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From  Issue
31 March 2002
The Slaughter Continues

By Dan Brister
Buffalo Field Campaign - buffalo@wildrockies.org 
www.wildrockies.org/buffalo 

Yesterday I woke at 4am with the rest of the morning patrols. We ate our breakfast of home-fries in the cabin's main room as we slowly made our transitions from the world of dreams to the waking world. Out the door by five, the various patrols climbed into our vehicles and drove to strategic locations along the West side of the park: Duck Creek, Fur Ridge, Cougar Creek, the Madison River, and Horse Butte. The positions of these patrols are determined by the presence of buffalo and whether or not Department of Livestock (DOL) agents are in town.

Yesterday we knew a mixed herd of eight bison had come out the day before and we knew the DOL was here. My patrol partner and I climbed into the back of the Toyota pickup with two other volunteers and headed for Horse Butte. Our job was to ski along the Madison between the Butte and the highway and locate the small herd of buffalo. Because the previous day's patrols had seen the DOL come into town and because they were unable to capture any buffalo during our week of action (we had more than 70 volunteers) we knew they would try to capture the herd.

We skied along the bluffs, overlooking the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake and the ever-widening pond of open water. We counted more than 80 trumpeter swans floating on the water and observed great blue herons and a young bald eagle.

After skiing nearly five miles we found the buffalo--two pregnant females and five yearling calves. Two of the calves had shaved swaths on their shoulders and hindquarters and wore yellow tags that the DOL attached when they were captured on February 24. They had been part of a different herd that migrated out in late February and were promptly captured. Orphaned after their mothers were sent to slaughter they went back to the park where they were adopted by a different herd.

We found them on a steep hillside, grazing on the newly exposed grass. Over our two-way fm radio we learned from the other patrols that the DOL was out and about on their snowmobiles, locating buffalo and making sure we didn't try to shepherd them back to the park. We dug a small shelter in a snowbank to shield us from the strong wind and waited, watching the beautiful buffalo. As I watched them graze I was saddened, knowing their hours of freedom and--for some--life were numbered.

Shortly after ten am a swarm of eleven snowmobiles arrived, and DOL agents began shouting orders at Park Service rangers and Montana game wardens. The swarm converged on the buffalo and cracker-rounds--loud explosives fired from shotguns--shattered the peace. I stood in a snag and videotaped as the frightened buffalo took off running.

The agents chased them fast and we followed the operation on our skis, not quite able to keep up. Cracker-bursts let me know I wasn't far behind. I skied along the snowmobile trail, looking down at the bison's tracks. For four of the buffalo, these would be the last tracks of their lives. I reached the Horse Butte trap five minutes after they had been confined. Occasional clangs of horn against the trap's cold steel panels were the only indication of the eight bison in the trap.

The two pregnant mothers were slaughtered today along with two of the calves. Four of the calves, including the two orphaned in February, were released without mothers.

At 12:30 we were relieved by afternoon patrols and climbed back into the truck for the ride home. As we neared Duck Creek we saw the armada of snowmobiles on the side of the highway. They had been joined by ATVs. We pulled over, climbed out, and confronted the agents. "Do you enjoy killing pregnant mothers?" someone asked. Someone else asked why they killed bulls when scientists acknowledge that they pose no risk to cattle. Another asked whether there had ever been a case of transmission from wild bison to cattle (there hasn't). They ignored the questions, talking instead about college sports.

After a few minutes a large bull emerged from the woods, being chased by several agents on snowmobiles. The ATVs then chased him north on the road, toward the Duck Creek trap. The bull nearly outran them, cantering down the road, then jumped off and hid on some private property. The agents, usually vocal proponents of private property rights, didn't flinch as they passed the signs reading "Buffalo Safe Zone: No Shooting or Harassing Bison Permitted by Order of the Landowner."

They continued to chase him and he ran back out onto the highway, back in the direction from which he had come. After several near misses with pursuing ATVs, the bull darted off the road and plunged through the deep snow along Cougar Creek and toward the park. Because of the thick willows along the creek, the agents on snowmobiles were unable to pursue him. After watching the capture of the eight bison in the morning, we were uplifted by the bull's escape.

Spring is a difficult time for the buffalo and hundreds are expected to leave the park in the coming weeks. We need volunteers to help us protect the buffalo and document the actions taken against them. If you've been wanting to help, now is the time. Volunteers are provided with room and board in exchange for help with patrols. We'll be very busy between now and mid-May and welcome any help you can give. Thanks for being such dedicated supporters.

With the Buffalo,

Dan Brister

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