Between the Bison and the Bullet
by Dan Brister

The EF! Journal has been covering the growing resistance to the buffalo slaughter for more than 10 years, from the hunt sab campaigns of the late 1980s to the present day Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC). Many of the volunteers who have come to the Yellowstone/Montana border in defense of the buffalo originally learned of the slaughter through stories in the Journal.

It is difficult to talk about the current slaughter of America's bison without reflecting on the carnage that took place in the 19th century. Many of the forces that conspired to eradicate buffalo from the plains and mountains of the West remain alive and strong today. Under pressure from the livestock industry, Montana officials made the 1990s the bloodiest decade for buffalo in more than 120 years, killing nearly 2,500 animals.

People have been working to protect the buffalo for at least 130 years. Although there are no records of anyone standing between the buffalo runners' guns and the great herds of the 1870s, there was a strong movement to stop the senseless bloodshed. Below I explore some of the forces behind the ongoing slaughter and celebrate the efforts of those working for a future of free-roaming buffalo.

With the eradication of the great herds came the eradication of peoples. For those wishing to reduce the Indian to a life on the reservation, bison extirpation was a major strategy. Capitalizing on the peoples' interdependence with the animals, 19th century leaders launched a campaign to wipe out the buffalo and force Indians into a settled lifestyle more compatible with European ideals of private property and "civilization." Interior Secretary Columbus Delano made this clear in 1873: "The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains. I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors."

In addition to providing the Indians with sustenance, buffalo stood firmly in the way of the settlers' dreams of a coast to coast cattle culture. Free roaming buffalo paid no heed to the newly erected fences and competed with cattle on the open range. Wild buffalo were living reminders of the "uncivilized" nature of the pre-conquest West. By the last decades of the 19th century it had become clear that buffalo would not be tolerated in the United States

Alarmed at the rate at which buffalo were disappearing, a movement to protect the buffalo emerged. Representative Greenburg Fort introduced legislation in 1874 to make it illegal for anyone but an Indian to kill cow buffalo. Although HR 921 eventually passed both houses of Congress, it encountered strong opposition and incited a revealing debate: "There is no law that Congress can pass that will prevent the buffalo from disappearing before the march of civilization. They eat the grass. They trample upon the plains upon which our settlers desire to herd their cattle. They destroy the pasture. They are as uncivilized as the Indian."

"The solution of the Indian problem is to confine these Indians upon as small a tract of land as possible, and make it a necessity for them to learn to labor and to get a sustenance from the soil as the white man does."

"It would he a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians if there was not a buffalo in existence."

Other members of Congress, objecting to such nefarious logic, argued strongly in favor of the resolution, and ultimately prevailed: "We may as well not only destroy the buffalo, but the fish in the rivers, the birds in the air; we may as well destroy the squirrels, lizards, prairie-dogs, and take away from the Indian the means of living, and in that way you will, perhaps, be able to board them at the Fifth Avenue Hotel and civilize them to your satisfaction. I object to the inhumanity of gentlemen who wish to wipe out the buffalo in order to get the Indians upon reservations."

Passed to the White House for the president's signature, HR 921 died a silent death on the desk of Ulysses S. Grant. Victim of a pocket-veto, it never became a law.

Unregulated, the slaughter continued, abated by only the dwindling number of buffalo. By 1902 the Yellowstone herd, composed of just 23 wild buffalo, was all that remained. Seeking to avoid extinction, the Park Service purchased 21 bison from private herds in Montana and Texas and released them into the park. Today's Yellowstone herd of roughly 2,500 traces its ancestry to these 44 buffalo.

Since 1990, Montana has shot 2,418 members of the Yellowstone herd as they crossed the invisible park boundary in search of winter forage. Spinning a controversy out of unfounded fears, threats and intimidation, the state has created hysteria out of brucellosis, a disease the buffalo are said to carry. Despite the lack of a single documented case of transmission from wild bison to cattle, Montana's powerful livestock industry stubbornly insists on maintaining a zero tolerance policy for buffalo in the state.

What's really at stake is the grass on the public lands adjacent to the park, and Montana's ranchers are unwilling to share it with bison. Echoing his 19th century forebears, Lee Alley, US Animal Health Association Chairman, has said if it were up to him, "the Yellowstone herd would be depopulated, the animals destroyed. All of them."

Prior to 1994, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), under mandate from the legislature, was responsible for bison management. Attempting to sidestep controversy without abating the killing, FWP oversaw a so-called public hunt of the Yellowstone herd between 1985 and 1991. Charging $1,000 for nonresidents and $200 for residents, agency personnel served as guides to "hunters," leading them on snowmobiles to well within firing range of the docile animals. Because many of the hunters were inexperienced and there were no required marksmanship or safety courses, it took hunters three or four shots to kill a buffalo.

An adolescent boy who participated in the 1990 hunt described his experience of shooting a bull: "I missed and I got his arm. Then I went for it again and I got him down around his shoulder and then he staggered and walked a little ways and then I shot him in the neck and that killed him off."

Five hundred and sixty-nine buffalo were killed in this manner during the winter of 1988-'89. Called to action by such carnage, a group of activists assembled outside the park and developed strategies to sabotage the hunt and in so doing, catalyzed opposition to the slaughter. Bill Haskins, who was involved at the time, explains: "In those days, there was no permanent occupation of the area by hunt sabs. D.J. Schubert holed up in a motel room in West Yellowstone several times to monitor the bison and FWP guys. The hunters were chosen by a lottery, so it usually took a day or two for FWP to put a hunt together. D.J. would to get people from Missoula and Bozeman down to West in time to sab and/or monitor the hunt."

The activists, on cross-country skis, would haze buffalo into Yellowstone or other areas where the hunters couldn't reach them. Other times they would disrupt the hunt by placing themselves between the buffalo and the guns. Such tactics were extremely effective and helped generate public opposition which ultimately forced the state to change its plans.

In 1990, while watching a buffalo struggle after being shot but not killed, Lee Dessaux shouted at the hunter and prodded him with a ski pole, urging him to end the animal's suffering. Although the hunter wasn't injured, Lee was charged with assault. He managed to escape, but a warrant was issued for his arrest. Infiltrator Barry Clausen snitched on him following the EF! Round River Rendezvous in Montana, and Lee eventually served a month in the Gallatin County Jail.

The hunt sab was instrumental in not only stopping the hunt but also in laying the groundwork for and developing many of the tactics used in subsequent campaigns. Although the hunt was abandoned in 1991, the killing continued unabated. Instead of relying on hunters, Montana turned to its wildlife agents to do the killing and erected a capture facility near West Yellowstone. Opposition remained strong. A Bozeman affinity group formed, and people drove down to West Yellowstone throughout the winter to free buffalo from the traps, which were baited with alfalfa.

In 1995, the Montana legislature transferred bison management responsibilities from FWP to Montana's Department of Livestock (DOL). DOL agents--livestock inspectors with no training in wildlife management--have been slaughtering the Yellowstone herd ever since. The agency, mandated to protect the state's livestock industry, has a glaring conflict of interest.

Showing no concern for public sentiment, the DOL made the winter of 1996-'97 the most deadly year of the century, killing 1,084 buffalo. After butchering the animals, agents left hundreds of gut piles behind, infuriating residents who had to suffer the stench and begging the question as to why entrails of animals "infected" with brucellosis were left on fields where cattle would soon be grazing.

During a public meeting in Gardiner, Montana, that winter, Delyla Wilson delivered one of the piles to some of the politicians responsible for the slaughter. After spilling the guts on Montana Governor Marc Racicot, Senators Conrad Burns and Max Baucus, and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, news of Wilson's action was broadcast across the country and helped bring the killing of more than 1,000 buffalo to the attention of millions of Americans.

Alarmed at the extent to which the slaughter had progressed, tribal leaders from around the country gathered later that winter near Gardiner to hold a day of prayer. The ceremony was disrupted by gunshots. When Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder left the circle to investigate, she found that the DOL had shot 14 buffalo less than two miles away. Walking across a field to pray over her slain relatives, she was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. To Little Thunder and other tribal members present, there was no question of coincidence. "They shot the buffalo because we were at that place on that day at that time," she says.

Building on the work and tactics of the activists who defended the buffalo throughout the '90s, the Buffalo Field Campaign formed after the dark winter of '97, intent on preventing another such slaughter. The group maintains a cabin near West Yellowstone and runs daily patrols during the winter months, when buffalo are outside the park. In the past three winters, more than 750 volunteers have given their time and energy to monitor buffalo migrations, perform nonviolent civil disobedience, document DOL transgressions against the buffalo and educate the public.

Last winter, efforts to protect the buffalo were extremely successful. The vigilance of BFC's daily patrols and the barrage of public outcry generated by local and national media have made it increasingly difficult for the state to kill. Various national news shows, including "Nightline" and A&E's "Investigative Reports," devoted entire episodes to the buffalo issue, drawing extensively upon footage shot by BFC. For the first winter in 16 years, no buffalo were killed in Montana.

The fate of the Yellowstone herd remains uncertain. The Park Service recently released an EIS which could make things much worse. Under the park's plan, members of America's last wild herd will continue to be unnecessarily shot, captured and sent to slaughter. In addition, bison will be subject to confinement and quarantine for up to four years. The plan also calls for the construction of new capture facilities and the implementation of such horrific measures as vaccinating the entire herd and implanting "vaginal telemetry devices" in all female buffalo.

If you'd like to help and have some free time this winter, please get in touch with the Buffalo Field Campaign, POB 957, West Yellowstone, MT 59758; (406) 646-0070; Patrols normally run from December through May.

Dan Brister has been working with the Buffalo Field Campaign since 1997. He lives on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana.

© Earth First! Journal, November-December, 2000