The Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers have met with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, filed hundreds of reports on their website, been on television and the radio and in the newspapers. They argue that the buffalo, which are obviously wild animals, should not be classified as livestock, and should not be under the control of the Department of Livestock, an entity that has no reason whatsoever to protect them or advocate for them, and one that puts its employees in an impossible position with its absurd, never-win policy.
The volunteers also point out that the buffalo are hazed away from pretty much the whole Yellowstone ecosystem, even though there are actually very few cattle there. Meanwhile, wolves and grizzlies, and other big game like mule deer and elk, are for the most part free to roam. This, despite the fact that brucellosis is having a field day in elk, especially in Wyoming, because the elk are concentrated and their numbers are kept artificially high by state-run feedgrounds that substitute for winter range that’s all being claimed by cattle (HCN, 12/26/05: A desperate move to protect cattle ranchers). And unlike buffalo, elk have actually transmitted the disease to cattle.
Mease thinks the difference in how the elk and the buffalo are treated goes deeper than the brucellosis issue, that even if there were some way to control the disease, buffalo would still be persecuted. "If you watch them long enough," he says, "you see how strange they are, how wild. Whether people recognize it or not, they respond to that wildness, and a lot of people just can’t stand it. They want to control them, keep them in the park, or get rid of them. It’s a kind of prejudice, and it’s tied in to why they were wiped out in the first place."
Since 2003, the state of Montana has been trying to figure out how to have a new buffalo hunt. Residents want it. They see the buffalo hazed and run and shot and sent off to slaughter, and they look in their empty freezers or at a blank space on the trophy room wall, and mutter, "Why not me?" But it has not been an easy sell. The notion of "fair chase" is hard to establish when it comes to buffalo, because they live most of the time in the park, amid hordes of tourists, and have no fear of people. Even when they ruled the American Plains, they were as likely to face enemies by standing firm as to thunder away. They are not pronghorn, not whitetails.
Montana’s old buffalo hunt was brought to a halt after a particularly big kill during a stretch of harsh weather in the winter of 1990-’91, when the media picked up photos of buffalo sprawled in bloody snow, of men dressed up like Buffalo Bill firing big-bore pistols into the buffalo’s heads at point-blank range, of steaming supersized guts loosed from broad black bellies while other buffalo nosed in, wall-eyed, to see what the heck was happening. The hunt looked more like a slaughter. It was too much, too messy, it was bad for Montana public relations. The next winter, the Department of Livestock took over the job of harassing and killing.
After years of consideration, Montana announced that it would reinstate a hunt in the winter of 2004-’05, but the hunt was cancelled after a wide range of wildlife officials and others pointed out that, since buffalo management policy had not really changed, any new hunt would be conducted while livestock agents hazed the animals to and fro. It might look even worse than 1991.
But in 2005-’06, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks decided to go ahead with a hunt, setting up a lottery system for 50 permits. A total of 6,177 people applied for the tags. The hunt would run in two stages from Nov. 15 through Feb. 15. Livestock agents would take a break from hazing the animals during the three months that the hunt ran, and they would refrain from hazing on an additional 30,000 acres up Eagle Creek, allowing for more hunting territory and more room for the animals.
Mike Mease and the Buffalo Field Campaign say they support the newly revived hunt, if it proves to be the lever that moves buffalo policy out of the black hole that it has been in for the past 15 years. But the cold truth of the matter is that the 2005 buffalo hunt looks an awful lot like the 1991 buffalo hunt — same bulls standing around watching the same hunters pile out of their pickup trucks and take aim from 30 yards, same blood-stained snow and gutpiles of epic dimensions. What has changed is our own capacity to understand just how badly a big, wild and unique animal can be treated when subjected to the cold realities of an "interagency policy" that has institutionalized fantastic cruelty and failed to seek any new remedy. We have been shown, winter after winter, that there are plenty of fates that can befall a species in a human-dominated world that are worse than being hunted.
But inviting Montana hunters into the house of such an obviously dysfunctional policy might ultimately prove very dangerous to business as usual for the buffalo-management crowd.
There is a road up Eagle Creek, just north of the park, in the sagebrush and grassland hills just above the town of Gardiner. The Eagle Creek Basin is one of the few bits of winter range where the buffalo are tolerated. Not surprisingly, it is where the bulk of the killing has been done in the hunt this year.
There is a road through the basin, leading to a dead end in higher country just short of the open Doug fir and lodgepole forests. The buffalo hunters need the road, because buffalo are so big that getting them out after you kill them is a major operation. But the road makes the hunt feel a bit odd, too, because there are a lot of buffalo grazing along it, wandering up and down it, and standing beside it. They gaze Zen-like into nothingness, their long tongues lapping in and out, breath like smoke in the cold. They stand there in their dignified and inscrutable immensity, a posture they maintain, other than a long, untroubled swing of the head to regard the man with the rifle, right until the bullet kills them.