WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - Ten young men and women trudge through the snowy woods just beyond the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park, shadowing bison that have ventured into dangerous territory.


Last winter almost 1,100 bison were sent to slaughterhouses or shot by the Montana Department of Livestock after they left the park in search of food. Ranchers feared the bison could spread brucellosis to cows, resulting in losses of millions of dollars and halting shipments of cattle across state lines (HCN, 2/17/97). A harsh winter added to the deaths, dropping the herd to 2,200 animals from 3,500 the previous fall.


This band of activists, calling itself Buffalo Nations, has come here to ensure that the slaughter is not repeated this year. Buffalo Nations was founded by activist Michael Mease of the group Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers, and a Lakota Sioux, Rosalie Little Thunder, who was arrested last year at a bison protest. Their group is keeping a close eye on the herd this winter, monitoring its movement and "shepherding" bison onto Forest Service land. It is also working with landowners to create "buffalo safe zones," where Department of Livestock officials will not be allowed.


As a last resort, some activists are willing to commit civil disobedience, says Jeremy Lynch, a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota. "We have got people of all races here who are willing to step in front of the guns. This is the last wild bison herd in the United States, and we want to keep them wild," he says. "The bison is very important for us. Whenever these beings are gone, our ceremonies are gone, too."


Lynch says Native Americans from 44 other tribes plan to join Buffalo Nations this winter. Michael Mease also expects many college students to migrate into the area.


"A lot of students said they would come here instead of going on ski trips," " says Mease. "People are coming here from across the country. Some will stay for a week, some for a month. We're just starting to build our numbers."





Agencies make slow progress


Federal and state agencies have been working for almost a year on a plan that would protect both bison and the cattle industry. A draft environmental impact statement is due out in January.


A rough draft of the study, obtained by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, says the bison herd would be kept between 1,800 and 2,500 animals, mostly by trapping excess animals in corrals. Those with brucellosis would be slaughtered, while animals that test negative would be returned to the park or given to Indian tribes. Officials are also discussing the possibility of vaccinating the herd against brucellosis.


The plan worries Jim Richard, vice president of legislative affairs for the Montana Wildlife Federation, because it treats bison more like livestock than wildlife. His group recently submitted a proposal to state and federal officials that would allow the bison to roam out of the park, where they would be managed with a licensed hunt.


"We want to ensure that any management plan treats the bison as wildlife," he says. "We've got to let the bison have some room to roam outside the park."


Meanwhile, federal officials are making some concessions. In past years, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) didn't tolerate any bison outside the park. Now, APHIS officials say animals less likely to spread brucellosis - bulls, yearlings and calves - will be allowed to stray onto public lands near West Yellowstone as long as they are back in the park 60 days before cattle are put out to pasture in the spring.


The Park Service still refuses to control the size of the bison herd inside the park, but it is trying to minimize any killing on the borders, according to Yellowstone Park Superintendent Michael Finley. Rangers haze bison back into the park with gunshots, and try to prevent them from leaving the park's interior. If all else fails, rangers will shoot bison that persist in leaving the park.


This leniency from federal agencies has upset the Montana Board of Livestock, which maintains that any bison outside the park threaten the cattle industry. "They're not going to get their way," board secretary Larry Petersen told the Associated Press. "We will retain the right to shoot those (bison) that cannot be captured near West Yellowstone."





Making way for buffalo


While the Park Service and Buffalo Nations struggle to keep bison on safe ground, other groups are working behind the scenes to make that job easier.


At the park's northern entrance near Gardiner, Mont., the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has helped broker a deal that would allow bison to roam more freely. The deal involves the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), which will trade 6,000 acres of its ranchlands bordering the park for $15 million and 1,000 acres of Forest Service land. CUT officials say they will also put 1,850 acres into conservation easements dedicated to wildlife.


"We hate to see the bison hunted," " says CUT spokeswoman Christina Sarlo. "It's horrible for us." " The groups have asked Congress to allocate money for the deal from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.


The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is also negotiating with local ranchers to give up some grazing leases on national forest land that abuts the park.


In the meantime, members of Buffalo Nations tumble out of their sleeping bags at 5:30 each morning, leaving the warmth of their cabin outside West Yellowstone to patrol the park's borders.


So far, it has been a mild winter for Yellowstone, says activist Sue Nackoney. Temperatures have ranged from 10 to 30 degrees, with only a few inches of snow. Still, about 10 bison have strayed outside the park. To "shepherd" the animals to safe ground, says Nackoney, "we get in a line, make noise, wave our hands and throw snowballs. It gets them moving along."


So far this year, Montana livestock officials have left the bison alone.


* Mark Matthews





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* Contact Buffalo Nations, P.O. Box 957, West Yellowstone, MT 59758, 406/ 646-0070, buffalo@wildrockies.org.