They have no space. Land-owners have taken all that was theirs and made it private property, leaving little allotments here and there; small spaces of ‘reserved’ land, unconnected and geographically uninformed.
That statement can be applied to a host of issues and nouns in the US. What I am describing is the plight of the last wild bison in the US, the Yellowstone herds. They are descendants of the only survivors that saved themselves from the shameful buffalo slaughter of the 1800’s. I have for several years been located out of southwest Montana, near the small town of West Yellowstone. Here I work every winter and spring with Buffalo Field Campaign, a grassroots media organization that documents the harassment and slaughter of these creatures, advocating for their right to roam their native homelands.
Conflict occurs when bison leave Yellowstone National Park in the winter and spring to find food and give birth. When the animals are in Montana, they are subject to harassment and slaughter at the hands of the state and federal agencies who claim to be protecting them and their habitat. A European cattle disease called Brucellosis is touted as the reason for the mismanagement, but livestock-industry control over grass and space are the real rationale.
We’ve used any and all tools in the infamous “bag-of-tricks” to try and stop the slaughter over many years. We are dealing with a war over grass and who gets to eat it. The cowpokes of the Western landscape did their damnedest to ensure that only cows could eat the grass, and they will fight tooth and nail to make it remain so, and banks are on their side. But, rag-tag and passionate as we are, we will fight back, tooth and nail, for the rightful roamers: wild buffalo.
These bison are the last continuously “free-roaming” population that remains of the 40-60 million bison that once ruled this continent. They are the last to maintain their identity as a wildlife species. In efforts to subjugate First Nations and to fill a lust for shaggy buffalo coats and strong hides to run the industrial revolution, settlers brought that vast number to just 23 at one point and have from that time on been involved in “bison conservation”.
Free Roaming is meant to elicit thoughts of unhindered movement by force of will. In actuality the agencies that “manage” these animals forcibly chase them away from what should be designated as their winter range when they follow their natural instincts of migration outside of Yellowstone in search of accessible forage and to continue the uses of their ancestral calving grounds. Bison Conservation to date consists of public herds being created around the nation by capturing and transporting animals from the Yellowstone population to start new herds or improve the genetics of existing herds. The vast majority of “bison” in this country are found on ranches, where they are raised for meat. This type of conservation does nothing to preserve what is special about these wild animals. Chasing animals into a trap, poking and prodding, keeping them in captivity and transporting them by truck across the nation is not congruent with the word wild. Destinations that are large enclosed areas or geographically isolated areas effectively destroy the migratory instincts these animals would follow in their natural environments.
The Yellowstone herds are the only population of bison in the world that still follow their ancient traveling intuition. So while the current form of conservation does create public herds, it removes what is distinctive about bison to create what is manageable by man. “Manage” is a word that, when used in the context of wildlife by wildlife management agencies, means nothing more then those actions or activities performed by that agency out of convenience. Herd numbers are kept at a level that corresponds with available resources (money, people, etc), not healthy numbers for the animals or the ecosystem of which they are an integral part. Boundaries are crated to safeguard livestock and their producers, and to make management operations easier for agencies, not to be harmonious with how bison access or use the land. In writing this I hope to articulate some larger social malignance that I think is at the base of all this mismanagement, the concept of private property.
I am not going to expound the evils of land ownership, but rather try to illuminate the need for responsible land stewardship practices. In the uncluttered western states there is debate right now over the current use of lands for livestock production and what some believe to be the opposite and adverse reaction to lands without livestock: housing subdivisions. I hear this debate termed “cows or condos.” This paradigm I think is an example of the social paradox that is currently limiting the entire native flora and fauna that truly hold the land rights in the country from their open spaces. If we continue to manage the land for our personal benefit, if government lands are managed with the economic benefit of industry first, there will continue to be no room for wild horses, for the black-footed ferrets, for the purple dwarf monkey flower, or for the wild bison.
A larger collective mental shift is needed to make any real headway for wild spaces and the creatures that inhabit them. I encourage everyone to find her or his individual voice for helping this shift to come about organically. It feels to me that a change is on the cusp of rising and a persistent push will send it over the edge of possibility into reality. To paraphrase the words of Broch Evans, we need “endless pressure endlessly applied” to create the changes we want. An encouraging thought for me is that the spaces don’t need to be created: they are there. They just need to become available to the animals that require them for their survival.
Montana, as an example, is full of open space. Millions of acres of federally designated wilderness, state owned and managed Wildlife Management Areas (which unfortunately are used more often than not for cattle grazing), millions of acres of National Forest, and all the state and federal parks located in our great state are all there for the bison’s taking once we overcome a few political and social hurdles. With the help of private landowners that are willing to incorporate their spaces into safe and protected migration corridors, the dots of available public lands can be connected and utilized to preserve a national treasure, our wild bison. That is the real bison conservation plan.
Buffalo Field Campaign is in the field everyday where wild bison go, maintaining a frontline presence to document any action taken against our shaggy friends, and we are always looking for support. To get involved and volunteer for the bison write us at volunteer@buffalofieldcampaign or call 406-646-0070. For more information concerning the plight of the wild bison please visit, www.buffalofieldcampaign.org, or give us a call.