When I went down to the Yellowstone in December, my hunting season was finished, with two mule deer and a yearling elk hanging in my barn, and a gift antelope in the freezer. My plan had originally been to accompany one of the buffalo hunters, offering to help with gutting and packing meat in exchange for a first-hand look at the hunt. I had more than one friend who applied for the tags — one of them, an old hunting and working buddy, was planning to shoot the buffalo with some kind of huge rifle that he called "Numa." I even thought seriously about applying for a tag myself, and looking for a yearling.
Leaving Eagle Creek that afternoon, I asked myself whether I would have wanted to shoot one of those buffalo, video cameras, dreadlocked witnesses and oddballs in gunfighter get-ups notwithstanding. The answer was no, but I wasn’t exactly sure why.
Less than a month later, in early January, the hunt was halted temporarily, while crews from the Department of Livestock honored their commitment to the management policy by hazing buffalo that were trying to enter the public lands on the west side of the park. There are never any cattle on these public lands in the winter, but the policy has a zero-tolerance stand regarding buffalo on them. And so the livestock agents went to work.
On Jan. 12, a team of snowmobiles forced bands of buffalo out onto the ice of Hebgen Lake, where 12 of them crashed through into five feet of water. The photos circulated, the video from the Buffalo Field Campaign was suitably gut-wrenching, the big heads of the animals sticking up from the water, the thrashing, obvious terror. And the snowmobiles in the background, the motorized human tormentors, who of course rushed to save the drowning buffalo in an hours-long effort with a chainsaw and ropes, rescuing all but two of them. The 10 lucky survivors were hazed back to the park.
The next week, it was announced that there were 651 captured buffalo in the pens on the east and west sides of the park. According to a story in the Bozeman Chronicle, 347 had already been sent to slaughter, and 34 calves were sent to a quarantine pen in Corwin Springs, north of Gardiner. Two buffalo had died in the traps. The 264 animals that remained in the capture pen would be shipped to slaughter as soon as possible. Would they be tested for brucellosis? No. Was this population control, since the "Interagency Bison Management Plan" had selected the seemingly arbitrary top number of 3,000 buffalo for the park? "This is not population control," park spokesman Al Nash told the Chronicle. The story did not answer what it was that the capture and slaughter was meant to accomplish. The impression was that there was no answer.
But in the photos of the buffalo struggling in the freezing lake, and the accounts of the captures, I at least answered my own question about why I did not want a permit to hunt buffalo. I wanted no part in the buffalo hunt because there was no buffalo hunt in 2006. Instead, there was simply an accelerated campaign of torture and harassment, and a lottery to see which 50 Montana hunters would be invited to join in.
Perhaps the various agencies involved in buffalo management believed that if we were given the opportunity to kill some of the buffalo ourselves we would be less likely to protest the cruel stupidity of their never-changing non-solutions. But I’d like to think that they made a miscalculation. I’d like to think that after we were invited in to see the animals themselves and the policy under which they suffered that we would decide to change the whole equation.
It is clear that the tireless efforts of the buffalo hippies need to be augmented by the short-haired, big-game hunting, SUV-driving advocates of wildlife and habitat that have already done so much for wildlife and habitat and wildlands all over the West. We know that there is no hunt, in these modern beyond-subsistence (for most of us) days, unless it involves giving something back to the wild animals, giving them room, advocating for the places that they and the other nations of wildlife, live.
Those buffalo calves sent to that quarantine pen in Corwin Springs can gaze out across the mighty Yellowstone River and look right at one of the most important purchases of land for wildlife ever made. In 1999, with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as the driving force, the U.S. taxpayers paid $13 million to acquire 5,262 acres of land from the Church Universal and Triumphant, all of it a crucial migration corridor for the northern Yellowstone elk herd and all the other wildlife of the area.
But the larger effort to open the area to migrations hit a snag. The deal to buy the Church’s grazing rights stalled when the price went to $2.5 million, almost five times what the federal government and other players believed that they were worth. The Church has maintained a herd of cattle there, so while the elk and mule deer and wolves and bears roam the corridor, under the current policy, the bison are excluded.
Beyond that land, the west side of the Paradise Valley opens up, to the great valleys and open parklands of the Gallatin Range: Cinnabar Creek, Tom Miner Basin, Rock Creek, and on and on, some of the finest wildlife country left on earth, huge expanses of it public land, more than capable of supporting the Yellowstone buffalo at its current population level. Allowing buffalo to roam freely there would require some concessions. But buying out grazing leases, paying for conservation easements on private lands, asking landowners for a certain amount of patience for wildlife — all of these ideas are working right now across the West. The amount of energy and money that hunters and other conservationists have put into them speaks volumes about who we are as a people, and what we value, when we are at our best. To say we cannot work around Yellowstone National Park for buffalo is defeatist, a repulsive exercise in stagnation.
There is no place on earth more capable of being the landscape within which a buffalo hunter could feel, and be, free and proud. It does not matter if hunting buffalo is not as difficult as hunting a big bull elk. "Fair chase" does not mean that you pursue only the wiliest and most secretive of the game. It is about taking meat or a grand old horned beast from a species that has been treated fairly, to the absolute best of our ability, in all its elements.
It is certainly not the killing of the buffalo up Eagle Creek that is ugly. This is Yellowstone, after all, the personification of nature red in tooth and claw, watered with blood and fed on raw meat and steaming gutpiles, the great wheel of life and death spinning here as nowhere else, the ravens overhead and the wolf always right out there beyond the circle of light cast by our fires. The killing of the buffalo by hunters right now feels ugly, the "hunt" feels controversial because the quarry as a whole is being treated with a combination of contempt, cruelty, and worst of all, indifference. Until that is changed, there will be no buffalo hunt, no matter how many tags the state issues.
Hal Herring writes from Augusta, Montana. Photojournalist William Campbell documents bison, wolves, grizzlies and land-use issues in the Yellowstone region from Livingston, Montana.