The buffalo fight back

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Buffalo Field Campaign works to return animals to historic range

GARDINER, Mont. - Through powerful and thunderous winds that even knocked out the power in the Yellowstone National Park border town of Gardiner, the buffalo seemingly spoke about the way they were being treated during the Releasing of the Buffalo Spirits ceremony April 15.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota, prayed for the buffalo spirits that had been slaughtered in record numbers this year in what has become by far the biggest slaughter of buffalo since the 19th century. In the 2007 - 08 buffalo ''season'' thus far, more than 1,600 buffalo have been slaughtered while trying to migrate out of Yellowstone.

Neither photographs nor recordings of the ceremony were allowed, but in a statement to those present, Looking Horse said through translator Rosalie Little Thunder, ''In this generation, we need to reflect on how we are living upon the earth, and we really need to be mindful about our relationship with the earth, and this is what the white buffalo comes to tell us.''

Stephany Seay, a spokesman for the West Yellowstone-based Buffalo Field Campaign, said the ceremony was essentially an international event, as tribes from around North America and people from as far away as Italy prayed in remembrance of the buffalo at noon MST.

The BFC was happy to know that there were initially some 4,700 buffalo living in Yellowstone last year, but that then-growing population had left less food for them. More bison will continue to be rounded up to go to slaughter every day as the naturally migratory animal searches to find sufficient grazing and calving grounds outside of the arbitrary boundaries and high elevation area of Yellowstone.

This particularly brutal year for the buffalo was foreseen by many when the state of Montana had a case of brucellosis in cattle last year, and state officials were concerned that they'd lose their brucellosis-free status.

In spite of the fact that the cattle did not obtain the disease from buffalo because they were not in the vicinity of the infected cattle, and that there had not been a documented case of bison to cattle transmission of the disease, the BFC was informed that the state would take preventive measures against the bison.

''And they've been true to their word,'' Seay said. ''The cattle are controlling the landscape, not the bison. Cattle actually brought the brucellosis disease over from across the seas.''

While in Montana the debate of the bison has often focused primarily on the bison hunt permissions, the majority of those buffalo killed simply have been rounded up in pens and slaughtered like cattle. Ninety-nine calves have been quarantined as well.

Although brucellosis-carrying elk are also hunted when they come across park boundaries, they're still allowed to migrate freely to their traditional ranges, and bison are not. ''It's more about the grass and grazing areas than the disease,'' Seay said.

When the native buffalo graze through an area, their pointed hooves actually help till the soil; and they are careful not to overgraze, eating only the tops of the grasses as they once did across swaths of North America. Their numbers once were at an estimated 65 million in the 19th century. That number dwindled to below 1,000 by the end of that same century, according to the National Park Service.

''It's amazing when they're in the field how they help maintain and keep the grassland going, and help the ecosystem,'' Seay said. ''Eventually, we'd like to see bison get back into their historic migratory corridors.''

Some of those solutions to getting them back would be allowing tax incentives for those land owners that would allow cattle to roam on their land, giving tribal governments and organizations like the InterTribal Bison Cooperative more buffalo, and fencing in some of the more free-ranging cattle that could potentially come in contact with bison.

''The Buffalo Field Campaign also utterly and completely supports tribal management of bison herds,'' Seay said. ''We have the same goals of tribes: returning buffalo back to the natural landscape.''

The BFC was skeptical of a supposed ''historic deal'' proposed by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer April 17 in response to the plight of the bison, saying that there would be only 25 buffalo allowed to roam temporarily on the nearby state-controlled Gallatin National Forest and Church Universal and Triumphant-owned lands, and those buffalo would cost Montana taxpayers $2.5 million.

''The only historic announcement that Schweitzer and [Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Suzanne] Lewis could possibly make is that they've killed more wild American buffalo than anyone since the 1800s,'' said BFC co-founder Mike Mease in a release.

''This deal will not stop the slaughter,'' said BFC habitat coordinator Darrell Geist in that same release, explaining that the church had already received 13 million tax dollars in 1998 and 3,000 bison have died for merely attempting to access that same land. ''Why should we give them millions more to do what they should have done years ago?''

In speaking on behalf of the passion of the BFC and why they keep fighting for them, Seay said a lot can be learned from them.

''Buffalo represent everything that is good: strength, endurance, resistance and nonviolence in the face of oppression. They're strong survivors. I mean, this is a mammal that walked the earth with the woolly mammoth,'' she said. ''They're a microcosm of all the things that are happening in this world, to Mother Earth.''