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Know the West

The buffalo underground: Now it can be told

 

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - Shortly after last New Year's Day, Vickie Dyar's cat started acting strangely.

When the gift-store owner stepped into the frigid air to investigate, she saw deep tracks leading through the deep snow toward a small barn near the house. As Dyar walked toward the barn, a bison, its magnificent black head covered with icicles, peered out the door.

It was such a small barn, Dyar recalls wonderingly. "She must have had to back into it."

Dyar says she was concerned - not that the bison would charge her or damage the barn - but that it would leave to become a statistic in the slaughter going on just beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.

She remembers witnessing the killings close up one night while on her way home from her shop in West Yellowstone. She had been stopped at a roadblock, and then watched in horror as sharpshooters leaned their guns across the hoods of their vehicles to aim at bison that struggled through the deep snow.

"If there wasn't anybody there to skin them and save the meat, they just dragged them off to the dump," she said. "It was pretty horrifying."

So when the bison appeared in her barn, she never thought of calling the authorities. But she had a problem; there were only about three bales of old hay in the barn. So she began to search newspaper ads for hay bales. But without luck; hay sells by the ton in rural Montana.

Then she began to realize that she wasn't the only member of the buffalo underground.

"You'd see little clusters of bison in the areas where people threw out hay," she says. Still, she didn't talk about her visitor. What helped was her location, nine miles from the park in an undeveloped subdivision.

But secrets are hard to keep in West Yellowstone, especially if you've lived there all your life. One day an acquaintance leaned over a counter of her Horseshoe Gift Shop to ask: "How's that bison of yours making out?"

When no one turned her in for harboring the fugitive, she relaxed and began to ask advice from people who came through her shop. A few of them ran game farms and they told her to buy pellets made of alfalfa and grass. She did, and the pellets worked fine.

It was a long, hard winter. The snow piled up so high, Dyar often had to climb a stepladder just to look out her window to see if the animal she thought of as "Buffy" was still there.

For two months she was, patiently standing in the cramped shelter, or now and then poking her head out to watch the snow accumulate. For exercise, or maybe just a change of scene, she would occasionally plow her way through the deep snow to the driveway, where she would stand by Dyar's car. They almost seemed the same size.

Then, last March, when patches of grass began to show through the melting snow, Buffy decided to make a break for it. Perhaps she knew that the state of Montana had stopped shooting bison on sight. Dyar herself thought her boarder had a good chance of making it back to the park.

With Yellowstone's bison herd down to 1,000, out of the original 3,500, park officials don't expect the animals to leave the park this winter. If they do, Dyar is ready. She has mucked out the barn of two months of buffalo pies - just in case Buffy needs a hideout.

Mark Matthews writes in Missoula, Montana.