Article — From the June 2008 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access the Harper’s archive
ALERT: Usernames and passwords from the old Harpers.org will no longer work. To create a new password and add or verify your email address, please sign in to customer care and select Email/Password Information. (To learn about the change, please read our FAQ.)
Article — From the June 2008 issue
The day before the buffalo were to be killed, six state livestock agents set out on horseback along Horse Butte to haze the animals that had migrated out of Yellowstone National Park during the night. The herd they were tracking was small, only eighteen head, but up close and streaming through the sage where the butte touched the waters of Lake Hebgen, the buffalo shook the earth and seemed even to shake the water. The horsemen chirped and hiyahed and whistled as they drove the animals into a pine forest. I followed them to the edge of the woods, to where the bison would be hazed east across U.S. 191, the two-lane blacktop that parallels the park.
The forest was silent but for the buzzing of gnats and the breeze moving through the pines and the firs. Then the buffalo burst from the trees, nearly trampling me, the calves with their umbilical cords still hanging, the cows panicked for the safety of the calves, and one big bull not happy at having his morning disturbed. Hard behind them came a rider from the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL), clad in a Stetson, chaps, and aviator glasses, and carrying a whip. Seconds later, the forest was flooded with horsemen slaloming through the trees, hollering into their walkie-talkies—“Your goddamn mike’s open”—wary of broadcasting the details of their locations or methods over the airwaves. On the dirt road to my left came an SUV from the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office and a pickup from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks; on horseback and in more trucks came agents from the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The DOL even brought in its own helicopter—a Hughes 500, piloted by a National Guardsman home from Iraq—to channel the herd with its noise and rotor wash. In total, perhaps twenty officers had been dispatched from six different agencies, in as many as twelve vehicles and riding as many as eleven horses, deployed sometimes sixteen hours a day, arrayed at a cost of $3 million, their purpose nothing less than the corralling of the last wild free-roaming herd of genetically pure buffalo in the United States.
The men and machinery were meant to ensure the survival of a different yet equally beleaguered creature of the American West: the rancher. The alleged threat posed by Yellowstone’s 3,600 buffalocame from the fact that they carry brucella, a bacterium that cycles harmlessly enough in Bison bisonbut has considerably more dire effects on cattle. Brucellosis can ravage the reproductive capacity of entire herds, causing pregnant cows to miscarry their fetuses, and typically spreading from cow to cow through the blood and flesh of the dead fetus. If a significant number of Montana cattle became infected with brucellosis, the federal government would revoke the state’s “brucellosis-free” status, which under U.S.D.A. regulations would require Montana’s cattlemen to spend millions of dollars to quarantine, test, and, in the worst case, slaughter the animals. Therefore, the state could not allow brucellosis-infected buffalo to roam freely on public land reserved for cows, because they threatened not just the cattle but ranching itself.
 An estimated 300,000 fenced, domesticated buffalo, raised for their meat and their hides, circulate on farms and ranches in the United States. Almost all of them carry cattle genes; scientists believe there are fewer than 15,000 genetically pure buffalo currently alive, the Yellowstone herd among them.
I struggled to keep up with the haze, running through the trees and the blowdown, until I reached a dirt road that a DOL detective named Bob Morton had blockaded with his pickup. His purpose, Morton told me, was to keep “the public” from getting too close to the haze. (The public consisted of me, a PBS cameraman, and a dozen or so local activists protesting the “persecution” of the buffalo.) Morton explained that the DOL was conducting the haze now, in May, in order to confine the animals to the park before summer, when the ranchers loosed their cattle on the grass outside Yellowstone. If the animals continued to slip the boundaries of the park, the Montana DOL decreed, they would be slaughtered, in groups or one at a time, by pistol or rifle, by accidental self-goring in the backs of trucks, or beneath the butcher’s blade, their meat to be distributed to food banks and local Indian tribes, who still consider the creature sacred.
The government began large-scale operations against the Yellowstone buffalo in 1989, after forest fires drove the herd out of the high plateaus and geyser basins of the park. The severity of the treatment the animals receive each year depends on how far they venture from the park, which itself depends on the size of the herd, the availability of forage, and the vagaries of weather. In the winter of 1996–97, for example, 1,084 stray bison were slaughtered by the DOL—at the time, the largest single-season buffalo kill since the nineteenth century. In 2005–06, more than 30 percent of the herd was culled, including fourteen bison that, pursued by government agents on snowmobiles, died after crashing through the ice on Lake Hebgen. The buffalo, it was reported, struggled for three hours to stay afloat, until two of the creatures at last sank beneath the water; several others were then retrieved and shot. The surviving buffalo instinctively gathered around the victims, shaking their heads, jumping, turning in circles, performing a kind of dance. These too were killed.
More from Christopher Ketcham:
Special Feature — October 19, 2012, 2:52 pm