In the Presence of Buffalo: Working to Stop the Yellowstone Slaughterby Daniel Brister
Very few of the 2.5 million people who visit Yellowstone National Park and who are awed by America's only continuously wild and genetically pure bison herd, are aware that over the past decade, state and federal agencies have engaged in the wanton slaughter of 3,500 of these magnificent animals, solely because they wandered out of delineated confines of the… See more details below
Very few of the 2.5 million people who visit Yellowstone National Park and who are awed by America's only continuously wild and genetically pure bison herd, are aware that over the past decade, state and federal agencies have engaged in the wanton slaughter of 3,500 of these magnificent animals, solely because they wandered out of delineated confines of the National Park.
Author Daniel Brister has dedicated his life to protecting the buffalo through field work and at every level of the policy arena. In the Presence of Buffalo was inspired by his desire to see the buffalo honored and respected and the slaughter stopped. This inspiring narrative weaves personal reflections and stories of the present-day buffalo slaughter with information gathered through historical, cultural, and scientific research. Five chapters and an appendix explore the relationship between human beings and bison, or buffalo, as they are popularly called in this country.
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One of the more challenging periods of our early years came in February and March 1999, when more than eighty buffalo, following Duck Creek out of the park, stood poised on the boundary, sniffing hay that had been put out to lure them into a capture facility set up on private land adjacent to Yellowstone. Knowing the animals would be slaughtered if they followed their instincts to the hay, we determined to make a human shield between the hungry bison and the food they needed so badly. Dissuading 2,000-pound bull from fresh hay is no easy task. Attempting to holdback twenty hungry bulls, fifty cows, and ten calves is futile.
For more than a month we maintained around-the-clock patrol sat Duck Creek, weighing the evil of starvation against the certain death of the cage. A debate arose among the activists, some feeling that our incessant presence on the boundary was too intrusive and would erode the animals’ wildness, while others argued that the alternative—capture and slaughter—was far worse. This ideological divide between volunteers rears its head each winter and, depending on the situation, is usually resolved during nightly meetings, when the next day’s strategy is planned. In this case, consensus was reached without much fuss. The baited bison trap was a strong deterrent to letting the buffalo pass.
The midnight-to-sunrise shift at Duck Creek is savored by volunteers who enjoy hunkering through the night before the flicker of a small fire, taking warming ski trips to check on bedded bison, and watching as droplets of dawn wash darkness away. Sunrise is reason enough for me to brave the cold nights, although beauty on the western boundary is always tainted with the ever-present fear of capture and slaughter.
Early on the morning of March 14, five very determined bulls pushed by us. Within minutes, the DOL had them in their trap, the heavy steel doors locked behind them. A few days later, three bulls took a path that we had shoveled through the snow for them, a detour around the trap. Over the next few days, the pressure began to ease as more and more of the herd followed the new route.
Whenever buffalo traveled this path, a crew of volunteers followed at a respectful distance to ensure that the animals weren’t hit as they crossed the highway or chased by DOL agents back to the trap. On a March afternoon in 1999, I followed four very large bull bison down this well-trodden trail accompanied by my good friend Pete. A farmer from Driggs, Idaho, Pete has been volunteering with the campaign since its inception in 1997. Because buffalo are out of the park in the winter months when Idaho crops won’t grow, Pete’s farm life allows him to devote his winters to the buffalo.
As we neared US Highway 191, a north-south corridor paralleling the park’s western boundary, we coordinated the road crossing. With a two-way FM radio, I let our friends on the highway know that we were coming. By the time the bulls reached the roadside, Jessie and Mike were in place, Jessie fifty yards to the south and Mike fifty yards to the north. Both held large “Bison Crossing” signs to advise passing motorists. Chipmunk warned approaching semis over the CB from the front seat of the campaign truck. A woman driving a Subaru with Alberta plates wisely stopped her car, then stared as the four bulls, each weighing nearly a ton, crossed less than three feet from her front bumper.
Once they were across the highway, the bulls chose the Cougar Creek snowmobile trail to carry them across seven miles of national forest to the far side of Horse Butte. A peninsula teeming with wildlife—including threatened and endangered species like grizzly bears, wolves, bald eagles, and trumpeter swans—Horse Butte is the favored winter habitat of the Yellowstone bison. Due to the butte’s wide expanses of sun-drenched, south-facing slopes, the snow melts fast, providing easy access to last summer’s grass in the winter and the first green shoots in the spring. Pete and I followed the bulls toward Horse Butte, relieved that the bottleneck by the trap had finally been broken. We made up funny songs about buffalo and sang others that our friends had written. On our way to the butte, we talked about a day when the buffalo would be treated like deer and elk, allowed to move freely between Yellowstone and the surrounding lands. “You hear that?” Pete shouted to the bulls. “You’re going to be free, just like you used to be!” Although we didn’t know it at the time, Pete and I would spend the coming night in jail.
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