The Cleanest Line

Where Wild Buffalo Battle to Roam

Where Wild Buffalo Battle to Roam

Apr 21, 2009 April 21, 2009

Buffalo1 A recent cluster of automobile accidents along Montana's Hwy 191 has rekindled concerns about state and federal management policies for our country's wild buffalo. In just one weekend in early April, 15 bison were struck and killed by vehicles traveling along a short 10-mile stretch of Montana's Hwy 191. Concerned citizens, including members of the Buffalo Field Campaign, are calling upon Montana's decision makers to use this as a reminder of the very real stakes involved in developing a thoughtful management plan built around sound policies to ensure buffalo and human safety.

Today's post comes to us from Meghan Sural, Manager of Patagonia's Reno Outlet Store. An active contributor to a variety of environmental causes, Meghan has written before about her time spent performing restoration work on some of our wild lands. Today, Meghan talks to us about the other critical element of America's wild heritage, America's wild life.

In today’s nonstop news cycle, we’ve learned tofilter out the blitz of problems plaguing us. I had read about the BuffaloField Campaign (BFC) in literature where I work, in a Patagonia retail outlet.
The BFC is the only group working in the field, everyday, to stop the slaughter and harassment of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo and to protect the natural habitat of wild free-roaming buffalo. I looked at the brochures, wished there was more to be done, and turned my attention back to my daily grind.

[Buffalo make their way along their ancient migratory route – across which has been placed Montana's Hwy 191. Photo: Rob Flesher)

The Buffalo Field Campaign’s mission is to stop the slaughter of Yellowstone’swild buffalo herd, protect the natural habitat of wild free-roaming buffalo andnative wildlife, and to work with people of all nations to honor the sacrednessof the wild buffalo. Through their literature and personal accounts from fellowemployees who had volunteered for BFC, I learned that Buffalo in the GreaterYellowstone Ecosystem are not protected on their year-round habitat.Yellowstone National Park does not provide sufficient winter range for theresident herds of wildlife. Due to the deep snow, animals are forced to leavethe park in order to find adequate forage for winter survival.

Buffalo2 When the buffalofollow their natural migratory paths – which invariably lead them outside thepark – they enter a conflict zone with the Montana Department of Livestock(DOL). Local area cattle ranchers fear the transmission of brucellosis, abacterial disease that affects livestock and wildlife, sometimes causing cattleto abort their first calf post-infection. While abortions have been documentedin wild buffalo, such incidents are rare, and the impact of the disease onYellowstone buffalo and elk is insignificant. Brucellosis, which originated inEuropean livestock, was first detected in Yellowstone's buffalo in 1917 aftersome buffalo were fed milk from infected cows.

There has never been a documented case of a wild,free-roaming buffalo infecting domestic cattle with brucellosis.

Despite this, all buffalo that test positive for brucellosis are sentto slaughter. This includes bulls, even though transmission is thought to occurprimarily (or only) when an infected female gives birth or aborts. During thewinter of 1996-97, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) slaughtered almost1,100 Yellowstone buffalo when they crossed the arbitrary park boundary and entered lands that fall within the jurisdiction of the MDOL. These killings, combined with deaths from theunusually severe winter, resulted in a loss of nearly two-thirds of the herd.In spring of 2002, when the Yellowstone buffalo population exceeded anarbitrary population “cap” of 3,000, MDOL sent more than 100 buffalo toslaughter without even testing them first. In 2003, the National ParkService—the agency responsible for protecting the buffalo and other Parkwildlife—sent more than 200 buffalo to slaughter before any disease testing wasconducted on these individuals.

In the fall of 2006 I was fortunate enough to attend thePatagonia Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference. It was here that I metStephany, media coordinator for the BFC, and a buffalo lover and activist. Herpassion for the Yellowstone bison stoked that slow-burning fire I know isinside me but sometimes forget to tend to. We stayed in touch. The post-holidaymonths brought reprieve, and I headed to Hebgen Lake in April to experiencewhat the dedicated volunteers for the BFC do every day. To say that their workis impressive is an understatement. Never have I seen such dedication, passionand pure love for a cause. Everyone who works for BFC does so on a Platform volunteerbasis. No one receives pay for their work, yet they spend all day, from sunriseuntil sunset, watching and documenting actions taken against the buffalo. Thisincludes running patrols from cars, skis and snowshoes to protect buffalooutside the park. Tactics range from video documentation of the DOL harassingbuffalo (chasing bison by helicopter, running them back into the park orcorralling them into a trap to send to slaughter) to nonviolent civil disobedience.I drove ten hours to Montana, not quite knowing what to expect.

The cabin was bustling with busy people when I arrived,moving in and out, talking excitedly about the latest movement of bison out ofthe park. It was just beginning.

The spring plays out its beautiful role in the cycle, andwildlife everywhere are waking up, moving on, giving new life. The volunteercoordinators gave me the overview, and soon I was scheduled for an AM patrol.My 5am wake-up call came the next day, breakfast was made and the patrols wereout. We headed to Duck Creek Pond, a small body of water teeming with life:Sand Hill cranes, trumpeter swans, Canada geese and goldeneyes. Where were thebuffalo?

We headed down Hwy 191, cars zipping past, and there theywere. I connected with my first group of bison – bulging buffalo bellies readyto give birth and little yearlings from the past spring prancing around theirmamas leading them to Horse Butte. We raced up and down the highway putting upthe bright BUFFALO AHEAD signs warning cars and 18-wheelers to slow down forrisk of hitting the buffalo. The buffalo follow the same migratory route thatthey’ve used for thousands of years and are ill equipped to deal with what—forthem—is a very recent development: a high-speed highway that cuts directlyacross their path. As we raced aroundtrying to warn the trucks and cars barreling past. I understood the rush thatBFC volunteers feel. I finally felt that burn they know moving them to be herefor the buffalo.

In the three days of patrols, watching over thesebeautiful bison as they try and live in peace, I witnessed an incrediblededication from the people at BFC. They work for the buffalo from sunup 'tillsundown, cook and clean to support one another and always know why they arehere – buffalo. I thank them for the work they do and the chance to come andwork with them. I encourage anyone who wishes they could do more, or who issimply curious about the Yellowstone Buffalo to come and stay in the cabin onHebgen Lake. You will be fed, chores and work will be given, and you willconnect with something far greater than yourself.

To volunteer for the BFC visit

[Middle: A buffalo grazes along a Montana highway. Middle: A raised platform helps protesters place themselves between the buffalo and those who might seek to 'cull the herd.' Photos: Rob Flesher]

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