Always leave the banjo tuned and a full cup of coffee left in the pot, and never look down at your phone while walking over tree fall. The next person who comes along to sing to the sky, holding a warm cup of coffee, just might surprise you with their ability to learn everything from nothing. When that first pitch of their breath hits the cool air around you, you might find yourself shaking a little with the unexpected. Always leave the banjo tuned so they can sing on key.
You sip your own coffee, standing on the edge of a bluff looking over a prairie nestled in between mountains. It nearly aches, the way the river bends through the willows and reminds you that your body is a series of rivers moving from the mountain of your heart. Another note, higher than the Osprey slips into the coffee cup and into your mouth. Warm, it slides out to your fingers and toes in a smile. A small group of buffalo walk along in a seeming dance. They move quickly, slowly, leaving land behind them covered in footsteps. You put your feet in their steps, feeling the flex of their muscle moving their two ton bodies moving your two toned body, pale from winter.
The banjo plays on, a tinny vibration blooming in the countryside grass. You notice a buffalo never eats an entire grass plant. The world has natural lawn mowers. They are gentle. Gentler than you are. You find yourself wistful for a touch so gentle to take only what it needs, while leaving enough to grow. There are bare places inside of you, forgotten and hidden, where others were not kind. Where you gave more than you had. Then you slip away back into the cup of coffee. The patches of sadness you carry aren’t heavy anymore. They have become scars tucked into the folds of your existence.
But the buffalo keep walking, and the banjo keeps playing, and you are tuned in.
Imagine a Buffalo. Are they in a cage or on the open plains? How big are they? Do they seem loveable or threatening?
The answers to these questions, though to me are obvious, are in debate in the area of South Western Montana near the town of West Yellowstone. Personally, I love the image of Buffalo (or Bison… same same) roaming and grazing and napping where they please. Their large furry bodies moving in seemingly impossible ways over swaths of land, untethered by human interference. The image of this brings me joy. “At least the buffalo are free,” I think to myself sometimes when I feel stuck in the doldrums rhythms of every day life. Yet, after being in Montana for only one day, I realize the scene is actually much different.
The bison are treated as strangers on their own land. They are not welcome on portions of land that have been their primary migration corridor for years that reach back further than any of us have ever seen. These buffalo are the last pure buffalo that migrate freely by their instincts on the land they have always migrated on. All of the other buffalo we see in various parts of the nation are transplants from the Yellowstone Buffalo. Yet, their freedom is limited.
When the “white man” (I apologize for the lack of a better term) came to inhabit the land, they recognized the ties the Buffalo had with the Native Tribes already on the land. They begun to kill off massive amounts of buffalo simply to eradicate the native people. Now I am going to skip over an important part of history that involves the brutality that was imposed on the Native people in order to stay focused on the bison, but their stories are deeply interwoven and arguably cannot be pulled apart. There are parallels with how the Buffalo are treated today that directly correlate with how the Reservation system functions.
Back to the bison. On the land where a once stable and healthy population of buffalo were just roaming about migrating North West to South East were killed off to near extinction (numbers can be found in attached link), cattle ranchers began to move their cattle in. These cattle infected the buffalo with a disease and somehow somewhere a law was passed that moved Buffalo into the category of livestock. I repeat, buffalo are considered livestock in the state of Montana. The definition of Livestock is: n. “a farm animal regarded as an asset.”
Do Buffalo fit into that category in your opinion?
If your answer is yes, I invite you to stop reading. You are the problem. Bison are not livestock. They have never been a farm animal because farm animals did not exist until the White Man moved in. Buffalo are no different from wolves, eagles, moose, and all of the other animals we love to see as free. Buffalo are native to this land, and currently the last population is in danger of being pushed off it. Now, you may be thinking, “The buffalo in the picture look pretty free to me.” The ones captured in the picture are safe because they are on the land owned by the Buffalo Field Campaign. However, the minute a buffalo steps off of their protected land (which is very narrow and constricting compared to the amount of land they need), they are in danger of being hunted or hazed.
Sigh. It is exhausting to try to write down all of the corruption in one post. I am not used to writing factual pieces. However, I want to make it clear that any future glory posts about Buffalo in the future are underlined by this crazy history. So this is the history as I understand it and I thank you for reading.
I did say Hazed above. That word sounds just about as horrible as it is. Since the bison are treated as livestock, their populations are also managed as such. Their low numbers are not enough to sustain a population through the stressors that the Department of Livestock, DOL for short, puts them through. On a projected date in May, coming soon unfortunately, the DOL rounds up their Cowboys, ATV’s and helicopters and begin to push all of the Yellowstone Buffalo back into Yellowstone. This means that only two or three weeks after a mother has given birth, and a calf has been born, they are herded two 15 mile long stretches into the park. The mystery and wonder of birth is immediately followed by a deadly march across uneven terrain, through deep rivers, across roads and over excruciating miles that no buffalo would naturally run in this portion of their lives.
Why? The cattle ranchers (who are mostly hobby ranchers not welfare ranchers) use the excuse that the disease could be spread to their cattle in order to justify pushing buffalo off their land so they can have their cattle that introduced the disease to the bison in the first place on it. Note that there is not a single case of bison actually transmitting the disease to cattle, only the cattle to bison. Seen from this lens, the disease cannot be used as an excuse at all. The depth of the psychological excuses being made is far too complicated for me to delve into. However, it seems clear that the buffalo are entitled to the land they have always been a part of. Moreover, as the last pure Yellowstone Buffalo with natural migration instinct that applies to their land, it is a right that they be granted access to the spaces they have always used and will always need to maintain their population and rights of being the last free roaming buffalo.
It is hard not to get emotional about this topic. Many of the people here will end up in an almost-shout when talking about the issues and illusions around this whole controversy. On the bright side, the campaign did win a safe parcel of land where there is hope that the first generation of yearlings will not be faced with human brutality and hazing. With these small wins happening, it is easy to let the optimistic advertising and propaganda fool you. There are still many changes that need to happen, and many more supporters that are needed. As a new member to the group, I have only skimmed the surface, but I urge you to research and if you can, to help. Whether it means coming out here and volunteering, or donating money, or simply becoming an informed citizen, everything is a part of it.
While there is still hope, change can still me made.