The Killing Fields

A buffalo hunt turns into a slaughter on the border of Yellowstone National Park. But could this be the key to setting the animals free?

  • Bull bison in the Eagle Creek area of the Gallatin National Forest on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park

    William Campbell
  • A dead bison lies in the snow after being shot by a hunter in the Eagle Creek area of the Gallatin National Forest. Fifty hunting tags were issued this winter for bison that wander out of Yellowstone National Park

    William Campbell
  • Mike Mease. He and fellow Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers use video cameras to document what happens to buffalo at the hands of hunters and the Montana Department of Livestock

    William Campbell
  • Mease greets hunter Ann Harapat after she killed a 2,000-pound bull bison

    William Campbell
  • Mease leaves a note congratulating a hunter for a kill - written on a Buffalo Field Campaign flyer - on a hunter's pickup near the hunt site

    William Campbell
  • A hunting group photographs and videotapes a recent kill

    William Campbell
  • A bull bison paws, pushes and nuzzles another bison from his group that has just been shot and killed. The bull stayed with the dead bison until it was chased away by hunters

    William Campbell
  • Hunter Terry Suhr poses with the bull bison he just shot. Later, with the help of a large group of family and friends, he skins and field dresses his 1,800-pound trophy

    William Campbell
  • Bison leave Yellowstone National Park on a road that heads straight into Eagle Creek, where they're fair game for hunters. Bison that head northwest from the park will be either hazed back into the park or rounded up by wranglers into the Stephens Creek capture facility, then sent off to slaughter. As of Jan. 27, 673 had been captured, according to park officials

    William Campbell

The flayed elk carcass lies on a table in a cold sideroom of a borrowed and makeshift house north of Gardiner. The stacks of rich steaks and Tupperware containers of tough grinder meat are lined up like a display of the world’s oldest kind of wealth. Mike Mease is working fast to take the last of the meat from the bones. Tomorrow is the first Saturday in December, and many of the lucky hunters holding the 50 bison tags issued by the state of Montana will surely be coming to claim their trophies and their meat. Mease and the rest of the Buffalo Field Campaign will be there, too, as they have been since the hunt began on Nov. 15, to bear witness to this latest evolution in the state’s quest to deal with the unending buffalo "problem."

Mease is one of the founders and the main force behind the Buffalo Field Campaign. He coordinates groups of volunteers who come to Montana to try to convince the rest of the nation that the world’s last free-ranging herd of bison deserves something better than to be classified as livestock and tormented and slaughtered every time it leaves the snowbound high country of Yellowstone National Park.

Mease and his band of self-proclaimed "buffalo hippies" are always described in the media, and in the bars of Gardiner and West Yellowstone, as "animal-rights activists," and that is what they are, if by that term you mean people who devote a lot of their time to drawing attention to wrongs done to animals like the buffalo. He killed this latest bull elk while walking around the Eagle Creek country above Gardiner before Thanksgiving. For an animal-rights activist, locals agreed, he got a pretty nice elk.

Mease has been living the life of the Buffalo Field Campaign for nine years, based out of his tepee near West Yellowstone, arguably the coldest place in Montana. He has been a kind of professional enviro-meddler ever since I’ve known him, wandering the world from his base in Montana. He finally came to rest in Yellowstone after the grandiose buffalo slaughter of 1996-’97, when a series of storms followed by warm winds and rains created deep snows glazed with an inch of hard ice, and every big animal east of the Divide was on the move, following the ancient traces and paths to lower ground, to places where the wind scoured the snow away from last year’s grasses, dried on the stem and heavy with life-saving protein. Winter range. Without it, wildlife in the Rockies does not exist.

That winter was tough on all the big game, but the buffalo fared the worst. Deer and elk walked freely across the national park boundary, but the buffalo stumbled into a state policy that condemned them to death if they stepped across the line. The reason, according to ranchers and their advocates in the Montana Department of Livestock, was brucellosis. As many as 50 percent of the nearly 5,000 Yellowstone buffalo may have brucellosis, a disease that was brought to North America by European cattle, which spread it to bison and other wildlife. It can cause spontaneous abortions in cattle, and give humans a nasty recurring malaria-like illness.

As everyone knows by now, there has never been a recorded case of buffalo transmitting brucellosis to cattle, but studies show that it could happen. And that presents the people trying to manage Yellowstone’s buffalo with a conundrum: Because of the high infection rate, the state only tolerates the animals on small parcels of winter range. But the high concentration of the animals each winter is the reason the infection rate is so high.

The results of that conundrum — which described in print looks so sanitary, such an interesting topic for biologists and researchers and wildlife managers to puzzle over — are fiercely ugly. In those early days of 1997, 1,079 of the buffalo that left the Park were shot or rounded up and slaughtered. Of those that the Department of Livestock chased back into the Park, 1,300 starved to death. Every year since has brought similar, if smaller-scale, debacles.

During that hard winter, Mease found what he considered to be a calling — to bring attention to a problem that seemed to be ripe for fixing, if only enough people looked at it and realized that it was so clearly broken, so clearly causing an unacceptable level of real cruelty to a beast most Americans outside the cattle industry look upon with reverence. He set up his tepee in West Yellowstone, and settled in for what has become a very long haul.

Mease learned early that if he brought a video camera down to watch the efforts of the Montana Department of Livestock, agents handled the buffalo with a lighter hand. Since that discovery, he and a revolving roster of volunteers have followed the employees of the Department of Livestock as they’ve raced about, winter after winter, hazing buffalo away from anywhere that they might conflict with cattle, using snowmobiles and four-wheelers and helicopters while the taxpayers’ money flies away like the snow under the wild rush of wind from the rotors, and the rest of the wildlife trying to winter in the area flees in wild-eyed terror.

Anonymous says:
Feb 06, 2006 12:14 PM

Wildlife policies are so disparate and arbitrary. Wildlife managers both state and federal; the livestock industry and it's state and federal vassals, sportsmen, animal ethicists and enthusiasts. They all have an axe to grind and there's lots of pushing and shoving around the sharpening stone. Montana won't let the bison roam; yet they pridefully point the finger at Wyoming for using winter feedgrounds and stopping elk from spreading onto the welfare rancher's jealously guarded hayfields and grazing allotments.

Brucellosis is the Bogeyman; a livestock introduced disease. What if the U.S. Dept of Agriculture spearheaded developing an effective vaccine for bison and elk instead of insisting on policies that cause hazing, impoundment, test and slaughter? In a flight of fancy I suggest that all the cattlemen's groups be levied to fund control or eradication of a cattle disease in wildlife. What if the economic value of wildlife was balanced against the losses to subsidized public land grazing?

In an ideal scenario; could the state and federal land and animal managers minimize the infighting; throw off the yoke of the grazing industry, and manage complete ecosystems for all wildlife?

Robert J. Laybourn
Cheyenne, Wyoming

Anonymous says:
Feb 09, 2006 12:40 PM

I think you need to print stories from both sides of the fence.  Killing the buffalo is bad but an overpopulation of buffalo is worse for the environment!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous says:
Feb 16, 2006 02:51 PM

It makes me so angry that both Montana and Wyoming use animals such as the mustang, wolf and Bison to draw tourists to the state, and yet the reality is that they absolutely hate the inconvenience of predators and any animal that causes trouble for the ranchers. The bison are wild animals, as are the Yellowstone wolves and the Mexican grey wolf of the southwest. They know no boundaries as set by humans, they only know the fire of hunger in their bellies.

It will take years for the Lamar valley to recuperate from the overgrazing by two many ungulants, but the wolves are a good start in returning the natural balance. It took the park service way too long to deal wtih the over population in a meaningful and logical way. A quick solution will never happen, but thankfully people care about our environment and wildlife.

P. M. Blair

Anonymous says:
Mar 17, 2006 06:57 PM

In your most recent issue (3/6/2006), Sue White of Carrizozo, N.M., wrote a letter to the editor saying buffalo/bison should be contained within the 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park, and if they roam off of park land on to private property, then landowners should be able to do what they want with them. I want to point out that outside of Yellowstone National Park is NOT private property. It is nearly 2 million acres of national forest land. This is public property, and this is where the "hunts" occur. So we're not talking about letting private landowners do what they want with wildlife on their property. We're still talking about PUBLIC LANDS, which we all own. Your private land sentiments are beside the point here.


And besides, even if the bison do roam on to private land, the law actually still calls for the state (and thus, hopefully, the people) to regulate wildlife hunting on private land, assuming the animal is not an endangered species. The land may be yours, but the wildlife is not. It belongs to all of us, and every other living creature, the Earth, and God itself.

Natalie Bennon

Portland, Oregon

Anonymous says:
Apr 02, 2007 03:56 PM

I love those animals and they are almost extinced

Anonymous says:
May 21, 2007 01:11 PM

It's not fair that the Animals of yellowstone (not just the buffalo) are brought up not to fear people so they can get close to tourists( so the state gets thier money!) and then when they need to move to survive they are killed! The wildlife such as the wolf, bison and other are raised near humans they don't think of humans bad they just think their there like the rest of them!!! But hunting bison is not bad I do it to , but not where they don't know people are predators! thats just cruel! Buffalo don't have a chance that way!It's as bad as those stupid corral hunt's.At corral hunts they basicly put  a small big game animal in a lorge corral ! They have absolutly no chance of geting away! It's Just cruel!!!!!

Anonymous says:
Sep 20, 2007 11:29 AM

hunt  buffalo they taste great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous says:
Feb 15, 2008 09:07 PM

i dont think the bison have very much proection anywhere in the world exept for yellowstone antional park

Anonymous says:
Mar 10, 2008 11:23 AM

I couldn't figure out what the author wanted- no more poor shooting hunters? to advocate Tepee living to improve biological science? or to let giant herd animals wander anywhere they want to on private land eating rancher's herd forage and infecting their cattle.  The Bottom line is that the land can only support so many animals.  It is not the hunter's fault- 50 licenses are not that many- if we need to legislate minimum caliber weapons for buffalo hunters that is easy to mandate.  Groups like this one can do more to advocate proper hunting professionalism in hunting magazines and newspapers bringing attention like this article to advocate for Fair Chase Hunting.  

The fact is a certain number of buffalo must and will die every year to keep the herd's numbers at a supportable level.  They will die either slowly starving and the state gets nothing, or relatively quickly die to a hunter's bullet or a meat packer's tools and the state can gain revenue that can be used to provide more care the next year.  buffalos' lives are hard; they break legs, get sick, fight and wound or kill each other and all eventually die. They are not particularls smart as this article illustrates- that's why Indians had so much success with bows and arrows hunting them.  If you think small caliber rifle wounds are painful - can you imagine being chased off a cliff or poked with arrows and spears until you bled to death, I guarantee you the Indians were no more accurate with their weapons. Yet somehow they were more spiritual...No one talks about the cruelty of starving animals - only the Disney like humanization of their behavior during hunts.  Herd animals herd if one is wounded they protect it.  That is normal- buffalo don't predict the future- change planetary orbits, save us from ourselves or have a special contact with our past - other than what WE want to give them.  We are spiritual and hopefully rational.  Respect our environment - use its resources. Man is a predator too- Hunt to manage the herd- use as much of the animal as you can.  Enjoy the meat just like the Indians did in the past.