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?

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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.