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 park's boundaries.
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.
-- Sarah Ruby and Jake Ginsky contributed to this report.
Previous MoJo Coverage
The activists of the Buffalo Field Campaign are putting themselves on the line to save the nation's last herd of wild bison. (Mother Jones magazine, 11/99)
How Montana played two federal agencies and asserted deadly control over the Yellowstone bison (The MoJo Wire, 6/98)
Other Bison Resources