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Hazed and Confused: Documentary Highlights Yellowstone Bison Plight in Montana

Documentary Silencing the Thunder tells the story of the struggle to conserve bison while keeping them within Yellowstone National Park.
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The opening footage is jarring: helicopters hovering over running buffalo; a fleet of vehicles chasing a lone animal that appears to be galloping for its life.

The scene is the fruit of the 2000 Interagency Bison Management Plan, which allowed the Montana Department of Livestock “haze and slaughter bison as they exit Yellowstone National Park and enter into Montana,” the narrative informs us in the beginning of this documentary. 

This documentary profiles the struggle to contain and maintain Yellowstone bison, the only genetically pure line remaining—that is, not infused with at least some cattle DNA—from the time that these majestic animals roamed the Great Plains by the millions.

Now, as is well known, they number solely in the thousands. Relegated to life within the park boundaries imposed by humans, they are in essence prohibited from leaving Yellowstone to forage for food in the winter. 

“Summer in Yellowstone National Park is Paradise,” says Rick Wallen, the park’s bison manager, in Silencing the Thunder, a half-hour documentary by Edward M. Roqueta. “The grass is tall. It grows rapidly. Water is everywhere. Life is easy, and they’re among friends. The herds become large, and the animals run and jump, and they have no worries, really.”

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That all changes as snow begins to fall, he says.

“The snows accumulate to three feet, temperatures drop well below zero, it becomes very difficult for them to get around the landscape,” he says. “And you see them in much more constrained space—single file to get through the deep troughs [of snow] to the next patch of habitat.”

To survive, the buffalo move to lower altitudes—putting them solidly in land that Montana’s ranchers consider their own, where “they’re pretty much treated as vermin,” says Stephany Seay of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group dedicated to bison conservation.

Thus is set up the conflict between ranchers who say they fear brucellosis transmission, and those who want to conserve the bison. At the heart of it is the question of who does what with the land, and whether bison themselves should have a say. There is something to be said on all sides, and Silencing the Thunder  addresses all these facets with due diligence. It's well worth the half hour.