Friday, March 30, 2012

Buffalo Field Campaign

The following article came this morning as an email from The Buffalo Field Campaign, the only public policy organization working in the field to support America's last remaining vestiges of the once masters of the great plains of North America. I thought you might enjoy their commentary.

It's easy to get stuck in the office. Grant deadlines, public comments, press releases, action alerts, emails, and other work make for countless hours at the computer. But I signed up for morning patrol on Saturday and joined Justin, a graduate student from Bozeman, and Andrea, a massage therapist from Austria, for a most amazing field patrol along the north bluffs of the Madison River.

Our assignment was to walk from highway 191, near the park boundary, to Horse Butte, about five miles to the west, in order to get an idea of how many buffalo were on their way to their calving grounds. With temperatures forecast to be in the 60s and the buffalo migration between Yellowstone and the Horse Butte Peninsula in full swing, we knew we were in for a special patrol. We were not disappointed.

After scurrying up the steep and sandy hillside to crest the bluff we left the highway behind and quickly picked up the deep and well-worn path of the buffalo. This trail, trodden by thousands of hooves each spring and littered with tufts of buffalo hair, is well worn and provides easy passage through deep snow drifts, around fallen trees, and across the steep and sandy face of the north bluffs. It is a path I have been following for the past 15 years.

A few hundred yards in I was stopped by Justin's voice. "Elk," he whispered, pointing ahead. We watched as a dozen wapiti made their way down the bluff's steep face, crossed the small tributary below, and dissolved into the thick trees along the river. We three humans continued on, talking in quiet voices. A little further on our gazes were pulled skyward as two bald eagles floated overhead. We stood and watched them, wishing we could fly.

A couple miles in Andrea said "there they are" and I looked up at the familiar shape and color of buffalo, grazing beside the trail. We approached slowly, giving them as much room as we could without stepping over the edge of the bluff. The buffalo, three pregnant cows and two bulls, acknowledged us with a few glances before turning back to their grass, unimpressed.

The hike took about three hours. We stopped often to take in the views of the valley and surrounding mountains and to watch wildlife. Close to Horse Butte, where the open water of the Madison River backs up against the frozen surface of Hebgen Lake, we watched and listened to more than 60 trumpeter swans floating on the surface. A quarter mile further on we saw two coyotes walking on the thin ice, eying a group of swans. After they trotted off we noticed three great blue herons wading in the shallows. We watched them take flight and cross the lake.

As we neared the Butte and the end of our hike we caught up with a herd of about 35 buffalo. Energized by the spring air, yearlings ran about and sparred. We stood and watched before making our way around them and heading on along the bluffs. With nearly an hour to go before our scheduled pickup time, we decided to sit on the south facing rim and take a rest. From where we sat we could see other buffalo high on Horse Butte. The previous day's patrol had reported seeing more than 100 buffalo up there. Lying back I let the spring sun soak into my face as scenes from the hike replayed on the back of my eyelids.

Suddenly I felt a deep rumbling in the Earth. Looking up we watched as the herd came bounding from the trees, stampeding along the top of the bluffs, heading toward us. We stood up and watched them. When they were about a quarter of a mile away they stopped. A pair of bulls locked horns and pushed each other back and forth. Another bull stood on the edge of the bluff and forcefully kicked sand behind him. It shot out in a rooster-tail arch and cascaded a full 50 feet to the beach below. Others of the herd wallowed in the dirt, scratching their backs and shedding winter hair.

This is the way things are supposed to be. The path we walked is the buffalo's way. It belongs to them. But the wild peace and beauty we observed on our patrol was tainted by our knowledge. In the next few months, in the heart of the buffalo's calving season, the Department of Livestock; Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; the Forest Service; and the Park Service will disrupt it all with their ATVs, horses, and helicopters. They will chase and terrorize hundreds of buffalo and their newborn calves, running them back along the north bluffs, over highway 191, across the park boundary, and eight miles deep into Yellowstone National Park. They will disrupt everything in their path with their noisy machines and explosive cracker rounds fired from shotguns. Buffalo will be their targets but grizzly bears, bald and golden eagles, pelicans, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, wolves, coyotes, elk, moose, and other species will all be collateral victims of this spring's "hazing" operations.

There are never, at any time of year, cattle on Horse Butte or along the Madison River corridor. Yet every spring the agents come to clear the land of buffalo in the name of livestock. Every year Buffalo Field Campaign is here, on field patrol, at public hearings, in the halls of government, and behind the computer, doing everything we know and can imagine to protect the buffalo and their migration.

For the Buffalo,

Dan Brister

Executive Director

Buffalo Field Campaign