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It's early April and I'm bedded down, embedded if you will, along the floodplain of the Madison River in Montana. Crouching next to me in the willows and late spring snow, Justine Sanchez has the volume on her two-way radio turned down low so as not to reveal our whereabouts to the Gallatin County deputy sheriff parked on the shoulder above us.
A distant hootin' and hollerin' of men on horseback, the crisp blast of blank rifle rounds, or "crackers," and the approaching buzz of snowmobiles signal a looming clash. This area comprising and surrounding Yellowstone National Park has been a battleground since white men showed up (how many environmental stories start this way?) and the American buffalo, icon of the West, stands at the center of the conflict.
With her worn wool sweater, hand-knit hat and long dreadlocks, Sanchez is a warrior-activist with the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), "the only group working in the field, every day, to stop the slaughter and harassment of Yellowstone's wild buffalo." Most of the year, she lives in the Colorado mountain town of Ward, where she leads yoga classes, works at a spa and raises her 8-year-old son, Japhy, with her husband, Roman, a bilingual elementary education teacher. But each winter since 2000, the Sanchez family has joined hundreds of volunteers protecting the buffalo on the western boundary of Yellowstone.
Some of the bison carry a disease called brucellosis, which they contracted from cattle almost 90 years ago. Brucellosis causes reduced fertility, lesions in females' reproductive tracts and abortion of the first pregnancy after exposure. Now, Montana and its cattle are certified as brucellosis-free and ranchers fear the buffalo will infect their livestock. Although such a transmission has never occurred, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) persecutes buffalo that leave Yellowstone: Agents round up and force, or haze, roaming herds back to the national park, capturing and testing animals for brucellosis and killing those that are infected. This is the battle that BFC volunteers enlist to fight.
Hazing the Herd
The week before my arrival here, nearly 300 buffalo wandered seven miles outside the national park along the Madison River to Horse Butte, where pregnant females migrate every spring to give birth. Even though no cattle graze the area this time of year and only a few do so in the summer--after risk of infection has virtually disappeared--the DOL captured 24 bison and killed eight that tested positive for brucellosis. State agents hazed the remaining herd back inside Yellowstone, like a postmodern cattle drive with snowmobiles and "crackers." Bison have already returned to Horse Butte.
A crackle and a voice come over the airwaves of Sanchez's radio. I barely make out the words although the message is immediately clear. She springs into action and I follow, scampering up the slope from the river to the road, just in time to see about two dozen bison jog in an unnaturally tight formation from the other side of U.S. Highway 191, then hop the guardrail and cross toward us.
A herd this size took refuge in the heart of Yellowstone 120 years ago, following a campaign by American pioneers to vanquish the buffalo and Native American economies centered around the species. That herd spawned the 4,200 or so wild bison that exist in the region today.
"We love you," Sanchez calls out to the beasts.
On the heels of the animals are six "bubbles," as the BFC volunteers identify snowmobiles over their radios. The machines skid across the highway asphalt and then onto the dirt of the shoulder as the buffalo exhaustedly trot down to the Madison and across the imaginary line that means they're back inside the national park.
The county sheriff's deputy, Rob Burns, drives toward us to reprimand Sanchez for getting so close to the animals. Other BFC volunteers--more than a dozen of them--emerge from other surveillance posts, seemingly materializing from the woods and earth. They converge not 50 feet from the agents, ready to conduct their own haze of sorts, harassing the government employees who are harassing the buffalo they're here to defend.
"We don't really get this close to these guys in this capacity," Sanchez admits to me after the deputy walks off. For a moment, I wonder if she's talking about the massive buffalo or the government agents, but it's obvious which ones she thinks are more dangerous.
"Y'all should get a real job," shouts Stephany Seay, who along with Sanchez is one of two media coordinators for the campaign. She's wearing a silver buffalo pendant around her neck, a green military jacket and a brown wool skullcap. Her eyes are a fierce blue. Like several other volunteers, she has a camcorder tightly trained on the government officials as she wages psychological warfare on them.
"Where's all your cows, livestock inspectors?" demands Seay, who then goes into a mocking redneck drawl. "'Let's go chase the buffalo, guh.'" Her comrades snicker and keep the cameras rolling.
The officials, who actually represent a variety of government agencies including the DOL; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the U.S. Forest Service; and the National Park Service, don't respond. They gather with the county deputy and look under the hoods of a few of the snowmobiles, the motors apparently overworked from skidding through the dirt.
Together, these agencies implement the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a cooperative scheme finalized in 2000. The plan upholds the DOL's right to control and kill wandering buffalo in the name of disease control for cattle, yet also outlines steps for increasing tolerance for bison roaming along rivers outside the park.
Steve Torbit, a Boulder-based senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, calls the plan a "small but significant step" because, without the agreement, any bison that left the park would be killed on sight.
"On the other hand," says Torbit, "Montana still continues to harass bison on the western side of the park where there are no cattle."
Five years into the plan, tolerance for the buffalo hasn't increased much. Animals that leave the park are still hazed, captured and slaughtered. Buffalo calves are sometimes vaccinated for brucellosis and quarantined for up to four years, although the vaccine isn't entirely successful and the effects of enclosed isolation on the animals' natural behavior are unclear. The BFC and other critics argue that the engine driving the management plan isn't working properly either.
Deputy Burns now approaches the BFC volunteers, mostly twenty-something-year-old kids with unruly beards, bandannas tied around their heads and faces, and ragtag clothing. My nose is stuffed, but one of my newspaper colleagues tells me they have "enough hippie B.O. to choke a horse." Here's a band of eco-Zapatistas and, as the cop approaches, the mountain air stings even through my clogged nasal passages like a riot might erupt.
Buffalo on the Badge
"Sir, I'm going to need to talk to you about a federal investigation about assaulting an officer," Deputy Burns says to Roman Sanchez, Justine's husband. A black fleece ski mask covers most of Roman's head; wraparound sunglasses hide his eyes.
Burns corrals the defiant Roman a few yards away to question him. The other BFC volunteers keep the camcorders locked in, pushing closer to the officials. Their jeers escalate toward a hostile antagonism, including shouts of "liars" and "racists." Apparently, one of the agents called Roman a "nigger" yesterday; today, they're claiming that Roman threw a snowball at one of the federal agents.
"Is this why you joined the Park Service?" Seay snarls at a law enforcement official, sticking her camera in his face. "To harass the last wild buffalo and support racist behavior? Buffalo on the badge and everything."
He says nothing.
Mike Mease, one of the BFC's cofounders, later details where this aggression is coming from. "In the last three weeks, we've had some of the worst violence aimed at us that I've ever seen."
Last week, a pickup truck fired off paintballs at volunteers stationed along the road. Before that, someone loosened the lugnuts on a BFC car and a tire fell off the vehicle when a volunteer started driving. Combined with the onslaught of this year's hazing and killing, passions and tempers are running high.
Justine Sanchez stands behind the others, a soothing voice amid the rage. "Montana should be celebrating that the last wild buffalo have chosen to live here," she keeps repeating.
Eventually, Deputy Burns finishes his talk with Roman. Both sides simmer and disperse. The government agents hop on their snowmobiles and disappear back across the road. The BFC volunteers return to their posts. The buffalo are already out of sight but will inevitably migrate along the Madison to Horse Butte again.
Tom, an older volunteer with Native American ancestry and a long, white beard, leans over to me and speaks with a grin. "Welcome to our world."
The world of the Buffalo Field Campaign physically exists in a setting that most of us only know through postcards and Robert Redford movies. When not spread out in the field along the Madison River and its tributaries, the group shacks up along the shore of Hebgen Lake, ten miles from the national park tourist trap of West Yellowstone, Montana, a town of 1,100 people that caters to summer RVs and winter snowmobiles.
A few days before my arrival, Seay emails directions to the BFC compound: "We are out on [Highway] 287 right by the Square Deal Bar--you'll see the large cabin and tipis, and you'll know that's us."
The cabin and a few other outbuildings are actually remnants of a previous high-country commune. Not much has changed since the BFC set up shop eight years ago. The log cabin houses anywhere from twenty to 60 volunteers, depending on the week. The rooms and lofts are mostly packed with tight bunks. A side room nicknamed Siberia--in a region where winter temps drop to 60 below zero--is lined with dry goods and activist paraphernalia like banners and papier mÃ¢chÃ© effigies of Park Service employees. One outbuilding functions as the media center, filled with recording equipment and computers; another serves as Central Command for the wild-haired field crew.
A handful of paid staffers, including Sanchez, Seay and Mease, live in yurts and tipis scattered around the cabins. Mease has a large bison painted on his tipi. Some Native Americans decorated their tipis with animals or other images to invoke their powers, and there was no symbol more potent than the bison.
Mease is the godfatherly bull of this herd of activists. He originally came with a few others to the Yellowstone region in 1990 to videotape the slaughter of the buffalo. The dedicated corps grew each year and drew the attention of allies, including members of the American Indian Movement and other Native American activists.
The catalyzing episode occurred during the severe winter of 1996-1997 when the Department of Livestock killed 1,083 buffalo. Mease videotaped the massacre, and the activists officially formed the Buffalo Field Campaign in the aftermath. By the following winter, they were set up on Hebgen Lake, a worldwide call for volunteers was out, and the BFC was shining a macabre spotlight on the grisly work of the State of Montana.
Now, the group's annual field season runs from November until May or June, coinciding with the buffalo's migration from their territory inside the national park to the river bottoms beyond where they give birth to their calves in the spring. Volunteers mainly monitor and document the movement of the buffalo and the DOL, often enduring long, cold shifts in the field.
But the group also uses methods similar to those employed by the eco-activists who treesit 150 feet above the ground in California redwoods, in protest of logging. Last spring, a BFC volunteer named Akiva constructed a "mono-pod"--a 30-foot-high platform on a pole--blocking the door to the state's bison trap. He camped atop the structure for a week, effectively halting the capture and slaughter of buffalo.
"I think it's good we have a lot of different tactics," says Justine Sanchez. "Some honey, some vinegar."
She and Seay send out weekly emails to supporters detailing the DOL's actions, how many bison are killed each season--98 this year, as of May 19--and post video of hazing and capture operations.
"They're keeping the issue alive," says Torbit of the National Wildlife Federation. "We've worked with BFC over the years and I have tremendous respect for Mike Mease."
"They certainly help balance the issue," says Rick Wallen of the National Park Service, "because the people on the other end of the spectrum"--those with the snowmobiles, the guns and the power--"have their own biases, too."
The strategy and goals of the field campaign have drawn financial support from media mogul Ted Turner, who has his own reintroduced buffalo herd north of the park; clothing donations from manufacturer Patagonia; and a van from musician Jackson Browne. U.S. Representative and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich visited the group last year and even spoke up in Congress for the BFC and the federal legislation it's pushing in conjunction with the National Parks Conservation Association, the Humane Society and other environmental and animal-rights organizations.
Known as the Yellowstone Buffalo Preservation Act, the bill would scrap the Interagency Bison Management Plan and allow buffalo to range over Horse Butte and other public lands neighboring the park without threat of slaughter. The act would also shift most decision-making authority from Montana to the Park Service and dismantle a testing and slaughtering pen inside Yellowstone's northern boundary. More than 100 Congressional representatives, mostly Democrats, cosponsored the legislation during the last session. But it's still a long way from passing and has yet to be reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this year.
A Political Issue
At the state level, environmental groups are optimistic following last November's election of Democrat Brian Schweitzer as Montana's governor. Schweitzer, a cattle rancher, cancelled the first planned buffalo hunt in the state in 15 years this January, a move applauded by the BFC and animal-rights groups. Steve Torbit and the National Wildlife Federation, which supports bison hunting as a long-term management tool, also opposed the hunt because the DOL, not the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, would have had political authority for wildlife management.
"The reality is that this is a political issue," says Tim Stevens, Yellowstone Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Stevens is encouraged by the governor's interest but says it's not entirely clear how things will play out.
Schweitzer has talked about paying Montana ranchers to remove cattle from potential bison range--a tool used by the National Wildlife Federation to buy out most of the cattle grazing on Horse Butte. But the new governor has also suggested rounding up the entire Yellowstone herd to test and vaccinate all 4,200 buffalo.
The BFC says the idea threatens the wild behavior of the bison herd, similar to the current quarantine of some buffalo calves.
Stevens believes the plan is "impractical," and beside the point. "It's a false specter of disease transmission."
Not a Threat
The fact that bison have never infected a single cow with brucellosis, says DOL spokeswoman Karen Cooper, proves the interagency management plan is working. Tests show that 40 to 50 percent of Yellowstone bison carry the disease, enough for Cooper to call them "a chronically infected herd." She says since the state spent 50 years and $30 million to make sure ranchers' cattle are brucellosis-free, wandering bison pose an economic threat. Once the herd's infection rate drops, the animals will be freer to roam outside the park.
Rick Wallen, a wildlife biologist who heads Yellowstone National Park's bison ecology program, confirms that about half of the herd has been infected with brucellosis. But half of those animals now carry only antibodies to the disease, Wallen explains, meaning they're "probably not a threat to shedding the bacteria."
Meanwhile, elk in Yellowstone also carry brucellosis.
"The probability of elk co-mingling with cattle is higher than the probability of bison co-mingling" due to seasonal migration patterns, says Wallen.
But the probability of infection for elk is only 1 to 4 percent, so they aren't harassed or slaughtered.
"There are some philosophical questions we debate," Wallen says, "and [Montana] state managers have to account for."
Wallen is referring to acceptable levels of risk, but there are other questions, too: Should bison be allowed to roam freely like other wildlife, such as elk, and should they be hunted? Should an agency dedicated to a single special interest have a controlling stake in a public resource like wildlife? Should politics trump science in the management of a species once on the brink of extermination?
The BFC thinks the answers to these philosophical queries shouldn't come from government agents looking out for Montana's livestock industry.
"Our presence here," says Darrell Geist, a campaign cofounder and board member, "is a rhetorical question to the American people: What vision do you have for the last wild buffalo?"
It's Goth night back at the cabin, meaning loud punk-metal blares from a stereo in the kitchen and the night's cooks are dressed in black. One volunteer has the pelvis of some animal tied to his face. Dinner is a white bean casserole with a thick crust of nutritional yeast, salad and bread. Darrell Geist, Mike Mease, Roman Sanchez and a few others are talking through their strategy for dealing with the deputy's allegations of assault by a snowball. They've already phoned the group's attorney and the governor's office.
The campaign holds a nightly meeting at which the next day's field shifts and chores are divvied out. Warren, a 23-year old volunteer with a nest of curly hair on his head, is running tonight's session. He left behind a post as a U.S. Navy nuclear engineer a year ago to hitchhike around the country before landing here for the winter. He opens the meeting by asking if any staff or volunteers have an "agenda."
Jen refreshes folks on protocol for speaking on the two-way radios, and Drew alerts the others that a pickup truck swerved at him this afternoon. Dan reminds volunteers to go fishing only after their patrol shift ends. Bobcat asks his comrades not to use the back door anymore.
Mike Mease then speaks about today's roadside ruckus, concluding with a caveat: "Every time you take it out on the DOL, they take it out on the buffalo."
"Next time, let's try something different," offers Tom, the bearded, older volunteer, wearing a green shirt, red suspenders and a long blue stocking cap. "Let's just be quiet and watch 'em and film 'em. And if that doesn't work," he concludes with the joking grin I saw earlier, "we'll throw rocks."
Silence and rocks, slurs and snowballs, "crackers" and bullets, honey and vinegar. The Buffalo Field Campaign readies for bed and another long day tomorrow of whatever it takes until America's wild buffalo can roam freely beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park.
Joshua Zaffos is a staff writer for the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, based in Fort Collins, Colorado.