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Most of the calves are still too young for such running. his voice ragged around the edges—but there’s a note of hope in that gravelly world-weariness. better than 30 Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) volunteers and staff begin to fill the sagging couches and duct-taped chairs in the front room of the old lodge for the nightly gathering. and as the meeting progresses the BFCers grow increasingly silent and aggrieved. A bull bison in the Hayden Valley. campaign coordinator Mike Mease stands and steps into the middle of the room. Mease turns in the circle of us. broke its leg. drove some 200 head of bison from Horse Butte and back into Yellowstone National Park. One. In fact. hard day. Yellowstone National Park. with the help of a helicopter. It’s been a long. Finally. thick in the waist and chest. Mease is a big man. And the haze today was especially aggressive: Department of Livestock (DOL) agents on horseback and ATVs. He knows he needs to speak because tomorrow is the drop-dead date. pushed hard by an agent. the date each spring by which all wild buffalo must be hazed out of the state of Montana or face capture and testing—or worse. and fingerless gloves. Mike is never far from a passionate speech on the sacred nature of wild bison or the ugliness of modern life. acknowledges every tear-slicked and blood-hot face.Ending in Visions By Joe Wilkins Photography by W i l l i a m C a m p b el l G V isions arbed in black and green wool pants. M o n ta n a Q u a r t e r ly 19 . May 15. layers of fleece and flannel. he’s begun one now.

but he’s been out here a few years. At first.Vancouver Island. Though he eventually moved BFC headquarters to a lodge a few miles north of West Yellowstone and pitched a tepee for himself in a nearby draw of the Madison Mountains. Cer ta in t ies Journe ys In the light of a few dangling bulbs and a lone kerosene Campaign coordinator Mike Mease. and video cameras and pile into a rusty blue Suburban. together. When she got here. I am struck by how much the morning routine here reminds me of mornings on the ranch—my grandfather itching to get to work. she wanders. Roman stares at the flames slewing from the woodstove’s grate. wore the same clothes day after day. took Fs in all her classes. the BFC’s gnomish cook. 1. He slept in his tent. Origins Noah couldn’t stand Pennsylvania any longer. Laura curses under her breath. Some of Yellowstone’s bison are infected with brucellosis. the bite of black coffee on my tongue. It’s delicious. and we grab rain jackets. one for Duck Creek and one for Beartrap. Sweeny twists the key and pumps the gas. doesn’t drink so much anymore. Mike Mease has been tramping out after buffalo ever since. and started filming nearly every move the DOL made. The disease has been purged from Montana’s cattle herd for more than 20 years. He got fired. After I finish. we sit on the same couches and chairs we rose from after the meeting last night. He’d done a Though BFC patrols caught it on tape. About 1. doubles over and sobs. holiness. she couldn’t believe what she saw. fueling up. All told. where we see arcing up from somewhere south of us the hazing helicopter. Laura takes the backseat. which was the first time Mease. particularly on Horse Butte. contraceptive injections and other means to control the animals’ population. breakfast’s cast-iron pots cooling on the stove. felt truly home.000 is probably close). family who took her home and tried to keep 20 M o n ta n a Q u a r t e r ly 21 . Mease had for years been traveling the world. flexing with the curves of Hebgen Lake. Mike says go. embarked on an historic slaughter. Two groups have left. and un-pierced nose and lips mark her as one of the few BFCers who could perhaps wander downtown West Yellowstone unnoticed. Roman says he’ll run the radio and climbs up front. were killed. when the last of so many millions were gunned down and left to rot on the eastern Montana prairie. ever since he’d fallen in love with the state as a student at the University of Montana. The only reason it persists as a threat today is because bison and elk in Yellowstone Park carry the disease. She never went back. family and strength. and I sit with Elizabeth in the middle row. from the hardwood forests of Malaysia to couple years of college—and for what? Everything had gone to shit. It was her last semester. right. Rejecting calls from some ranchers to show more tolerance for bison. rises. me hoping for another buttered biscuit and cup of coffee. And for it.” The Billings Gazette: “Members of an influential Montana livestock group…are not ready to allow wild bison to roam freely outside Yellowstone National Park and instead want more done to control a disease carried by the animals. Grumbles. has made pancakes. We twist down the mountain road. Mike Mease would have none of it. Yet Montana had long been home base for Mease. as a self-styled guerrilla filmmaker—a vocation which had him bushwhacking into hard-to-reach. sausages. packs. and my group—the Horse Butte patrol—is getting ready. was aghast that park rangers— she’d always wanted to be a park ranger— often participated in the haze. In the off season. but she stayed with the BFC until May. test radios. He lifts his big arms into the air. and coffee. volunteers slip granola bars into backpacks. He talks of tragedy and tribe. so she came out over spring break. a disease the nation has worked for decades to eradicate. She tells A bison shot by the Montana Department of Livestock near West Yellowstone when it left now her hitchhiking stories—the Christian Yellowstone National Park during the winter of 1996–1997. Rather than let this anger lapse into frustration or burn off in fury. dangerous places and documenting environmental or human rights atrocities. fill water jugs. He grew his hair long.100 bison were killed that winter. he is someone you want to listen to—even if you are a rancher’s grandson uneasy with the anger in the room. too.” lamp. a peninsula of good grassland jutting into Hebgen Lake on the west edge of the park. In the high-country winter. yet he still believes. and there are a few curses and catcalls. believing right and wrong aren’t such easy. strapped on snowshoes. but it covered room and board. even if you now call yourself an environmentalist but often feel caught between two worlds. alternately sweettalks and curses the Suburban until it fires. he didn’t know anything about buffalo. Scrubbing my plate and fork. but around 7. under the leadership of the DOL. orange juice. then editing and releasing the film. no one feels good about what happened today. Many buffalo have been slaughtered in that time (the counts differ. where the ice pulls and cracks. [the] Montana Stockgrowers Association committee instead passed resolutions advocating slaughter. and those in the traps that subsequently tested positive for brucellosis antibodies. Sweeny is on the insurance. listens during an evening meeting at the Buffalo Field Campaign house near West Yellowstone. such certain matters. We are too busy eating. He didn’t have anywhere to go. whose fitted fleece. Laura needed to complete internship credits for her degree. Mike tries to channel it. Those that wouldn’t haze. He found a park job. and vision. for his abiding faith and focused passion. In the late winter of 1997. That winter. bison often cross the invisible line that separates Yellowstone Park from surrounding public and private lands. Just as the sun makes its jailbreak over the mountains. Back in the meeting room. They wander because they’re after winter forage. DOL agents began hazing bison back into the park or rounding them up in traps. which was shit.100 wild bison were slaughtered—a tally not seen since the 1880s. Stephany. He feels rested. I step into the low-ceilinged kitchen. certainty. Montana. neat ponytail. His voice deepens. though no one is speaking now. Mike Mease came home for good. so he drives. an Army brat. He was drinking too much. Mike Mease has been giving these speeches for over a decade. Sweeny tugs at his thin beard. and because they’re migratory animals and don’t much care about our boundaries. Origins In the winter of 1996–97. Mike mentions the DOL. Montana. He talks about what is right and what is wrong. He hauled a trailer up into the snows outside Gardiner. the state of Montana. Yet some bison carry brucellosis. One day he filled the tank on his rattletrap car and started driving. The Missoulian: “One thing everyone seems to agree on is the need for a permanent solution to the Yellowstone Park brucellosis problem. He just sort of ended up cutting wood out at the BFC. a disease that causes spontaneous abortion in cattle.

the blinking beacons of windmills. the skinny guy who kept passing her the crack pipe. “Oh. Sweeny takes a knee and traces the tracks: a full-grown bison and. studies a third track that has joined the first two. then another far-off siren. gulping air. humped. where the Madison loops through a plain of flood grass and red willows. There were billboards for the Golden Buffalo Motel and Casino. I drove by a bank named Titonka. hard on his family and bad with land. Every few steps he calls. And they’re still blaring that siren at them.” I say. disappear behind the next jut of ridgeline. Montana. She can’t be more than 24 or 25. They’re not supposed to haze here. the willows. take a drink of water. “We’re nearly four miles into the park.” “They’ll be around the ridge soon. We’re in the park. slowing through another small town. “Let’s see if we can’t get some film of that helicopter even deeper in. V isions Chief Plenty Coups: “Out of the hole in the ground came bulls and cows and calves past counting. and Roman sticks close to me. pointing. But they stopped in small bands and began to eat the grass. ranchers warned that losing…brucellosis-free status would devastate the…livestock industry. as he flips open the video camera. riverless swath of sagebrush plains and badlands that folks call the “Big Dry. and he didn’t leave a M o n ta n a Q u a r t e r ly 23 . “Look at those claws. We’re in the park now. I passed first through the storefronts of Buffalo Center. I drove on into Montana and saw for hundreds of miles not one buffalo (cartoon or otherwise) and finally turned north onto the gravel road up from Hebgen Lake right before—as Noah told me on the phone—the Longhorn Saloon.” Edward Abbey: “Overgrazing. though the track is harder to find among the rodent scratchings. “Exit Now to See Prehistoric Indian Village!” Or I could have stayed “where the buffalo roam” at the Custer State Park and Resort. after the railroads opened much of east-central Montana for homesteading. like some kind of extreme hiking or high-stakes game of capture the flag. wind moves in the trees. the land bucking and drifting into dry ridges and buttes and piney hills—and as the world went wilder I saw fewer bison. Over the roar of our own breath. “Damn it. sharp. but differently…They were not buffalo. This one is as wide as my two hands. These. We run and run—it feels like an hour but is probably just 10 or 15 minutes—and finally break into the treeless A Buffalo Field Campaign ski patrol prepares to head out to look for space at the edge of the ridge. Got to be. and another with an immense buffalo skull under the words. Advertisements for “Bear Country USA” boast pictures of grazing buffalo right next to grinning tourists. I think. is hang out in the wild all day.” Wild bison in the Stevens Creek capture facility in Yellowstone National Park await processing in March.” This is where in the winter of 1883–84 the last of the free-roaming bison—save the handful that remained in Yellowstone Park—were surrounded and slaughtered. Then we hear it. what most BFC volunteers do. Origins Out in the far. and I can see why.Yet after Al’s the country opened.” 22 unwild.’” The New York Times: “Brucellosis is essentially a political myth. 2003. Minnesota. She laughs and smiles. already moving. In the first week of that month. my great-grandfather rode up from Oklahoma in the early part of the last century. as it does once you cross the Missouri. layers of wool and windbreaker rustling about him. a thing to work against. the thubthub-thub of the hazing helicopter. Journe ys Sweeny moves through the pines fast and sure-footed. where he ran his sheep and cattle. making our way through a stand of young pines toward a ridge above the Madison River. hopping deadfall and slipping around snags. not as a buffalo does. dark. the sky each night ablaze with streetlights. Then. nine miles.” Sweeny says and zips off his outer layer. a cartoon buffalo rears up in front of—what else?—a palm tree. Just as I merged onto I-90.” We charge off into the pines. hey bear!” and gives a big clap. “It’s ridiculous. Many lay down. And on each of the Al’s Oasis billboards.” Sweeny says. It scoots in low behind the herd. even in the face of maimed calves and year after year of slaughter. almost running. electric. the Sioux word for buffalo.” Sweeny says and stands. “That’s got to be a grizzly. Even more come streaming from the willows. The signs instead began to advertise for places such as The Stockman’s Club. grass flattening beneath it. there was a billboard advertising the city of Luverne. They are a long way off and in the circled frame of the binoculars look like pictures of themselves—low-headed. Much of the West…is what you might call ‘cow-burnt. “Is that a buffalo?” Origins I live now in Iowa. “Hey. and sounds a siren— loud.” As my breath comes back. We follow the trail east for maybe half a mile before Sweeny kneels again. Like so many others. And we’ve missed the bison altogether. you might keep at this—it’s exciting. At the ridge. Yet on the drive west. our mad run through the pines begins to feel very far away: a hawk cuts across the sky. we’re hoping to find the trail of that cow buffalo and her broken-legged calf—just to see what happened. something moves. wild reaches of eastern Montana there is a Journe ys As we pass the binoculars more bison come wandering out of her. explaining that while Elizabeth and Laura watch the highway for DOL movement. “Hey bear. the economic effect on ranchers was negligible. a calf. Roman pulls off his wool cap and reaches back to tie his hair into a ponytail. we hear the fading thub-thub. “How far do you guess they’re in the park now?” I ask. how they’re so far out from the paw. The bison are in the park. I breathe. adrenaline-inducing. But my great-grandfather was an inveterate gambler and drifter. But when the disease appeared in Wyoming cattle in 2004. The Branding Iron. the sky deepening. maybe eight. to want to beat. is much too weak a term. 231 bison were shipped to slaughter as part of a brucellosis eradication program. then nothing. silo lights. they bunch and run. scattered and spread on the plains. only to see the helicopter buffalo in the Horse Butte area near West Yellowstone. the time she held a machete at a man’s chest all night for fear of him. Suddenly. What Sweeny and Roman do. a place that’s rural but wholly settled.” Roman says. This is as well the country my grandfather ranched. like the others. Cowboy’s Rest RV Resort. For years. Just like that we are back in the stillness of wilderness. Below the ridge. to see if we can count the calf as a victim of the haze. Even the helicopter’s maddening thubthub adds a kind of focal point. and for no reason I could discern it featured a big plastic buffalo. She is sitting in the dirt near the fire ring.

he quit school after the eighth grade—my grandfather lived wild as well. cutting wood or cooking dinner in the afternoon. “Connecticut. though. the one way he—a former hard-living cowpuncher— had found of being whole in the world. it went to dust in his hands. 24 M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 25 . know the places and people of his life: I imagine his old man lost the family ranch some years back. To listen to his focus on and excitement for loves the work—filming in the morning. “Oh!” Laura shouts. because he thinks we have a responsibility. as we begin following again the muddy shine of that Montana plate. the hours on the plains. I imagine with the passing years he began to think the land was his. cowboying all week and slicking his hair back come Saturday night. But here. He’s maybe 21 or 22. The agent. He ran the ranch on Willow Creek for 40-odd years. his only luxuries were an easy chair and a shelf of books. on our way out to fix fence on that last section. watching him and waiting. as the agent hangs up the hose and climbs back into his pickup. sketching and figuring with a pad and pen. like Sweeny’s. sort of half-smiling. who love getting up early and feeding stock and fixing fence. ready any moment to fire up Old Blue. but he burned out. that he was looking for some kind of horseback work to get by when this thing with the DOL came up. his ideas philosophical. It didn’t take into account that there are people here. One example has been playing out on the south side of the Madison River. he bought a piece of Montana to call his own. he’s also done a lot of tutoring and mentoring with at-risk kids. his voice is soft and genuine. cleaning his windshield. his long hair hanging about his full. people who make their living here. Bridger.” ORIGINS Between bites of pancake and elk sausage. it went to dust in his hands. V ISIONS The Buffalo Field Campaign: “Buffalo belong on the landscape. always saving.” Sweeny calls out the window. change is the way of things. who love the land. “Yeah. He is filling up.” From my interview with Roger Knapp. as Sweeny fires the Suburban and swings the wheel. I imagine he married that girl he met up at the Big Timber rodeo when he was still roping. then back up. his bookish grandson. He’ll keep at it.” he says. you can almost forgive him!” “Hey. But now—now I sometimes get to thinking that the best idea for the land might be to pull up the fences and let the buffalo have it back. As a young man—a boy. the price of winter feed. and my heartbroken grandfather reckoned up the latest drought. The bison are…taking advantage of the new areas of green. T. When it hit the light. this area has become favored habitat. so energized. C. here in the West. we’re done. Helicopter hazing has since been halted by court order. says a lot of people love it. he walked the dry creek beds and rode the windswept ridges and mapped this country in his own mind. Sweeny. though. It was plain mean is what it was. To my grandfather ranching was more than a way to make a living. They are attempting to… heal the injuries that more than a hundred years of intense livestock production have caused. in Seattle. Once.” Elizabeth calls.” V ISIONS Mike saves the video he’s editing and shoos out a couple a few spots away. After he started a family. steps out of his pickup. “We have a responsibility to our history. the buffalo will help restore this section of forest. It was a love affair with the land.” says Roman.” I say. It was the work that mattered. “New York. considers my every question. nutritious grass…and by gently grazing. especially those of us born and raised in the West. “It’s Bridger. as if he didn’t expect to see us and is both pleased and embarrassed that he did. I didn’t break any windows or anything. but I sure didn’t like the idea. “Have a good one. since the wildfires that burned the area two summers ago. A Montana Department of Livestock helicopter hazes bison back into Yellowstone National Park from the Horse Butte area near West Yellowstone. The land is healing him. my grandfather told me how he had pulled a buffalo skull from a sandy hill east of Willow Creek. Sweeny turns in the driver’s seat and calls out: “State of origin check! Michigan!” “Delaware.” Sweeny says. have trailed him into West Yellowstone. V ISIONS We follow the agent’s truck to McDonald’s and pull in Bridger looks down at his feet. As always. his flatbed Ford. and we are pulled over a half a block away. really. for a spread of land. He’s 40 years old and has never felt so alive. my grandfather sold all but a little pastureland. he took steady work managing grain elevators. “You guys done for the day?” of volunteers’ kids.” he says. that they’ve got two kids now and a single wide near Ennis—but they’re saving. he works for a place that salvages material for green construction. weathered face. that it would be always ours.” says Laura. Back home. even theological. “He’s the only cute one! When you see him. Yet when he starts speaking of his vision for wild buffalo his ideas take a practical turn. He was a middle school math teacher. where agents have been repeatedly harassing and harming the buffalo. Roman. and drive out onto the Big Dry. But then my father died.thing for his son or anyone. his cowboy hat high enough on his head that we can see his face. His beard is. the not knowing if he’s making a difference. like some did. he quit smoking when my grandmother told him to. and I— in the Suburban. here he has trouble seeing where it ends. Chip tells me he We are sitting—Elizabeth. tilling and fertilizing the area with their critical presence. He loved the work. When I was 12. his own bones. and when he speaks. And when he finally had a grubstake. I know this Bridger. that he had cared for it and would hand it over to his own. When it hit the light. “Montana. Laura. and the way he hooks his thumbs in his front pockets makes him look all the more abashed. But it’s been hard for him. thin and dark. We have been following a DOL agent. and see how round and cute he is. He leans forward. a longtime Montana rancher: “I was there when those folks came over to Jordan and talked about their idea for the Buffalo Commons. He nods and listens. Even with the day’s work behind him. He had pulled a buffalo skull from a sandy hill east of Willow Creek. He didn’t drink much. was up early every morning with a cup of tarblack coffee.

He doesn’t make any sense. “That’s how environmentalists lose. and I are from very different worlds. buffalo would call into question the unjust access ranchers have. our pace half of what it was. testing. “It’s because people are idiots!” Darrel and Red laugh. Our conversation slips away. “We need to start talking to one another. but most folks don’t ranch to get rich. Copenhagen. “It’s about grass. After the cold this morning. We spot him below us—a bull. and the sanctity of making a living on the land. We’re tired. huge. the air spilling easier into our chests. I’ve come to share it. the final kill tally was above 1. Around the dark bulk of him the very air comes alive. that’s how ranchers lose—we’re all looking to put each other on the other side of the fence. And right now ranchers can lease state and federal land at giveaway rates. There’s money in grass. In the last dozen years the BFC has no doubt shamed the DOL into decreasing the severity of the haze and drawn attention to the plight of the buffalo.500. the roll of thunder ringing down the mountains. right at us. Solutions must come from somewhere else. or dreadlocks.” V isions We stand out front of the main cabin and watch the light- and hold most dear—whether that be cowboy hats. a gangly. Though their tone galls at times. the tough loveliness of living on it—but we can’t go back to a fenceless Eden. There’s a reason why we both live here. Though the haze was hard. buffalo would eat that same grass. Roman. Dead limbs snap against him.fenced migration corridors for buffalo and brucellosis vaccines for cattle. Whenever you meet someone face to face like this. for the DOL and for the ranchers. There is a reason my grandmother. Then they fatten their cattle up on public grass. His head and shoulders break the skyline. drags on his cigarette. begins to say something about the slaughter continuing because people aren’t paying attention—but Red interrupts him. in the end. as always. the federal spigot will be wide open. He passes within 10 feet of us and is gone. We could live anywhere else. It’s this disconnect.” says Red. They’ve got it made. that Mike has trusted for years only a bit of canvas between him and the winter wind. what this is all about: what we know 26 at a good clip. Darrel sighs. We must be willing to imagine a different kind of West. So this year’s drop-dead date doesn’t end with rifle shots and snorting buffalo shunted into capture pens. wearing a number of clacking necklaces. comes back year after year: We love the land—the wildness and wonder of it. the sun high overhead—a white hollow in the blue bowl of sky. keyed up from the haze. he starts up the ridge face. it is almost hot. shouting. pushes his white hair back behind his ears. you’d be surprised he heads an organization advocating free-roaming bison all the way back to Appalachia. Money may matter for a lucky few. of hazing and slaughtering. this space between campaign rhetoric and private conversation.” he says. Darrel. Yet I don’t think much of this is about grass or money. Buffalo would mess all that up. And Sweeny. they ranch because it’s what they know and love. We live here. or if the high kill tallies over the last couple of winters point to the need for the opening of new fronts. Buffalo and cattle are direct competitors for forage. dreadlocked volunteer. where some with cowboy hats and some with wool caps sit down together and finally start talking. this spring agents shot only one buffalo. In my time researching the issue. only pretended to be doing something to help ranchers. moving fast. The feds are ponying up for all this— hazing. you can find commonalities. that I mention now to Mike. over 90 and alone. you name it. hand-rolled cigarettes. Lightning flashes again over Hebgen Lake. in his forties and a father and living a thousand miles away. He is prehistoric.” he says. . V isions We had come into the park ning that has begun to pop and flash over the Madisons. and we are walking—our eyes sharper. our blood good again—through this world. I recognize their frustration. that Roman. and we can’t go on asking the land to be something it is not. “the old range war. that helicopter. It’s going to take ranchers coming to meetings and sitting down next to me with my long hair. from that place Mike talked about. Which is. As long as it’s something to be scared of. and there’s lots of money in making this seem like a crisis for ranchers. He doesn’t need to make any sense. “It’s all about money. and the holiness of wild things. covering more ground than we imagined.” I ask if they think the BFC’s fieldwork—their routine of patrol and documentation—has helped folks understand these facets of the issue. derisively. that Bridger rises to another day of being followed by long-haired folks he doesn’t know. his breath and hoof falls loud. while the DOL has. more or less.” “Yeah. Yet I don’t see solutions rising from either practice—these ceremonies of patrol and documentation. will not leave what’s left of our dryas-dust ranch. a BFC staff member. so we’ve been hiking out for a while. so we step off the trail and into the pines and crouch down and wait. practice and result. The year before. At the bottom of a horseshoe bend in the Madison.