Forty bison mill about on the football field at the school in Gardiner, Mont. One of the shaggy beasts rubs her head vigorously against the goalpost. A light snow is falling.
I walk over and sit on a nearby boulder. I feel that it is the
least I can do -- just sit in the final presence of these animals
that have moved into town. In January, I saw a herd of bison in the
park circle as a pack of wolves approached. The bulls faced down
the wolves and then escorted them out of the vicinity, like
bar-bouncers whose mere countenance suggests the wisdom of
At 22 below zero, I watched the steam rise
from their nostrils as they disregarded the cold. A week later,
they began to move. A previous warm spell had caused the snowpack
to melt; then the return of freezing weather turned what lay on the
field to ice. The bison, their massive heads no longer able to plow
aside snow to uncover the grass, followed their hunger to lower
In late February, the bison began to clog the
roads. They ambled in an unhurried stream off the Blacktail
Plateau, across the bridge over the Yellowstone River, down past
Mammoth Hot Springs and into the schoolyard.
the park radio cackled with frenzied rangers attempting to haze the
bison back into the national park. But as one bison rancher told
me, "You can get a bison to do whatever it wants to."
When bison insist on acting like wild animals and refuse to stay
within the confines of Yellowstone National Park, they must be
killed. That is the ruling of the federal Interagency Bison
Management Plan. And because the park population of bison has risen
over the maximum number of 3,000, the animals can be killed without
being tested for brucellosis, the disease that led to the formation
of the control plan for bison. Brucellosis can cause cows to abort
and leads to sanctions against beef producers.
I watch as
the bison begin to move past the school and onto the flats, where
they are herded into the capture facility, joining another 50 from
the previous day. Late in the afternoon the trucks will come.
The next day begins with a winter storm that postpones
the next shipment, and 47 bison still remain in the pens. The area
is closed by order of the superintendent and armed rangers guard
the entrance as if it contained something precious. Just inside the
park boundary, the capture facility consists of a fenced enclosure
that funnels into three smaller pens where the animals are sorted
into bulls, cows and calves. The sorting pens are lined with
plywood to prevent the animals from injuring themselves or getting
too excited as they are loaded into trucks that haul them to
Mike Mease of the volunteer Buffalo Field
Campaign wants to film what happens at the facility, and so park
rangers Marsha Karle and Tim Reid have offered to escort our small
group to the pens.
When I ask about why 3,000 was chosen
as the magic number, Tim cites a study done by park biologist Rick
Wallen. He says it suggests when the population approaches 3000, in
combination with other factors such as water content in the snow,
the bison begin to move. "The north wind gets them to move; they
turn like a weather vane and head into the wind," says Tim.
From the causeway, we look down at the empty pens and the
bison milling about the enclosure. We discuss the brucellosis
issue, the fact that elk also carry the disease, how this has
suddenly become a population-control issue, the notion of
sport-hunting the bison.
But I want to get past the
arguments and counter-arguments, past the details, past the
reasoning, or lack thereof. It’s the fencing, corrals, chutes
and pulleys I keep coming back to. I look north. The map tells me
the park border is just ahead, yet the landscape is unbroken.
Mountains rise unhindered to our left and right.
this really be considered a free-ranging herd of bison?" I ask.
Both Marsha and Tim look down. "You know, I won’t even use
that term anymore," says Marsha.
"This hurts my heart so
much, that here are these beautiful animals we can’t even
save," says Mike, who has dedicated the last seven years of his
life toward stopping the bison slaughter. We all stand gazing down
at the bison as they move slowly through the pen, feeding on the