Buffalo Soldiers: Part I 

On the front lines of Montana’s bison fight with the Buffalo Field Campaign

Over the next 15 years, taxpayers will spend approximately $40 million to make sure that the last remaining herd of wild buffalo in the United States grows no larger than 3,000 head.

Why? On the surface, there is a simple answer: cows. But the controversy that surrounds the management of bison in Yellowstone National Park—more specifically, the management of bison when they leave the park and enter Montana—is indeed a complicated one.

It’s a controversy steeped in history, culture, politics, and deep-running emotions. And at its forefront is the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), an activist organization that has taken on the mission of ensuring the preservation of America’s last herd of wild buffalo. Opposite them stands a legion of government agencies: the Montana State Department of Livestock (DOL), the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Together, they are armed with a mandate from the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), a document that last December authorized government agents to take “measures to maintain temporal and spatial separations between bison and cattle” and sought to “establish population targets [of 3,000] for the bison herd.”

To understand that mandate, as well as all of the time and money that has been spent enforcing it, you have to understand brucellosis. A bacterial disease that causes pregnant cows to abort their first fetus can, if it spreads unchecked, bring a death blow to the ranching business, and Montana knows this all too well. It took more than 30 years and $33 million to eradicate the disease from the livestock industry in Big Sky Country. But since 1985, the state has officially been brucellosis-free, and according to the Department of Livestock, the return of brucellosis could cost the livestock industry billions of dollars.

The problem is, bison can carry brucellosis, and they migrate. In the cold winter months, they move out of the snow-covered higher elevations of Yellowstone in search of food. This path takes them across protective park borders and into Montana rangeland, where cattle graze in summer and fall. As a result, in the winter of 1996-’97 the state Department of Livestock slaughtered 1,083 bison that had wandered outside Yellowstone’s border into Montana, more than one quarter of the entire herd. The objective: to prevent the possible transmission of brucellosis from buffalo to cattle. The irony: There has never been a case of the disease being transmitted from bison to cattle in the field.

The events of that winter sparked the formation of the Buffalo Field Campaign. Armed only with video cameras and a commitment to their mission, this loose-knit ensemble of activists in 1997 began to monitor buffalo and DOL agents alike around the clock.

From dawn to dusk of every winter day, these activists are in the field maintaining watch. For the rest of the year, based out of their rustic West Yellowstone home and offices, the Campaign pursues a combination of direct action, publicity, and research.

And there is little disputing that their efforts have been successful. After the harsh winter of 1996-’97, when more than 1,000 buffalo were slaughtered, only 11 were killed the following year. In 1998-’99, 96 buffalo were sent to slaughter, and 22 BFC activists were arrested in efforts to protect them. During the winter of 1999-2000, no buffalo were killed. But this year, armed with the new mandate, the DOL and cooperating agencies have been out in record numbers, and five buffalo have been sent to slaughter since January. Twenty-one activists from the Buffalo Field Campaign have been arrested.

For the bison, their self-appointed protectors, and the government agents, the future seems to hold more of the same. The official management plan for the Yellowstone bison calls for 15 years of culling the herd. Until then, it is safe to say that the BFC will continue to work in the field.

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