Not that many minutes and not that many miles after this picture was taken on January 27, 2008, in Yellowstone National Park, I found myself stopped 100 yards away from another set of buffalo in the road. On the snowpacked road between Tower Junction and Mammoth Hot Springs, the most beautiful animals strolled along a road they hadn't been just a half hour before.
Buffalo are always on the move, but sometimes they don't have a lot of say in when and where they are heading.
I've sat through many buffalo jams, which I almost always try to avoid. This one was impossible to avoid. I sat there, and I was dismayed to see cars with futility go around me, as they had near the Lamar Valley (at the spot this photo was taken), only to get stuck within a few feet of the buffalo. Still, they calmly strolled, in no hurry to move.
That was until all of the sudden I could see the bison stampede toward my car, instantly afraid, and moving right toward us. In horror, I witnessed a young buffalo get forced into a snowbank only to stumble and fall. I shrieked aloud as my heart sank; the young girl or boy managed to regain her or his footing. Still, they ran by and around the vehicle where my baby and my girlfriend were. At that moment, I wondered if we were about to be like those videos of buffalo (and sometimes elk) ramming into the side of vehicles.
What was causing this horrible and scary scene? Why were the buffalo in a run panicking? Quickly, it was obvious. A snow plow was pushing on forward, driving the buffalo down the road. Whether the snow plow was simply intent on plowing a road (that would be closed by weather anyhow the very next day) or whether the plow simply didn't care about the buffalo, I cannot say. Either way, the buffalo were being hazed from their spot. I cannot emphasize enough how my heart dropped to see that one buffalo look like she or he might fracture a leg in the deep snowdrift (no doubt deeper than it would otherwise be because of those plows).
Since that moment, a moment that pales in comparison to so much of what happens outside of the park - including the hazing, the hunting, and the slaughter of buffalo - I have felt empty inside with the memory of that frightening moment, which wasn't necessary. We could have waited; we would have waited hours if we had to. And, hours would not have been necessary. Anyone who has ever witnessed buffalo realizes that they are always on the move, roaming. However slow they may appear, misjudge them at your peril. They are not born to sit; they are born to roam. As with the other jams, we would have been moving in no time.
While the National Park Service keeps one road open to vehicle traffic during the winter - between the North Entrance at Gardiner to the Northeast Entrance up to Cooke City - and grooms other roads for snowmobile and snowcoach traffic, I fail to understand what the rush was in that moment to further plow a road that was already able to be driven. How many other buffalo have been hazed so that I could be on that road with my car? All I can do is wonder; it's impossible to generalize from a single impressionable experience.
For me, the irony was that a Park Ranger in Mammoth Hot Springs had chewed me out for driving around a needless bison jam just north of Mammoth. On the climbing and winding road, some bison were off in a field. A few cars had stopped with a ranger behind them. Not wanting to add to the trouble, I decided to go around them, like any driver who spends time in Yellowstone does to avoid trouble, especially the needless trouble of one of the many animal jams throughout the park. Just as I was about to go around, traffic moved, and I fell in behind the ranger. At Mammoth Hot Springs, we got out to get Genevieve an extra hat for her head, and the ranger took the time to drive up and pull behind me. He wanted to tell me how wrong it was that I pulled out over a double yellow line and what the consequences might have been for me legally and otherwise if anything had happened. In my mind, I thought to myself, "Give me a break." I've driven my bicycle through the streets of Washington, DC - each intersection was a greater danger than that moment on that road. What was dangerous was adding to a situation of more people crowding around buffalo. However, I also knew from millions of encounters with police officers, including Park Police, that the best thing to do is to shut up and say as little as possible. The more quiet and empty-stared "OK"s I gave, the more agitated the officer seemed with me, but the less he could do but repeat himself a couple of times. He left, probably annoyed with me, annoyed with all the people who do things that create danger to other people and animals alike. I was just one more person to him. And, yet, I was easy to pick on. What stops plows from bulldozing bison off the road? What will stop people in Cody - so eager to protect what they feel is their right - from insisting that the Park Service continue to bombard Sylvan Pass with munitions (or the Park Service from being the overlord making decisions that affect local people, too)? What will stop the livestock industry, who finally announced achieving brucellosis-free status for all cattle in the United States, from persecuting the buffalo of Greater Yellowstone, keeping them penned in a park that they are overgrazing to the detriment of vegetation and other animals alike?
I went over that double yellow line - whether I should have is not the point - I did it to avoid and give space to the buffalo. What sad irony that the road crews under the watch of the same rangers gave me the opportunity to cross that line by bulldozing buffalo off of the roads they live every single day of their lives?
It makes me sick inside.
The day before, I had driven on wind-swept snowy roads to West Yellowstone. Outside of Yellowstone National Park between West Yellowstone and the park boundary on U.S. 191, I saw a group of snowmobiles watching a group of bison outside the park. All I can wonder about is how many of those buffalo are now dead.
Only fundamental changes can make these feelings and these experiences go away.
Genevieve, River, and I want to visit Buffalo Field Campaign and see if we can bring them some things on the wish list. I wonder what more I can do, how I can bring my perception, my organizing skill, my other skills to help while trying to be the primary caretaker for a small baby. I know that I need to do something more. The experience of seeing that buffalo, scared and stumbling is not something I can shake - and I was already convinced. What needless arrogance we have to assert our power in the way that we do, what arrogance that we think our recreation must come at the expense of these creatures. Conflict may be an inevitable part of nature, but asserting ourselves as rightful lords of the conflict doesn't need to be part of it. Can't we enjoy waiting it out? Can't we give the buffalo some space? If we come to the point where we are running buffalo over cliffs as many indigenous people did back before the horse, do we have to do so with the ruinous sense of entitlement that we have?
A world away, politicians are having their normal talk about hope and change - do you hear me Mr. Obama? They talk about transparency in government and empowering people to be part of the change. I'm all for it; who isn't? But, what exactly is that change, and how are we a part of it? How are the other beings of this earth a part of it? Is that compatible with what the politicians are talking about? Of course not. We have to be daring enough to be radical enough to recognize that small primal moment - the moment where our fate and the fate of the wandering buffalo are intertwined and unpredictable, the small space between Mammoth and Tower. It starts by recognizing that buffalo roam, that they need space. And, we can wait it out, or even cross the double yellow line if we have to make that happen. If that doesn't end up so rosy for me, if I can't see Yellowstone, if the roads don't get plowed, at least that horrible feeling won't also be there.
Still roaming and pondering,