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M o n ta n a Q u a r t e r ly 19 . layers of fleece and flannel. pushed hard by an agent. campaign coordinator Mike Mease stands and steps into the middle of the room. And the haze today was especially aggressive: Department of Livestock (DOL) agents on horseback and ATVs. Yellowstone National Park. May 15. Mease turns in the circle of us. Finally. acknowledges every tear-slicked and blood-hot face. and as the meeting progresses the BFCers grow increasingly silent and aggrieved. Mike is never far from a passionate speech on the sacred nature of wild bison or the ugliness of modern life. with the help of a helicopter. Most of the calves are still too young for such running. thick in the waist and chest. One. Mease is a big man. his voice ragged around the edges—but there’s a note of hope in that gravelly world-weariness. A bull bison in the Hayden Valley. In fact. 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. 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. broke its leg. and fingerless gloves. he’s begun one now.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. He knows he needs to speak because tomorrow is the drop-dead date. It’s been a long. hard day. drove some 200 head of bison from Horse Butte and back into Yellowstone National Park.
for his abiding faith and focused passion. Grumbles. so he drives. but it covered room and board. ever since he’d fallen in love with the state as a student at the University of Montana. listens during an evening meeting at the Buffalo Field Campaign house near West Yellowstone. The Missoulian: “One thing everyone seems to agree on is the need for a permanent solution to the Yellowstone Park brucellosis problem. Many buffalo have been slaughtered in that time (the counts differ. His voice deepens. That winter. took Fs in all her classes. and un-pierced nose and lips mark her as one of the few BFCers who could perhaps wander downtown West Yellowstone unnoticed. certainty. In the high-country winter. a peninsula of good grassland jutting into Hebgen Lake on the west edge of the park. where the ice pulls and cracks. He didn’t have anywhere to go. He talks about what is right and what is wrong. particularly on Horse Butte. Origins In the winter of 1996–97. Mike Mease came home for good. He just sort of ended up cutting wood out at the BFC. In the off season. but around 7. orange juice. Yet Montana had long been home base for Mease. Sweeny is on the insurance. were killed. Laura needed to complete internship credits for her degree. volunteers slip granola bars into backpacks. Stephany. He talks of tragedy and tribe. wore the same clothes day after day. dangerous places and documenting environmental or human rights atrocities. fill water jugs. It was her last semester. when the last of so many millions were gunned down and left to rot on the eastern Montana prairie. She never went back. and vision. doubles over and sobs. we sit on the same couches and chairs we rose from after the meeting last night. packs.100 wild bison were slaughtered—a tally not seen since the 1880s. Montana. Montana. Sweeny tugs at his thin beard. yet he still believes. Origins Noah couldn’t stand Pennsylvania any longer. and video cameras and pile into a rusty blue Suburban. but she stayed with the BFC until May. Back in the meeting room.100 bison were killed that winter. she wanders. and my group—the Horse Butte patrol—is getting ready. from the hardwood forests of Malaysia to couple years of college—and for what? Everything had gone to shit. He grew his hair long. which was shit. bison often cross the invisible line that separates Yellowstone Park from surrounding public and private lands. 1. DOL agents began hazing bison back into the park or rounding them up in traps.000 is probably close). Cer ta in t ies Journe ys In the light of a few dangling bulbs and a lone kerosene Campaign coordinator Mike Mease. He lifts his big arms into the air. The only reason it persists as a threat today is because bison and elk in Yellowstone Park carry the disease. In the late winter of 1997. He found a park job. He was drinking too much. even if you now call yourself an environmentalist but often feel caught between two worlds. Mike Mease has been tramping out after buffalo ever since. and we grab rain jackets. one for Duck Creek and one for Beartrap. no one feels good about what happened today. Scrubbing my plate and fork. After I finish.” lamp. as a self-styled guerrilla filmmaker—a vocation which had him bushwhacking into hard-to-reach. doesn’t drink so much anymore. and started filming nearly every move the DOL made. He slept in his tent. neat ponytail. One day he filled the tank on his rattletrap car and started driving. she couldn’t believe what she saw. Mike mentions the DOL. under the leadership of the DOL. a disease that causes spontaneous abortion in cattle. Mike tries to channel it. About 1. sausages. I step into the low-ceilinged kitchen. whose fitted fleece. Two groups have left. me hoping for another buttered biscuit and cup of coffee. Laura takes the backseat. He hauled a trailer up into the snows outside Gardiner. the BFC’s gnomish cook. family and strength. and coffee. He got fired. breakfast’s cast-iron pots cooling on the stove. Sweeny twists the key and pumps the gas. and those in the traps that subsequently tested positive for brucellosis antibodies. Mike Mease would have none of it. Just as the sun makes its jailbreak over the mountains. Yet some bison carry brucellosis. alternately sweettalks and curses the Suburban until it fires. was aghast that park rangers— she’d always wanted to be a park ranger— often participated in the haze. Rejecting calls from some ranchers to show more tolerance for bison. He feels rested. so she came out over spring break. strapped on snowshoes. The disease has been purged from Montana’s cattle herd for more than 20 years. too. has made pancakes. He’d done a Though BFC patrols caught it on tape. Roman says he’ll run the radio and climbs up front. At first. We twist down the mountain road. such certain matters. an Army brat. felt truly home. 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. They wander because they’re after winter forage. flexing with the curves of Hebgen Lake. together. Mease had for years been traveling the world. but he’s been out here a few years. 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 . and there are a few curses and catcalls. test radios. and I sit with Elizabeth in the middle row. he didn’t know anything about buffalo. the state of Montana. Roman stares at the flames slewing from the woodstove’s grate. he is someone you want to listen to—even if you are a rancher’s grandson uneasy with the anger in the room. Mike says go. rises. Those that wouldn’t haze. a disease the nation has worked for decades to eradicate.” 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. Rather than let this anger lapse into frustration or burn off in fury. embarked on an historic slaughter. which was the first time Mease. I am struck by how much the morning routine here reminds me of mornings on the ranch—my grandfather itching to get to work. where we see arcing up from somewhere south of us the hazing helicopter. though no one is speaking now. Some of Yellowstone’s bison are infected with brucellosis. It’s delicious. and because they’re migratory animals and don’t much care about our boundaries. And for it.Vancouver Island. holiness. [the] Montana Stockgrowers Association committee instead passed resolutions advocating slaughter. All told. We are too busy eating. 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. contraceptive injections and other means to control the animals’ population. right. believing right and wrong aren’t such easy. then editing and releasing the film. Laura curses under her breath. Mike Mease has been giving these speeches for over a decade. the bite of black coffee on my tongue. When she got here. fueling up.
The bison are in the park. the blinking beacons of windmills. a thing to work against. But my great-grandfather was an inveterate gambler and drifter. what most BFC volunteers do. I passed first through the storefronts of Buffalo Center. slowing through another small town. These. I drove by a bank named Titonka. and for no reason I could discern it featured a big plastic buffalo. to want to beat. 2003. And on each of the Al’s Oasis billboards. after the railroads opened much of east-central Montana for homesteading. 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. and Roman sticks close to me. studies a third track that has joined the first two. explaining that while Elizabeth and Laura watch the highway for DOL movement. is much too weak a term. This is as well the country my grandfather ranched. even in the face of maimed calves and year after year of slaughter. “Damn it. adrenaline-inducing. “Exit Now to See Prehistoric Indian Village!” Or I could have stayed “where the buffalo roam” at the Custer State Park and Resort. then another far-off siren. Every few steps he calls.” Roman says. Montana. “We’re nearly four miles into the park. though the track is harder to find among the rodent scratchings. and he didn’t leave a M o n ta n a Q u a r t e r ly 23 . Like so many others. Below the ridge. wild reaches of eastern Montana there is a Journe ys As we pass the binoculars more bison come wandering out of her. like some kind of extreme hiking or high-stakes game of capture the flag. and sounds a siren— loud. Much of the West…is what you might call ‘cow-burnt. Yet on the drive west. She is sitting in the dirt near the fire ring. Even the helicopter’s maddening thubthub adds a kind of focal point. is hang out in the wild all day. And we’ve missed the bison altogether. V isions Chief Plenty Coups: “Out of the hole in the ground came bulls and cows and calves past counting. we’re hoping to find the trail of that cow buffalo and her broken-legged calf—just to see what happened. the sky each night ablaze with streetlights.” Wild bison in the Stevens Creek capture facility in Yellowstone National Park await processing in March. the sky deepening.” Sweeny says. Then. Cowboy’s Rest RV Resort. not as a buffalo does. It scoots in low behind the herd. 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. riverless swath of sagebrush plains and badlands that folks call the “Big Dry. the economic effect on ranchers was negligible. as it does once you cross the Missouri. almost running. the willows. silo lights. the land bucking and drifting into dry ridges and buttes and piney hills—and as the world went wilder I saw fewer bison. This one is as wide as my two hands. Just as I merged onto I-90. But they stopped in small bands and began to eat the grass. They’re not supposed to haze here. pointing. “Hey bear. we hear the fading thub-thub. layers of wool and windbreaker rustling about him. At the ridge. nine miles. as he flips open the video camera. gulping air. making our way through a stand of young pines toward a ridge above the Madison River.” As my breath comes back. electric. hey bear!” and gives a big clap. like the others. hopping deadfall and slipping around snags. But when the disease appeared in Wyoming cattle in 2004. a calf. dark. Roman pulls off his wool cap and reaches back to tie his hair into a ponytail. you might keep at this—it’s exciting. She laughs and smiles.” “They’ll be around the ridge soon. 231 bison were shipped to slaughter as part of a brucellosis eradication program. Journe ys Sweeny moves through the pines fast and sure-footed.” Sweeny says and zips off his outer layer. humped. the skinny guy who kept passing her the crack pipe. where the Madison loops through a plain of flood grass and red willows. The Branding Iron. I think. wind moves in the trees. Over the roar of our own breath. something moves. sharp. We’re in the park. We’re in the park now. a cartoon buffalo rears up in front of—what else?—a palm tree. Advertisements for “Bear Country USA” boast pictures of grazing buffalo right next to grinning tourists. Sweeny takes a knee and traces the tracks: a full-grown bison and. They are a long way off and in the circled frame of the binoculars look like pictures of themselves—low-headed. Then we hear it. disappear behind the next jut of ridgeline. The signs instead began to advertise for places such as The Stockman’s Club. scattered and spread on the plains. the Sioux word for buffalo. already moving. There were billboards for the Golden Buffalo Motel and Casino. In the first week of that month. the time she held a machete at a man’s chest all night for fear of him. there was a billboard advertising the city of Luverne. and another with an immense buffalo skull under the words. grass flattening beneath it. my great-grandfather rode up from Oklahoma in the early part of the last century.” 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. our mad run through the pines begins to feel very far away: a hawk cuts across the sky. “Look at those claws. to see if we can count the calf as a victim of the haze. Many lay down.’” The New York Times: “Brucellosis is essentially a political myth. “Hey. how they’re so far out from the paw. Got to be. Suddenly. “It’s ridiculous. where he ran his sheep and cattle.” Sweeny says and stands. hard on his family and bad with land. “That’s got to be a grizzly. What Sweeny and Roman do. “Let’s see if we can’t get some film of that helicopter even deeper in. Minnesota. “Oh.” 22 unwild. I breathe.” I say. and I can see why. And they’re still blaring that siren at them. then nothing. but differently…They were not buffalo. take a drink of water. maybe eight. only to see the helicopter buffalo in the Horse Butte area near West Yellowstone. “How far do you guess they’re in the park now?” I ask. a place that’s rural but wholly settled. ranchers warned that losing…brucellosis-free status would devastate the…livestock industry. Origins Out in the far. the thubthub-thub of the hazing helicopter. She can’t be more than 24 or 25.Yet after Al’s the country opened. “Is that a buffalo?” Origins I live now in Iowa. Just like that we are back in the stillness of wilderness. For years. We follow the trail east for maybe half a mile before Sweeny kneels again.” We charge off into the pines. they bunch and run. Even more come streaming from the willows.
Laura. his cowboy hat high enough on his head that we can see his face. that he was looking for some kind of horseback work to get by when this thing with the DOL came up. who love the land. as we begin following again the muddy shine of that Montana plate. He is ﬁlling up.” Sweeny says. his bookish grandson. sort of half-smiling. cleaning his windshield. steps out of his pickup. We have been following a DOL agent. One example has been playing out on the south side of the Madison River. He ran the ranch on Willow Creek for 40-odd years. his only luxuries were an easy chair and a shelf of books. this area has become favored habitat. you can almost forgive him!” “Hey. His beard is. the buffalo will help restore this section of forest. cutting wood or cooking dinner in the afternoon. Back home. he bought a piece of Montana to call his own. He’s maybe 21 or 22. the one way he—a former hard-living cowpuncher— had found of being whole in the world. And when he ﬁnally had a grubstake. It was plain mean is what it was. a longtime Montana rancher: “I was there when those folks came over to Jordan and talked about their idea for the Buffalo Commons. he quit smoking when my grandmother told him to. like some did. always saving. I didn’t break any windows or anything. As a young man—a boy. have trailed him into West Yellowstone. his ﬂatbed Ford. change is the way of things.” Elizabeth calls. It was the work that mattered. he walked the dry creek beds and rode the windswept ridges and mapped this country in his own mind. for a spread of land. “It’s Bridger. When I was 12. and see how round and cute he is. sketching and ﬁguring with a pad and pen.” says Laura. He loved the work. To listen to his focus on and excitement for loves the work—ﬁlming in the morning. he took steady work managing grain elevators. They are attempting to… heal the injuries that more than a hundred years of intense livestock production have caused. He leans forward. But it’s been hard for him. that it would be always ours.” says Roman. He’s 40 years old and has never felt so alive. Helicopter hazing has since been halted by court order. I imagine with the passing years he began to think the land was his. people who make their living here. on our way out to ﬁx fence on that last section. my grandfather sold all but a little pastureland. since the wildﬁres that burned the area two summers ago. his ideas philosophical. tilling and fertilizing the area with their critical presence. Yet when he starts speaking of his vision for wild buffalo his ideas take a practical turn. It was a love affair with the land. was up early every morning with a cup of tarblack coffee. as if he didn’t expect to see us and is both pleased and embarrassed that he did. the not knowing if he’s making a difference. Sweeny turns in the driver’s seat and calls out: “State of origin check! Michigan!” “Delaware. V ISIONS We follow the agent’s truck to McDonald’s and pull in Bridger looks down at his feet. my grandfather told me how he had pulled a buffalo skull from a sandy hill east of Willow Creek. and we are pulled over a half a block away. nutritious grass…and by gently grazing. But here. Bridger. The land is healing him. his own bones.” he says. in Seattle. The agent. T. After he started a family. V ISIONS The Buffalo Field Campaign: “Buffalo belong on the landscape. ready any moment to ﬁre up Old Blue. C. and when he speaks. he’s also done a lot of tutoring and mentoring with at-risk kids. that they’ve got two kids now and a single wide near Ennis—but they’re saving. as Sweeny ﬁres the Suburban and swings the wheel. that he had cared for it and would hand it over to his own. and my heartbroken grandfather reckoned up the latest drought. Roman. I imagine he married that girl he met up at the Big Timber rodeo when he was still roping. and I— in the Suburban. who love getting up early and feeding stock and ﬁxing fence. because he thinks we have a responsibility. He didn’t drink much. he works for a place that salvages material for green construction. especially those of us born and raised in the West. says a lot of people love it. though.” V ISIONS Mike saves the video he’s editing and shoos out a couple a few spots away.” Sweeny calls out the window. Sweeny. watching him and waiting. 24 M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 25 .thing for his son or anyone. we’re done.” I say. the hours on the plains. his voice is soft and genuine. even theological. weathered face. To my grandfather ranching was more than a way to make a living. it went to dust in his hands. The bison are…taking advantage of the new areas of green. as the agent hangs up the hose and climbs back into his pickup. here he has trouble seeing where it ends. “Have a good one. But then my father died. When it hit the light. I know this Bridger. and drive out onto the Big Dry. “Connecticut. then back up. here in the West. Even with the day’s work behind him. “New York. and the way he hooks his thumbs in his front pockets makes him look all the more abashed. really. his long hair hanging about his full. “Oh!” Laura shouts. Chip tells me he We are sitting—Elizabeth. thin and dark. cowboying all week and slicking his hair back come Saturday night. He’ll keep at it.” ORIGINS Between bites of pancake and elk sausage. “You guys done for the day?” of volunteers’ kids. but I sure didn’t like the idea.” From my interview with Roger Knapp. it went to dust in his hands. considers my every question. he quit school after the eighth grade—my grandfather lived wild as well. “Yeah. He had pulled a buffalo skull from a sandy hill east of Willow Creek. He nods and listens. When it hit the light. A Montana Department of Livestock helicopter hazes bison back into Yellowstone National Park from the Horse Butte area near West Yellowstone. but he burned out.” he says. “He’s the only cute one! When you see him. It didn’t take into account that there are people here. 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. “Montana. He was a middle school math teacher. where agents have been repeatedly harassing and harming the buffalo. like Sweeny’s. so energized. know the places and people of his life: I imagine his old man lost the family ranch some years back. Once. though. As always. the price of winter feed. “We have a responsibility to our history.
this spring agents shot only one buffalo. huge. Buffalo would mess all that up. and the sanctity of making a living on the land. “It’s all about money. so we’ve been hiking out for a while. or if the high kill tallies over the last couple of winters point to the need for the opening of new fronts. “We need to start talking to one another. Money may matter for a lucky few. our blood good again—through this world. So this year’s drop-dead date doesn’t end with rifle shots and snorting buffalo shunted into capture pens. Buffalo and cattle are direct competitors for forage. Roman. dreadlocked volunteer. Around the dark bulk of him the very air comes alive. begins to say something about the slaughter continuing because people aren’t paying attention—but Red interrupts him. buffalo would eat that same grass. The feds are ponying up for all this— hazing. the tough loveliness of living on it—but we can’t go back to a fenceless Eden. you can find commonalities. Yet I don’t see solutions rising from either practice—these ceremonies of patrol and documentation. “the old range war. We’re tired. derisively. Though their tone galls at times. a gangly. After the cold this morning. over 90 and alone. Darrel. I recognize their frustration. practice and result. and the holiness of wild things. right at us.fenced migration corridors for buffalo and brucellosis vaccines for cattle. We must be willing to imagine a different kind of West. that helicopter. Darrel sighs. Dead limbs snap against him. that Bridger rises to another day of being followed by long-haired folks he doesn’t know. V isions We had come into the park ning that has begun to pop and flash over the Madisons. He is prehistoric. you name it. but most folks don’t ranch to get rich. it is almost hot. from that place Mike talked about. In my time researching the issue.” he says. Solutions must come from somewhere else. that Roman. His head and shoulders break the skyline. He doesn’t make any sense. buffalo would call into question the unjust access ranchers have. At the bottom of a horseshoe bend in the Madison. I’ve come to share it. Lightning flashes again over Hebgen Lake. and there’s lots of money in making this seem like a crisis for ranchers.” “Yeah. drags on his cigarette. in the end. covering more ground than we imagined. Yet I don’t think much of this is about grass or money. the sun high overhead—a white hollow in the blue bowl of sky. moving fast. and I are from very different worlds. they ranch because it’s what they know and love. that I mention now to Mike. where some with cowboy hats and some with wool caps sit down together and finally start talking. comes back year after year: We love the land—the wildness and wonder of it. so we step off the trail and into the pines and crouch down and wait. the federal spigot will be wide open. or dreadlocks. We could live anywhere else. what this is all about: what we know 26 at a good clip. Our conversation slips away. Though the haze was hard. hand-rolled cigarettes. The year before.” I ask if they think the BFC’s fieldwork—their routine of patrol and documentation—has helped folks understand these facets of the issue. his breath and hoof falls loud. the roll of thunder ringing down the mountains.500. There’s money in grass. the final kill tally was above 1. keyed up from the haze. of hazing and slaughtering. as always. pushes his white hair back behind his ears. As long as it’s something to be scared of.” he says. It’s going to take ranchers coming to meetings and sitting down next to me with my long hair. only pretended to be doing something to help ranchers. he starts up the ridge face. that’s how ranchers lose—we’re all looking to put each other on the other side of the fence. We live here. and we can’t go on asking the land to be something it is not. and we are walking—our eyes sharper. that Mike has trusted for years only a bit of canvas between him and the winter wind. “It’s about grass. you’d be surprised he heads an organization advocating free-roaming bison all the way back to Appalachia. And Sweeny. “It’s because people are idiots!” Darrel and Red laugh. will not leave what’s left of our dryas-dust ranch. There’s a reason why we both live here. in his forties and a father and living a thousand miles away. He passes within 10 feet of us and is gone. He doesn’t need to make any sense. shouting. Which is. It’s this disconnect. They’ve got it made. this space between campaign rhetoric and private conversation. There is a reason my grandmother. for the DOL and for the ranchers. We spot him below us—a bull. while the DOL has. “That’s how environmentalists lose. . wearing a number of clacking necklaces. a BFC staff member. And right now ranchers can lease state and federal land at giveaway rates. Whenever you meet someone face to face like this. Copenhagen. testing. our pace half of what it was. Then they fatten their cattle up on public grass.” V isions We stand out front of the main cabin and watch the light- and hold most dear—whether that be cowboy hats.” says Red. 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. the air spilling easier into our chests. more or less.
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