On the edge of Yellowstone National Park, Montana’s first buffalo hunt in 15 years is underway. For each licensed buffalo hunter there is a herd of observers. Hunting with an entourage only works if the prey doesn’t run away.
“Buffalo have evolved to face danger and rarely run from predators,” says Mike Mease of the Buffalo Field Campaign. Mease was at the scene when the first bull buffalo of the season was shot and killed by a hunter from Belgrade.
“It took four shots,” says Mease, “and 30 minutes” for the bull to die.
I recently joined a buffalo hunting party, of sorts. Among us, we didn’t have a square inch of hunter orange. We had no tags, and we weren’t technically hunting. Still, our experience sheds light on the act of stalking and killing a buffalo.
“We’ll go out there and knock one down,” explains Bernard Hakes, a buffalo rancher in Ronan. “Then I’ll come back with the tractor.”
We pile into the king cab of his pickup truck, which eases through a gate and into the pasture. We drive slowly, as if ambling about on no particular mission. As we approach the buffalo, a herd of faces regards us.
Faces are often cited as dietary criteria among vegetarians. “I don’t eat anything with a face,” some say. This can lead to questions like, “does a lobster have a face?”
Is a face just a checklist of parts, or does a face convey expression and suggest thoughtfulness, understanding?
Three hundred buffalo faces stare back at us as we decide which one to kill. Each face is different.
“That one with her tail up and the yellow tag in her ear,” suggests Jack, organizer of this buffalo harvest. “She’s nice.”
“Yeah she is,” agrees Hakes, “and that’s her calf next to her, too young to lose her mother.”
Although Hakes has federal permission to let people kill their own buffalo on his land, and roughly 80 percent of his clients do so, pulling the trigger is not why we’re here. We want the meat and the hide. We don’t want to alarm the herd, and we want to minimize suffering with a quick, clean death, with no adrenaline pumping through her veins. While any yahoo can pull the trigger on a sitting duck, that doesn’t mean they’ll git’r done right. It’s a job for Hakes.
Our pickup slowly circles the herd, positioning for a shot at an enormous 3-year-old cow buffalo. When there is a clear shot, Hakes pulls his Remington 7mm magnum from the gun rack. He leans the gun on the window.
The herd trots away.
“We’ll head ’em off at the pass,” Hakes says as we amble away from the herd, through a gate and back around toward the shallow draw where they’re headed.
After another near-shot, the slow-motion chase continues for another 30 minutes. Hakes shows no intention of taking a shot that isn’t ideal.
We stalk in close again. Hakes rests his gun on the open window frame as sub-zero air fills the cab. He fires at a vertebra in the cow’s neck and she collapses into herself straight down in a lifeless pile.
“You take your time,” says Hakes, “and that’s what they’re supposed to do.”
The herd trots away, but doesn’t go far.
Hakes is on the ground with his knife, opening her throat so that her body’s 5 gallons of blood can gush out. Jack sprinkles tobacco on her forehead. Hakes pats her on the neck. “Thanks, old girl,” he says.
I reach out and put my hand on her cheek. When I touch her wooly face, a single tear gushes from her eye, leaving a watery trail.
Although only one of us pulled the trigger, we’re all party to a kill. When you eat meat, you are too.
“I’ll go get the tractor,” says Hakes. “You guys stick around and keep away the rest of the herd. Otherwise they’ll come back and try to get her up. That’s what they do with their sick or wounded. They’ll even kick ’em, rather than leave them behind. Better to die at the hooves of your own than eaten alive by wolves.”
I saw similar behavior on the video of the bison hunt, at which point the hunting party threw rocks to chase them away.
Hakes guts the buffalo and we drop her off at the meat cutter. Then we go home, wash our hands, and cook up the final package of last year’s buffalo, freshly thawed.
As the snot in our noses began to thaw, we rubbed buffalo steaks with a dry spice rub made of 1/4 cup chili powder, 1/4 cup ground cumin, 1/4 cup ground coriander, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes, 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper and 1 tablespoon coarse salt, and fried them in oil. Then we gave thanks for the flavor and life force of the warm meat.