View to a kill 

Taking aim at hunters in West Yellowstone

Mary Sue Costello's expression settles somewhere between surprise and indifference.

"I haven't heard much about it," she says. "This is a hunting community. With bison, it's just a different animal."

As executive director of West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, Costello says she's fielded calls about the bison hunt, mostly from media. She then unfolds a small map of the town showing Yellowstone National Park to the east and national forest to the south and west. Skiing is really good right now, she says, circling the Rendezvous trails with a highlighter and mentioning the ski race next week.

Outside the snow is steady. Much of this town that buzzes with tourists in the summer is quiet. Several inches of powder dull the contrast between the late afternoon sky and the paved streets.

"There's been more buzz about the local election," says librarian Mary Girard, who says she doesn't care one way or the other about the bison hunt, the state's first in 15 years. "That picture in the paper this morning was kind of graphic, though. It was a bit of a shock."

It is Wednesday, the second day of Montana's new 90-day bison hunting season. Piled on the library's main reading table are newspapers featuring stories and pictures of the hunt's first day. The Billings Gazette showed George Clement, 17, kneeling beside the first bison killed, near Gardiner. Gazette reporter Brett French counted 14 members of the media and two volunteers from the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), a pro-bison advocacy group, filming the event. BFC, whose log cabin headquarters is 16 miles northwest of West Yellowstone, promptly posted a press release noting the 45-minute interim between Clement's first shot and the animal's death. The organization later corrected itself, saying it was more like 30 minutes.

On the campaign's website you can download BFC footage. One clip shows BFC volunteer Tyler Carlin announcing his intention not to disturb the hunt. After two shots were fired, Carlin asks Clement why he doesn't just kill the animal. Clement and two other men hover over the convulsing bison until four curious bulls wander up. The men throw rocks to scatter the animals, which leave only to return again, this time scattering the hunters.

Animals and hunters and media, it seems, share the same nervous tension between confidence, confusion and curiosity. No one has done this before, at least not in a long while, and it shows.

•••

Aaron Hecht, owner of West Yellowstone's Wild West Pizzeria, has not yet seen the video. He's heard about it though, and the press release.

"That 17-year-old kid was nervous," he says shaking his head. "He didn't want to wound that animal or for it to suffer."

"This community is pretty tired of seeing the BFC out there protesting anything they don't 100 percent agree with," he adds. "It would be more helpful for [the bison] if they weren't so confrontational."

The BFC says its opposition goes beyond the hunt. "This is about bison not being welcome in the state of Montana," says activist Josh Osher.

Two state and three federal agencies manage Yellowstone bison. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and state Department of Livestock, and the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service limit the 4,900-animal herd's migration outside of the park. The stated reason is brucellosis, a disease considered prevalent in the Yellowstone herd that causes female cattle to abort calves. Bison, says DOL Executive Officer Mark Bridges, pose a threat to the state's livestock industry and therefore must be kept away from cows near the park.

While BFC's interest has more to do with habitat than hunting-many of the activists hunt themselves-their presence, hunters say, is imposing.

"Now there are a lot of misconceptions about us as bloodthirsty Neanderthals waiting at the park boundary with a beer in one hand and a bazooka in the other," says Stevensville's Darryld Pepprock, who drew a tag for the first bison season, which ends Jan. 15.

Pepprock, like other hunters he has met, wants hunting to be a permanent part of the management of the herd, and considers this year's season a step toward that. Charles Clough, a bison hunter from Choteau, hopes hunting replaces hazing someday.

Aaron Hecht wonders whether by hovering over hunters and offending potential allies, BFC does more harm than good. After all, hunters, he notes, have been at the helm of elk habitat conservation across the country.

•••

It's after 5 p.m. Wednesday and the snow is still steady. Two BFC volunteers looking for warm food poke their heads into Hecht's restaurant looking for pizza. The sun has set and legal shooting time has elapsed. Their day is over.

It was a long one.

Around 6 a.m. volunteers loaded binoculars, coffee-filled thermoses and video equipment into four 1980s-era Subarus. Patrols scouted the three drainages where bison wander most easily from the park. From sun-up to sun-down, just as campaign members have done since 1997, volunteers watched over the animals, ready with cameras to document every action.

Peering out her window on Horse Butte-a narrow peninsula west of the park where bison migrate each spring to calve-Kerrie Taggart watches fumes waft from an old Subaru parked on the corner. She has many concerns about the hunt, including stray bullets and wounded bison. She says she feels better, though, knowing that the BFC is out there.

"They are there to show the truth," she says. "I am just hoping during the hunt that they maintain restraint and stay above what they could do."

Beyond the car three bison bob their heads through the accumulating snow to get to the grass below.

"This is a huge opportunity for them," she says, watching the Buffalo Field Campaigners watching the bison, standing together in the snow.

news@missoulanews.com

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