After three days and nights in Montana’s sparkling mountain, yellow canyon, deep river lands of the buffalo, I have a good beginner’s understanding of who the buffalo are. I’ve come to see a bit of what the buffalo mean to the land and life here in Montana, and why Buffalo Field Campaign insist on protecting these wild giants. I’ve basically fallen in love with the place. . . the snow-capped mountains, green meadows, douglas fir and lodge pole pine forests. I’ve felt the crisp morning air and swooned over the blossoming larkspur, arnica flowers, and clouds of every type billowing across the skyscape. Amidst all this beauty, roam the mighty buffalo. They are not frightening, not aggressive. They graze. They rest. They care for their springtime broods, walking slowly across Yellowstone Park roads, and stopping tourists with their good looks and gentle manners. This is my experience.
Yellowstone Buffalo in June
From 6.6 to 11.5 ft long, and 5 to 6 feet high at the shoulder, buffalo have massive, thickly coated faces, used to bust through snow. By moving their heads back and forth, they dig in and down for winter forage on the frozen earth. Well-suited, and in symbiotic relationship to the land here, buffalo eat grasses and sedges. They cut the grass above the ground level, unlike cattle, who leave grasses unable to regrow. Buffalo contribute positively to the nitrogen cycle for soil and plant health. And they contribute to plant life diversity and wildlife diversity in the way that they graze and flourish, and then leave their bodies to feed the various creatures, great and small. As I witnessed them over two solid days of observation, buffalo are quite peaceful, sometimes playful, definitely beautiful, healthy-looking wild creatures.
“I’m a buffalo. I do what I want,” says the Buffalo Field Campaign bumpersticker. This is the ancient truth, as buffalo owned these lands, mountain and plain alike, and were intricately woven with the lives of the many tribes that lived here for thousands of years.
I found out about the work of Buffalo Field Campaign in fall of 2012, Southern Oregon, when musician cohorts brought me to an outdoor benefit concert and community cob oven pizza dinner fundraiser for the campaign. After performing my music at the event, and meeting BFC’s co-founder Michael Mease, I knew I wanted to go to Montana and play my mystical songs for the volunteers there, to brighten their days, and, just as much, to inspire my own playing and songwriting! On May 31, 2014, with the support of my dear friends Rebecca and Ashley Ballantyne-Gmach in Missoula, I made the four hour drive down to BFC camp on a crescent new moon evening. The camp’s gorgeous 6,660ft perch looks Southwest over Hebgen Lake (a reservoir) and the stunning Gallatin Range, border to Idaho, and the Continental Divide.
Buffalo Field Campaign Camp at Sunset
I made it to BFC’s homey cluster of cabins and tepees just in time for 6pm evening meeting and dinner, and I jumped right in. The meeting consisted most importantly of reports from morning and afternoon reconnaissance. These twice daily recons, sometimes on skis and snow shoes in the winter months, report location, numbers, and safety of buffalo herds they see. (BFC also records citings of many other wildlife species for a general wildlife database they maintain.) I understand now, they are out looking for buffalo herds roaming beyond the invisible boundaries of nearby Yellowstone National Park, where, in their natural migrations for food, they are not safe from hunters and “management” agencies. But that first night I just played and sang about two hours of music for the late spring crew, talking story from Hawaii, Sweden, California, Mendocino hills, high Sierra mornings, ancestors and peaceful warriors — from my twenty-five years of music and activism. That small group happily, though somewhat sleepily as the evening progressed, received the music and inspiration, and welcomed me to join in their field work the next day!
In the subsequent two days I witnessed the nature of the buffalo. I saw mamas peacefully grazing their single red-coated babies. And there were smaller groups of males, also quite mellow, and sometimes playfully jumping and butting at each other. Juxtapose that with the general western white man’s domination psychology — assuming the buffalo to be problematic, disease-ridden, aggressive beasts to be controlled, if not exterminated — and you have a confusing situation. Many times I had to question and clarify in my attempt to understand, to put into my own words, the conflict at hand over this last, and I repeat: last wild herd of genetically pure North American buffalo. Any other buffalo you meet, or eat!, are mixed with cow. Cow-alo, I’ve heard them called. And they are beautiful, but they are not the wild, migrating, free-roaming contributors to healthy ecosystem, plant and animal diversity, and, really, soul of land and original peoples of this part of the world.
After a good sleep in a little tepee with a warm fire, there was communal breakfast with all the simple and functional amenities. BFC is well organized. Their nonviolence and sexual harassment policies are impressive in their clarity and relevance.
Just after 9am I jumped in the car for morning recon with Comfrey and Pat, two very focused and skillful young men. Comfrey is fresh off of a victorious action in which he locked down to a 55-gallon drum of cement on the highway, stopping that day’s harassment of buffalo. (Read about it on BFC’s website!) And Pat arrived on the scene in beginning January. He plans to volunteer through September! They both were very knowledgeable, answering my questions and orienting me well to the land and the issue. Below is a map of the area where BFC operates. See West Yellowstone town and park entrance lower right. BFC camp top left corner.
BFC Area of Operation
We saw buffalo in two spots. One happy resting crew of 30, plus calves, were enjoying the sun on the Galanis Family’s Yellowstone Ranch Reserve, which is privately owned. Galanis Ranch has clearly posted no tolerance for buffalo harassment on their land. So that small group was safe there for the day. Outside the Ranch Reserve gate, I picked up some winter buffalo coat fuzz, happily scored for my future altars. I know I’ll be singing for the Yellowstone buffalo the rest of my days . . .
We saw one other buffalo cow on that morning recon. She was alone on a river bank. This is rare. Males often live alone or in small groups of males. Males and females join their groups in the August to September rutting season. But females live communally with other females and calves, including male calves up to three years old. The female we saw had been there for some days and seemed to be dying. I heard from the crew that buffalo will travel 20 miles to be with and mourn their dying brethren. (Read lots about buffalo on BFC co-founder Michael Mease’s regular reports on BFC website!)
The morning recon had a pretty set route to drive. It’s all about scanning for bison presence outside the park, which would then lead to agency presence and buffalo harassment. We didn’t see anything that would bring agency presence. Pat asked me questions about my musical routes, and we talked about Southern Oregon spots we love, like Takilma and Ashland. I took copious notes on the situation, facts, places and players. After about three and a half hours of driving and looking, with three or four stops, we headed back for lunch.
“You can’t understand about nature, about the feeling we have toward it, unless you understand how close we were to the buffalo. That animal was almost like a part of ourselves, part of our souls.” —John Fire Lame Deer, Lakota Holy Man
The photos below come from story boards that BFC has generated for ongoing public education. Here you can see the vast connection between the buffalo and just about every aspect of indigenous life: from tools to medicine; food and shelter; child rearing to ritual; and parts in between. First nation people used every part of the buffalo and praised it as an ancestor spirit. They must have been abhorred, in a way we modern white folks will never understand, when the cowboys, cavalry and crooks came out to slaughter the then millions of buffalo — in their minds, to tame the west. Currently the local tribes hunt and kill buffalo every year as part of their cultural heritage — last year around 700 buffalo, from a herd that fluctuates around 3 – 4000 head.
I sat down on the concrete front porch of the main cabin, once a resort lodge, overlooking that aforementioned stunning lake and mountain scene, eating lunch with some BFC volunteers. I noticed Bob, who had admitted to having to leave my concert the night before due to crying so much from the songs! Bob was packing his fishing pole into the ski mounts on the recon car. Then, awesome BFC starlet Demmi brought another fishing pole! I invited myself along with them on the afternoon recon. “You’re addicted already,” they said to me. And a brother named Julian from Columbia/New York City came along, too.
Our first assignment was to drive into the park to spot a herd of about 90 bison that Michael Mease had seen that morning. We hoped they had gone too far into the park to be seen in the loop we drove, so that they would be safe from hazing. We did not see that group in or outside the park. Hopefully they are safe for now. We proceeded to do the usual rounds, saw the same group of 30 + on Galanis Ranch, and the lone female on the river bank, and then stopped for an hour or two on the river for some bottom fishing. After I made a few faulty attempts at casting, Demmi’s fishing pole reminded me how it’s done. Such a nice feeling it is, when the line is going out and the sinker is sailing over the water. Plop! Demmi wasn’t using bait. She didn’t want to kill two things. . . the worm AND the fish. But she caught a nice-sized, I think, trout.
Afternoon recon was, happily, uneventful.
Before the year 2000, that is, before the influence of Buffalo Field Campaign, buffalo coming down from the mountain and outside the park for winter forage were mostly just shot, slaughtered, destroyed, whatever you want to name it, by five “management” agencies, with support of local law enforcement. Now, with pressure and public education by Buffalo Field Campaign, these agencies instead mostly haze, or harass, the buffalo, forcing them to move back within park boundaries. They push the small groups of buffalo up to ten + miles in a day, sometimes with big pregnant mamas, or babies ill-equipped for long runs in hot sun and big winter coats, sometimes forcing the herds with babies to cross rivers and slide down sandy slopes too quickly to be safe. The point is not to protect, but to control, it seems, by people who come from generations of killing buffalo, and who think of Buffalo as Problem.
The agencies taking charge of the buffalo and keeping them within Yellowstone National Park boundaries (to be seen only by those who pay their park fees!) are: Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks; National Park Service; Department of Livestock, affectionately called Department of Hamburger; Forest Service; and lastly, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. APHIS seeks to immunize buffalo against brucellosis, a disease the buffalo have never been documented to transmit. APHIS uses the brucellosis threat as an excuse to kill and harass buffalo off of lower grazing lands. They do this, ironically, though the cattle they fear could be infected by brucellosis cannot survive the winters (when buffalo come down to graze) and are only shipped in for the summer months. And actually, I did quite a bit of driving around the area on my two recon trips and did not see a single cattle herd in the West Yellowstone area. That was June 1st.
As they put it: Buffalo Field Campaign is working in the field every day to stop the slaughter of Yellowstone’s wild free roaming buffalo. I see that they are advocating for buffalo to be given “wild animal,” and not “livestock” status, which might take Department of Livestock out of the picture.
It’s a strange situation. According to my gracious Yellowstone Parks guide, professional photographer Keith Fialcowitz: National Geographic and Discovery Channels won’t carry the story because they would have to vilify the National Parks. Those companies need their good relations with the parks, Keith says, where they film all their marvelous wildlife footage. From what I heard in my days with the BFC crew, it may not be the parks people who are calling the shots, but definitely the parks are going along with APHIS and the Department of Luncheon, I mean Livestock, in the anti-brucellosis campaign. And in general, all five agencies, supported by local law enforcement, for now, continue to perpetuate the old kill-the-buffalo paradigm.
My last full day was spent entirely in Yellowstone National Park. Keith and I spent hours driving around. Thank you Rebecca and Ashley for the awesome wheels!! Every time there was a giant elk or a few buffalo to be seen, tourists would tend to park in the roadways to witness the wildlife, so it took us an hour just to get in to the park, stop-and-go buffalo viewing to blame . . . But it is really exciting to see the huge wooly creatures. Buffalo are not scary, or threatening, in my experience. I was 5 feet from big mamas as I sat in the car and photographed them munching grass on the roadside. (Normally it is not good for wildlife, nor wildlife viewers, to get so close to the animals. They need their wild space.)
I was amused by the tourists and enchanted by the wildlife. Slow was fine for me. I saw Old Faithful erupt right on time, but the geyser pots at Midway are even more deeply beautiful, painting their steam dark orange and blue with the colored algae that grow in their boiling hot ponds. We hiked down into the mighty canyon of the yellow stone in the late afternoon, spied an osprey nest looking down in, and witnessed the enormity of spring snow melt, green water girth, as it tipped over the edge in the closest, biggest waterfall experience I’ve ever had. Rainbows in the mist . . . Cloud shadows coming and going over canyon walls. Blue sky, big sky, scattered white billows. It’s bird country up there, and buffalo, just a dream.
Yellowstone River Canyon Below the Falls
I’ve heard it said that, as compared to the more cosmic Oaxacan peyote dreamers of middle Mexico with their dancing deer icon, we North-North Americans are more earthy creatures since we live in the land of the heavy-hooved buffalo. I am grateful to live in a time when the wisdoms, medicines, and traditions of many cultures are available to those who will simply seek to find them. We have the opportunity to glean the best, and make the best we can of this earthly existence. I am glad to have had this time to steep in the buffalo medicine. And buffalo medicine, by one account, is: Manifesting abundance thru right action and right prayer. So be it.