Of bison, the French and our faux wild


There's an inside joke in these parts that Yellowstone bison have a thing for French photographers. It's a weird twist on dwarf tossing, this propensity of theirs to spear and fling men with names like Jacques and Pierre.

Now, this is not a hard and fast rule. The most recent casualty was an elderly Australian who couldn't scamper off a boardwalk at Old Faithful fast enough when a bull charged last July. In another, more bizarre story making the rounds, a tourist (nationality unknown) wanted a video made of himself playing bullfighter. Toro trampled the idiot, of course. Bison are wild animals.

But within the pages of a management plan released this month, park officials have cast themselves in the role of rancher/zookeeper (see story page 7). Under the guise of stopping Montana's annual bison slaughter, the agency proposes a broad series of heavy-handed management techniques, tight controls designed to please the human political factions, but which treat the bison like an inconvenient herd of livestock.

In brief, bison will be allowed to wander out of the park in the winter, but must return 45 days before the first cattle move in each spring. Since bison don't carry pocket calendars, the park will help out with an aggressive hazing program. In the past, this has meant shooing the animals back in with helicopters and firecracker rounds.

Meanwhile, all that test positive for brucellosis - a disease brought to this continent by cattle from Europe, and carried by buffalo and elk - will be killed. Even the healthy risk quarantine and slaughter if they don't move fast enough. Pregnant females get the brunt of the deal: They will all be radio-collared and outfitted with "vaginal transmitters," so the park can track down potentially diseased birthing material.

Bison advocates are not pleased. "We were looking for more of a balance between livestock and wildlife interests," says Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a fairly moderate group of environmentalists based in Bozeman. "But the state of Montana has insisted on such intrusive control measures that what we will have is a ranched population."

Gov. Marc Racicot's petulant refusal to bend on the issue of letting park bison cross state lines has unquestionably fueled the controversy. Yet this plan can't be blamed entirely on Montana. The park has been headed in this direction for a long time.

Piece by piece, the agency has been constructing what amount to invisible cages; like the power line hidden just out of camera view in the backcountry of Hayden Valley, officials use science to create the illusion of wildness for tourists, while exerting minute control over the animals themselves. Not content to let reintroduced wolves live wolfish lives, biologists track down successive generations of pups born wild and eventually fit them with radio collars. This is not specific to Yellowstone: In New Mexico, packs are dropped in and out of the Gila Wilderness, moved about according to whim and convenience.

There are an estimated 380 grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes, elk, sheep, bison and antelope wearing radio collars in the Yellowstone ecosystem. This doesn't count the animals tagged, tattooed and otherwise handled, hazed and marked for identification. While not universal among biologists, it's behavior that borders on the obsessive, and one upon which we increasingly rely to solve our own social and political problems. I'm waiting for the day I see a marmot with a collar, bleeping out its location to some thesis-writing "naturalist."

Furthermore, it's become a cottage industry. Between the books, doctoral theses, and TV documentaries, the commercial wildlife-watching guides, photographers, poachers and journalists making a living off animals whose movements can be constantly tracked, we've come to view these animals as ours.

The late Paul Shepard theorized that a species cannot survive outside the conditions that gave rise to its existence. We used to depend on these animals for our physical and spiritual lives. Crow Chief Plenty Coups refused to speak of the years after the last wild bison herds were gone, saying, "When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened."

Now we move the descendants of the last wild buffalo about like toys, like commodities that can be priced in a market and weighed against the value of other goods and services. And can conceive of such things as "vaginal transmitters."

What the Park Service misses in its voluminous analysis is the intangible and invaluable wildness of the American buffalo. It's the inexplicable quality that makes bison toss Frenchmen and leads wolves to favor domestic sheep. We haven't just lost our sense of humor; we've lost the ability to get the joke to begin with.

One man who has not forgotten is Teton guide Jack Turner. In his book, The Abstract Wild, Turner writes that he throttled a man he saw tormenting a mountain lion in a zoo in India. Later, asked to leave town, Turner examines his reaction. "I did not want to leave, I wanted an AK-47. I wanted to go back to the zoo and kill people.

"The heart does have its reasons which the reason cannot understand."

Andrea Barnett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She lives in Montana's Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone National Park.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Andrea Barnett

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