Sacred Cows

by Jim Little
Fall 2005

As we continue to investigate the best ways to support the environment in today’s political climate, our second essay offers a glimpse into one of the most feared, yet rewarding, actions we can take – volunteering. Patagonia offers its employees up to two months paid leave to volunteer for an environmental group of their choice. Jim Little chose the Buffalo Field Campaign.

Three buffalo down as of January 2005. Two were victims of Montana’s Department of Livestock, another was shot by the National Park Service (that’s your National Park Service). These weren’t domestic buffalo raised behind fences to put meat patties between buns. They were the wild and wooly animals commemorated on nickels, icons of the American West, members of the last genetically pure, free-roaming bison herd on earth, which lives in and around Yellowstone National Park. Their crime? Crossing park boundaries.

I’m standing on Sandy Butte just outside of West Yellowstone with a small group from the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC). Ron Hunter and I have taken leave of our desks at Patagonia on a paid internship to do what we can on behalf of the buffalo. It’s mid-January and, though unseasonably warm for West Yellowstone, 20 degrees fanned by a chill wind still feels cold.

We count 27 brown dots about three miles away in a meadow thick with snow. They’re on the other side of Cougar Creek, still well inside the park. For the moment there’s enough forage to sustain them. It’s a good thing, because when food supplies grow short they may leave the park to look for more.

That’s when Department of Livestock agents will chase the buffalo on snowmobiles, ATVs and even helicopters. Sometimes they haze them back into the park; other times they bait, capture, and kill them. Only two weeks into the year, they’ve already killed three. In the winter of 1996/’97, they and other state and federal agents (including the National Park Service) slaughtered a total of 1,084; in 2003/’04, 281. The severity of the sentence is apparently up to them.

Montana’s ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands around the park have convinced elected officials that wild buffalo are a menace that must be controlled. It’s because some buffalo carry a bacterial disease called brucellosis, which can cause females to miscarry. The elk that abound in this part of the world also have brucellosis, but no one seems too worried about them.

Several million of your federal tax dollars are spent each year to make sure wild buffalo and cattle don’t mix, despite there never being a documented case of buffalo transmitting brucellosis to cows. Not that there’s actually a cow within 40 miles of where we stand on Sandy Butte. They’re only brought in to graze the public lands outside West Yellowstone between mid-June and mid-October, when most buffalo are foraging happily inside the park. The hazing and slaughter, however, continue year-round.

As we scope the buffalo from our perch on Sandy Butte, other volunteers patrol elsewhere near park boundaries on skis, snowshoes and in battered Subarus. Every day of the year, from sunrise to sunset, folks like Bear and Bobcat, Stephany and Asa, head out to Fir Ridge, Horse Butte, Duck Creek and the Madison River to keep tabs on the buffalo and the government agents who do them harm.

Volunteers come from all over the country to the BFC camp near Hebgen Lake. Ron and I get our own tepee, but most live communally in a crowded log cabin warmed by wood stoves. Everyone gets three squares, firewood, shelter and a lot of warm clothing for helping out with patrols and chores.

Yellowstone’s wild herd hovers around 4,200 these days. Its numbers are up from the 23 that survived near-extinction in the 19th century by taking refuge in the park’s remote backcountry, but way, way down from the estimated 30 to 60 million that roamed North America before the arrival of Europeans. Some think that even 4,200 wild buffalo in Yellowstone are too many, but that’s just their opinion.

From where we stand on this windswept butte overlooking Cougar Creek, there’s not nearly enough wild buffalo, just too many sacred cows.

Just before my time with the BFC ended, Montana’s new governor, Brian Schweitzer, met with members of the group to hear their vision for the buffalo. The governor agreed with the BFC that current buffalo management techniques are not working, that buffalo need more range, and he seemed open to the idea that brucellosis is the real problem, not the buffalo. But the killing continues. As of June, 98 buffalo have been systematically slaughtered this year in Montana.

About the Author

Jim Little is a managing editor with Patagonia’s Creative Services department. When not communing with buffalo and their protectors, he chops wood and carries water for his wife, Tina, and daughter, Callie.