Four inches of freshly fallen snow shroud the northern lip of the massive Yellowstone Caldera in the late morning of March 31. Eleven miles up Paradise Valley from the park entrance town of Gardiner, Mont., a motorized cavalcade of the usual suspects tracks a small group of bison northbound along the river. The pursuers meet their game at 10:37 a.m.
Fishtailing on snowdrifts along the narrow mountain road, the procession rounds a bluff before cascading into Cutler Meadows—a small basin purchased in 1998 by the U.S. Forest Service from the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious group with interfaith beliefs and a history of cult activity.
Poor visibility in the snowfall masks all but the lower slopes of the surrounding Madison Mountains, but, in the white expanse ahead, tufts of brown begin to appear. A horse trailer operated by the National Park Service kicks a U-turn near a wooded glen where 30 wild Yellowstone buffalo dig for freshly burgeoned shoots of spring grass.
Two USDA agents, driving a black Tahoe with government plates, rumble into a nearby turnout, followed by a ranger in a white Forest Service pickup. An older Subaru, conspicuously tagged with a weathered peace symbol, perches on a sloughed-off shoulder.
With a grin permeating a veil of wind-damaged hair, Buffalo Field Campaign founder Mike Mease steps out from the driver’s side of the Suby. Lumbering to Mease’s flank is a grizzled figure straight out of Tolkien. Mike Bowersox, known simply as Grumbles, pulls out a pouch of tobacco and rolls a cigarette. Mease slides his hands inside his pockets and leans up against the hood of the car.
“Hurry up and wait,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Before too long, a cacophony of archetypal cowboy yelps echoes through the valley as the four agents of the bureaucratic cadre, now on horseback, push the buffalo back north. The ground shakes beneath the assault of 50-some tons of ungulate en route to detention at the Park Service’s nearby Stephens Creek capture facility. From there, most get shipped to local slaughterhouses.
Under the Interagency Bison Management Plan—a 2000 agreement between five then-warring state and federal agencies—more than 1,400 buffalo have been killed this winter alone, the highest single-season total since the mass hunts of the 1800s. The controversial plan aimed to end decades of jurisdictional conflicts by providing a common goal–of wild bison roaming free outside of Yellowstone–to agencies with intractably different mandates.
Eight years later, though, the frontlines haven’t really changed. Buffalo Field campaigners like Mease and Grumbles—key foes of the Interagency plan—continue to document bison-agent encounters; they send daily news feeds to the press in the hope that public exposure will eventually lead to a new deal for the wooly western icon. The two cohorts often spend all day tracking wayward herds through Yellowstone National Park’s surrounding river valleys and steppes. This winter, with record-high snowdrifts pushing increasing numbers of bison out of the park in search of food, there’s been plenty of material.
“The Park Service basically told us, ‘Get ready for a horrible year, because we’re gonna kill everything that comes out,’” Mease says.
“And they have,” Grumbles quietly utters.
A tattered balaclava sits atop Mease’s head. “It’s as old as the Campaign,” he remarks. The wind-worn hat—patched and repatched over a dozen years—speaks to the ongoing bison controversy as much as anything that comes out of the activist’s mouth. The focus sometimes shifts; the “kill count” that Mease mentions sometimes swells. But many of the group’s core talking points roll out each year with eye-glazing sameness.
Perhaps no track in the debate feels quite as old as the arguments over brucellosis (see sidebar, “Bison beefs”). For good or ill, fear of buffalo-to-cattle brucellosis transmission directs the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which directs the various wildlife agencies to herd, pen, and slaughter bison that leave the national park so they won’t pose threats to nearby ranchers.
Federal and state agencies say they would rather let the buffalo roam, but can’t if even one cattle herd stands in the way.
In Paradise Valley, currently the most active migratory corridor for Yellowstone bison, exactly one cattle herd, in fact, does happen to lie between the wild buffalo and tens of thousands of acres of viable winter range. The cows are owned by Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the group got national press on several notable occasions in the early 1990s when it allegedly stockpiled weapons in preparation for nuclear holocaust. Reportedly in an effort to distance itself from past government showdowns and failed doomsday predictions, CUT leaders today rarely grant interviews. Organization president Kate Gordon and others did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But, CUT cattle today—or, more precisely, a lack of them—could mean the difference between a potential buffalo solution and untold more years without one.
Last summer, Montana authorities announced a tentative deal with CUT to get its roughly 178 head of cattle out of Paradise Valley and open up church land to a controlled migration of bison proven in tests to be brucellosis-negative.
The 30-year lease proposal comes hitched to a $2.8 million price tag for the use of the land. An alliance of environmental groups—including, among others, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, and the Gardiner-based Bear Creek Council—agreed to pay half, with the rest coming out of taxpayer-funded USDA coffers. Once struck, the deal would allow the carefully monitored bison to travel north to Cutler Meadows and other grazing fields outside the national park.
It’s a lofty price for the right to use a small wedge of land, but conservation groups say it would be money well spent. “It’s not the sole solution or the silver bullet,” says Tim Stevens of the National Parks Conservation Association, “but it’s a first step.”
Of course, in buffalo politics, even a step can prove to be a bound. To date, the lease deal hasn’t moved forward. According to numerous federal officials, it’s still on the table but remains stymied by budgetary shortages.
What seems certain, however, is that not signing the lease is the costliest alternative. In a report released April 2, the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that federal agencies since 2002 have spent more than $3 million a year simply keeping bison from flowing out of Yellowstone. The figure doesn’t even take into account this winter’s massive herding operations.
The apparent illogic of refusing to pay CUT leads some conservation groups to conclude that there’s something else holding up the check. Carolyn Duckworth, president of the Bear Creek Council, believes the USDA is suffocating the accord to appease the livestock industry, which would rather keep the bison in Yellowstone forever. “I think it’s political,” she says. “They simply have a different mandate.”
Some buffalo advocates have a different mandate, as well. And the CUT cattle buyout is surely not helped by the fact that the Buffalo Field Campaign—the issue’s most visible and vocal player—vehemently opposes the deal. Like so many things, the malaise proves one part recent history, one part logistics, and one part ancient history.
Though “announced” in 2007, the CUT deal is not wholly new, but rather the continuation of another accord struck almost a decade ago. In 1998, the U.S. Forest Service, in league with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, purchased 5,263 acres of land from the church for $13 million. The deal included Cutler Meadows and a conservation easement on church land known as the Royal Teton Ranch, which together serve as a thoroughfare for Yellowstone’s migrating animals—except buffalo.
Before bison could be allowed access, CUT cows needed to be removed and grazing rights needed to be
transferred to bison. Those things never happened.
The grazing rights are what the church now aims to sell, but many friends of the bison, like the Buffalo Field Campaign, can’t shake the feeling of bamboozlement. After all, the federal government celebrated the 1998 package as a victory for Yellowstone buffalo, but then neglected to account for buffalo in the package.
“Here we are making a second deal when the first one isn’t being honored,” Mease says, exasperated. “I don’t know how in the hell they got away with it.”
The disappointment isn’t the Campaign’s alone. Several pages of the GAO report specifically criticize the USDA for failing to deal with the church—something it was charged to do back in ’98.
When reached by the Independent
, Rachel Iadicicco, a spokesperson for the USDA, would not specifically address the GAO’s criticisms.
The Interagency plan, meanwhile, promised a three-step process by which at step three, slated for the winter of 2005-2006, bison could peaceably roam outside of Yellowstone.
Instead, the “Implementation of the Interagency Bison Management Plan remains in step one because cattle continue to graze on Royal Teton Ranch lands north of Yellowstone National Park and west of the Yellowstone River,” the report reads. It goes on to state that until CUT gets rid of its cows, the various agencies bound to the plan must continue to wrangle any northbound bison regardless of the expense. According to the report, that expense topped $3.3 million in 2006—a number that the feds expect to eclipse in 2008.
Activists like Amy McNamara of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition use the escalating costs to argue that now is the time to shake hands with CUT and secure the grazing rights. “It’s taken eight years to negotiate this deal with the church,” says McNamara. “If we procrastinate now, they might leave the table.”
Even so, the deal doesn’t sound so sweet to the Buffalo Field Campaign. Group political spokesman Darrell Geist says he doesn’t like the uncertainty of the situation and the gnawing questions about what happens after the lease expires. Moreover, he doesn’t dig the fact that the buffalo would have to be tested for brucellosis and tagged, and the females given telemetric vaginal implants—a sort of alarm system so officials know when animals are calving—before federal agents would grant them access to CUT land. Lastly, he hardly appreciates that the deal would allow, at first, only 25 bison through at a time.
“Do bison travel in herds of 25?” Geist asks. “It’s a ridiculous number—another number pulled out of a hat.”
All spelled out, the deal seems to the Campaign crew like an expensive absurdity. What comes out the other side of the conservation easement will appear to be bison, but won’t be wild bison, they argue. “We’re looking at a lot of money for a little bit of grass, and the buffalo will have to run through a gauntlet to get there,” Geist says.
Critics of the deal often express a moral beef, as well. For a variety of reasons, some buffalo advocates simply don’t like the idea of paying CUT. Just 15 years ago, the church was considered a dangerous fringe religious group. Now, they argue, if the deal goes through, it’d be getting federal taxpayer dollars, and for the second time. What one proponent characterized as a deal loaded with “a lot of history and local color,” some opponents call just plain creepy.
Local landowner and hobby rancher Hank Rate was raising cows in Paradise Valley before then-guru Elizabeth Clare Prophet relocated the spiritual outfit from Southern California in 1986. He was there when Prophet’s la-fin-du-monde
prognostications were made. “Back then my wife said if I did another interview she’d divorce me,” Rate jokes.
More importantly, Rate explains that he was there to watch CUT—with its membership heavily depleted after the Reckoning that never occurred—start dealing off its portfolio of assets to pay mounting debts. In two sweeping deals, church leadership sold land once considered holy: Cutler Meadows and its surrounding highlands, for $13 million, and another ranch further up Paradise Valley for $12.6 million in 1999. About the same time the bison controversy descended on Gardiner, Rate explains, CUT suddenly got into the cattle game. “In 1989, I had the only cows in the valley,” he says.
Former Yellowstone ranger George Nell worked for the Park Service for much of Gardiner’s recent history, but don’t insult him by calling him neutral. After the USDA bungled the grazing rights issue in 1998, he explains, CUT simply insured its investment by maintaining cattle in the corridor—a decision that has since cost the federal government an untold sum in bison wrangling costs. “If there’s such a thing as legal extortion, that’s what this is,” Nell says.
It’s not as if the cattle are making any money for the group. Royal Teton Ranch tax records show that CUT has not generated any significant income from its herd since at least 2005, backing up claims the church is just playing the bison game for one last payout.
Perhaps, says Park Service spokesman Al Nash, but what’s wrong with that? “They have every right, on their private property, to conduct whatever legal business they can. The church has every right to make a living—I gotta respect that.”
Conservation groups in favor of the buyout agree, but not entirely without misgivings. “Despite all those failed agreements and fake handshakes, the church has a right to get paid for its cattle,” Duckworth says. “Our ultimate goal is to have wildlife managed by wildlife agencies and not the livestock industry, but we try to have a realistic perspective. We’re not happy about this use of taxpayer money, but we think it’s reality…We have to get cattle off the Royal Teton Ranch.”
In other words, perhaps the Buffalo Field Campaign doth protest too much? Many bison allies suggest that it’s time for the Suby-driving, animistic-ritual-conducting, jumping-fences-with-a-camera Buffalo Soldiers to move over and allow more centrist groups to steer the debate. Public awareness is high, they argue, and it’s time to really press the issue in D.C. and Helena before that infamous American attention span runs dry. Some, like Paradise Valley resident Sarah Richey, appreciate the Campaign’s initiative, but question the group’s shock-troop approach to swaying policy.
“I’m totally impressed with their energy. I think they’re in a great place to gather information,” Richey says. “I just don’t think that they’re the best messenger.”
From a press perspective, it’s hard to imagine the Yellowstone bison debate without the perpetual deluge of Campaign statements. It’s harder to imagine the activists themselves bereft of leadership in the cause, aimlessly drifting upon the wind like a bible circle after the prohibition of porn. Nevertheless, many bison advocates assert that’s the impasse on which the issue stands. They argue that mediation should trump purism. “I think that we’ll be more effective in making positive policy change,” Duckworth says plainly.
A parallel feeling resides in Gardiner. For the little eco-tourism hamlet, the ongoing slaughter of bison by government agencies makes for bad business and unflattering press. The cult history of CUT likewise exceeds the realm of friendly topics. Raising either one is prone to make locals clam up. Several residents, however, went so far last month as to express frustration with the antics of the Buffalo Field Campaign, which often ruffles the feathers of folks who just want privacy in their otherwise peaceful mountain town.
On March 26, Park County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Campaign activists Miriam Wasser, 20, and Cat Simonidis, 22, for locking themselves to a banister in the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center, five miles south of Gardiner. A local barkeep, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Independent
that such shenanigans often rile up county law enforcement—something else that doesn’t sit too well with residents.
“People often say, ‘Buffalo Field Campaign, you’re too emotional,’” Mease responds. “But that’s what’s needed; that’s still what’s lacking here.”
Beneath the Campaign’s formal comments dwells an unspoken sentiment that seeps out when one actually spends time with the group: that any compromise based on the Interagency Bison Management Plan furthers flawed policy. Buffalo Soldiers would much rather do away with the plan—lock, stock, and decades-old barrel—than sit at a table and negotiate pittance.
Advocates of the bison and the pending CUT deal stand ready to challenge the management plan, too, but don’t expect to see any free-roaming buffalo for quite some time. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s McNamara estimates that such a revolutionary victory remains years off, at the very least. “What do we do with the bison until then?” she asks.
The Park Service anticipates buffalo emancipation arriving even further down the line.
“We don’t benefit people and we don’t benefit bison by failing to work together,” agency spokesman Nash says. “They [conservationists] have a desire for a better future for the bison in this ecosystem, and I think we do too. I look forward to a future that’s going to involve incremental change and improvement. I hear from them a desire for transformational change.” But, he adds, “I don’t expect that I will live to see a day where there won’t be some kind of bison management.”
Mease states clearly that he’s about as willing to accept that kind of timeline as he is to replace his wind-ravaged balaclava. The activist and others of his ideological and, sometimes, literal camp don’t believe any bureaucratic endeavor could ever succeed in safely bridling the wild buffalo. To even try, they argue, is a practice doomed to failure.
If the situation sounds vaguely similar to another newsworthy paradox, rest assured, the allusion isn’t lost on Mease and Grumbles.
“Our whole fucking country is ready for change on so many levels,” Mease says. “It always takes something of this magnitude to wake people up again.”
How brucellosis has Montana buffaloed
It’s estimated that about half of all Yellowstone bison have been exposed to (and possibly carry) brucellosis, a contagious bacterial disease—present in bison, elk, and other wildlife—that can cause pregnant animals to abort.
Montana’s livestock industry and officials who oversee it are afraid that infected buffalo roaming outside the national park would transmit the disease to cattle, endangering Montana’s “brucellosis-free” status and creating economic disaster. That fear stands as the main obstacle for the players in the Interagency Bison Management Plan—the National Park Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department and Department of Livestock.
Buffalo advocates point out that brucellosis transmission is unlikely, since it would only happen if a cow consumed the aborted placenta of an infectious buffalo. Readily available cattle vaccines boast 95 percent effectiveness, making the possibility of transmission extraordinarily slim, they add.
To date, there’s never been a recorded case of a wild buffalo transmitting brucellosis to cattle.