms of the Endangered Species Act. The annual cull, they say, threatens the genetic diversity of the animal and puts them at risk of extinction. Yellowstone Park has said the cull will begin earlier this winter because not enough bison were culled last season to meet targets of reducing the bison population.
Driving through Yellowstone, I have observed people ecstatic at the sight of buffalo. Some so eager can be seen within inches of the great beast, selfie sticks aloft, oblivious to the wild nature of an animal that has been around since the demise of dinosaurs. If people knew the brutality that occurred behind the scenes, would they tolerate the actions of those they have entrusted with their care? Would they agree that the national park remains true to its mission statement to “preserve unimpaired” the buffalo? In the real world, most would agree that actions speak louder than words. If actions are anything to go by, we have much soul-searching and work to do before the words “national mammal” are no longer merely words.