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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is also
negotiating with local ranchers to give up some grazing leases on
national forest land that abuts the park.
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
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.
* Contact Buffalo Nations, P.O. Box 957, West
Yellowstone, MT 59758, 406/ 646-0070,