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An Unsettling Buffalo Dance
Traveling back onto a familiar trail unsure of why I was there, I saw the familiar beauty of the Gardiner Basin north of Yellowstone National Park. This is a land where so much tragedy happens to wild buffalo. Dancing my way through this journey, I rediscovered old wounds and came out with a new sense of purpose to tell their story.
The Yellowstone River glistened as it flowed into Yankee Jim Canyon. Its banks were outlined by white patches of melting snow. Yet, for me, its flow was not comforting; the flow was like an open wound in my body, agitating me to take action. I glanced at the glistening river, looked out at the barren Cutler Meadows and up at the rocky trail before me. Why was I here standing on this ground? Why was I being called here?
I stepped out of my car and up the Joe Brown trail, some 13 miles upstream from Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance. It was about 27 degrees, mostly sunny, and no one else was on my trail. It was me, some magpies, and a raven that kept flying high overhead circling the basin. I tried to pay attention to my body, noticing the weight of my steps, the interesting rocks and geology I was seeing, the cold air I was feeling, but the truth was that I could not inhabit every step, every moment around me.
There were simply too many memories and too much knowledge of where I was for that, and they were largely painful memories. Why did I bring myself here of all places?
Two years ago, I walked this trail with fellow volunteers from Buffalo Field Campaign. That day, there were buffalo in Cutler Meadows, which is at the far boundary of anything approaching tolerance for wild bison. I had witnessed bison forcibly removed from near the trailhead. They were hazed miles down the road one late Sunday afternoon. Now, a cattle guard serves to deter buffalo from crossing the absolute zero tolerance line into Yankee Jim Canyon. Any buffalo that crosses north of that boundary will be killed.
That day, hundreds upon hundreds of buffalo were in captivity; I had seen so many that had been shot. Wearying day after wearying day and night I spent in Gardiner watching buffalo be hazed, shot, captured, or run over by cars. Much of that hike was spent in what felt like a fruitless discussion with my friend. We were trying in vain to figure out a more effective way to take direct action to protect these amazing animals.
This Sunday morning was very different. No one was around me; my purpose for being where I was happened to be quite unclear to me. I just knew that for whatever reason I needed to be here at this very spot. Was it about buffalo? Was it about something else? The only thing that was clear was that I was by myself. The hand that life dealt me and which I was playing had brought me to a moment where I was on this trail without human companionship. Though, frankly, I had little desire to be on a field patrol at that moment and had burned a lot of bridges along the way. I haven’t written anything substantial since my eight-year plus domestic partnership ended last June. Life has become a relentless soap opera. People in my life tend to be scarce these days, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I am, what I am supposed to be doing, and who I am supposed to be. Much of the discovery has actually been wonderful with moments that have been unforgettable and sublime, but I would be lying if I said that there weren’t more than a few twinges of melancholy dominating this particular moment. I did not really want to be alone; it’s just how things ended up.
Seeing the river flow, the familiar Gardiner basin before me, the rocks, and the birds, I knew I was at some sense in my home. Anyone who knows me knows I love the Yellowstone region intensely, that it is a very spiritual and magical place for me. I feel comfortable there and most myself. Yet, though Yellowstone is a vast land, I chose to be on a trail full of darker memories, full of what can be conflicting about home. We may feel safest at home; it doesn’t mean we are always happiest. There was too much wrong with the picture.
For one thing, I knew what was around the bend. Around the bend and below my trail was the Slip ‘n Slide Ranch, home over the last many years to quarantined buffalo. Buffalo have been routinely removed from the herd and been subjected to one experiment after another. Can a brucellosis-free herd be raised? Can buffalo with brucellosis be sterilized? What can be done with these “clean” buffalo? Might they be given to Native American tribes? Perhaps, they can go to the private lands of Ted Turner or perhaps alternatively to some other public land? Yet, what thought is given to these poor buffalo in captivity, locked behind a fence? They are wild and roaming by nature; what are they now? Who are they? And who cares about them except to fit someone’s dreams for their preferred policy objectives? Of course, that is an exaggeration. I have seen field volunteers weep at the torture; I know there are many who care and who have been faithful year after year after year bearing witness. And yet it continues, and it so often goes unnoticed.
Being who I am, I could not help but think of what was around the bend. The beautiful rock formations could barely catch my attention. And while I could not help but look down on the glistening Yellowstone, there was little joy in its rushing waters. I felt like something in it was bleeding me, taking me away from the moment, taking my body away from where it might have been. In another world, maybe I could gaze at the magpies, pick up rocks and simply wonder, check out the bones I saw at one point below my trail, and pretend I was on some great outdoor quest in this thing people call nature, but I just knew better. I knew that something was around that bend that would not let me go.
When I got there, the view was every bit the disappointment I expected. Mostly grouped together in a muddy corner of the small squared captive pens that they occupied, about 20 buffalo breathed in the same sulfur-scented air of melancholia that I was. While I was at some distance, I have seen captive buffalo up close – seen their wounds, their branding tags, their tendency to congregate near the boundaries of their cages. Two years ago, the powers that be in the Interagency Bison Management Plan followed through on their crazy idea of allowing 25 brucellosis-free bison to graze in Cutler Meadows across the river. What was crazy, they expected the bison to stay there all winter. Bison being bison, they saw their captive kin across the river, and most of them crossed over. Within 10 days, the entire plan had collapsed because bison don’t want to stand still forever. They want to move, and they are going to roam whenever they feel like roaming. Seeing buffalo unable to move – even after seeing this sight for so many years – is still a terrible shock to my system. They had been reduced to breathing pawns without any sense of home. Beautiful vistas were all around, but the powers that be could not make them more beautiful by letting buffalo be buffalo within them.
Instead, I was trailing a land of fences. I could not help but notice the trail regularly moving through barbed wire fences, presumably used as a public right of way through private lands. I could not help but see the civilization of the Gardiner Basin below me and these poor miserable bison. Only camera tricks could make one believe that I was on some Discovery Channel or National Geographic Channel trek. For, wasn’t this land significantly more natural, wilder than the urban jungles, and much more intact than the Bozeman apartment where I came from – a place that I cannot even pretend is a home for me?
Then, a different thought entered my mind. This place was still calling me. Out in the distance, I could see what I think is called Red Mountain. It was gorgeous. Looking up were snow-capped peaks in every direction. Behind me, I could see that siren Electric Peak kissing the sky at almost 11,000 feet. “Those magpies are sure resourceful birds,” I thought. I thought much the same of the ravens. There was something alive and pulsating in the ground beneath my feet. And, that ground, sometimes frozen, sometimes soggy was something, too. As I felt for gravity, I took special notice of the way my feet would sometimes press and sometimes slip into the surface which was sometimes hard dirt, sometimes mud, and sometimes packed snow. I noticed how hard it was to work on my posture that I’ve been trying to improve because the surface was so unsettled in places that I had to constantly look downward. When my body does that, it tends to crumple up. It being cold and without gloves, my arms weren’t swinging because they were in my pockets.
Yet, it was wondrous to spend some moments aware of where I was and seeing where I was in a light I wouldn’t have seen it prior to this past year. I used to be barely aware of how I pressed into the earth; I thought mostly of whether I was tired or whether my feet hurt. Yet, now, in these moments of moving, there was a remarkable symbiosis of me, the earth, and some very positive thoughts about my surroundings. Yes, I was home, and there is a magical something I cannot quite express, as though I had been pulled in by a magnet of sorts.
And even the buffalo now receding for awhile from my view gave me a sense of inspiration. This connection I have felt with them, this calling I felt from this place and from these buffalo must be leading me somewhere. Life cannot simply be about what isn’t right, what has gone horribly wrong, about being resigned to an open wound. I felt moments of joy in being defiant, in returning home, in seeking answers, in trying to figure out the puzzle of why I was here.
The trail turned completely to snow, and the warming temperatures made walking on that snow gradually trickier. I was in no rush, though.
About 250 feet in elevation above me, I saw a beautiful herd of cow elk. Most of them stopped and turned around when they realized I was near. They scouted me out and looked down on me. They then turned around and continued on out of sight. I have had so many moments like that; it felt good to be having another one.
I continued on for a little while, but I reached a point where I knew that I was heading the wrong direction. My trail was moving away from the Gardiner Basin and into the snowy mountainous regions ahead. How I’d love to keep going another time, but this was not the right day for it. I turned around and walked back down, down, down the trail. It was increasingly slippery, and I took some delight in working on my balance – to bounce onto the other foot before the lack of friction sent me tumbling, to be light on my feet. If I can figure out when to be light, when to be heavy, when to step this way or step that way, it would be wonderful. These things feel really significant to me right now.
I was trying to listen and take in all that I was feeling. What were these experiences adding up to? Maybe, it was too early to consider that. So, I walked with a sense of rapid stillness. What do I mean by that? I didn’t try to put my thoughts into an order yet. If I were to do that, I would have cut my hike short and headed home in an instant to put it all down. Yet, something hadn’t happened yet. The reason I was there had not been made clear. It was slippery to be thinking all these thoughts; I needed to let my thoughts dance as quickly as they were coming to me. If at that moment I put too much into it, I would have missed what was to happen when I left the trail. So, instead of trying to put them somewhere, I needed to be still and let them happen. It was just that letting them happen required something like nimble feet. My brain was moving quickly; I had to be aware of that so that it could move quickly while I held the stationary position of my mental balance.
One thing was for sure, however. I needed to head in the direction of wild buffalo. As I went by the quarantined buffalo again, I stopped. In this moment, I prayed and passed along a message to them. The message I got back in return was that there was more to discover, that the trail I was called to be on was only preparation.
Whether it was my own fancy or something more, who knows? It doesn’t matter, really. Whatever that variable was that was inclining me to keep going did so. It is remarkable, really, that I ever ended up in the Yellowstone area given that I was raised so far away and grew up with such different interests. I grew up paying attention to sports, history, and politics. Nothing more than liking short walks in the woods could have foreshadowed half a lifetime now mesmerized by this place. What did it? What still pulls me? I am sure I can muse on that and give some sort of specific answer. I also know that just because I am attracted to Yellowstone and buffalo does not mean that you will be similarly attracted. You may find yourself engrossed with any number of meaningful things; do you ever stop and wonder how miraculous it is that you find yourself right here, right now where you are in life? What were the odds? What were the odds that any of us would actually come to life from so many possible outcomes? Your great-great-great-great grandmother goes left instead of right just at the moment a turtle decides to go right instead of left on some other continent, and you would not have been born. Yet, here we are being pulled and moved.
Buffalo are like that. In some ways, movement is predictable; we generally understand the migration patterns of park bison and the reasons for it. Yet, in any given moment, we have no idea. Something moves the herd, moves the individual buffalo. In all this apparent order is also a kind of chaos we cannot hope to understand. And, yet, the buffalo before me were contained, and all buffalo in this region are trapped by policies that act as if nature requires more boundaries and controls, as though the outcome of our heart’s desire can be determined. I do not understand that. I think it’s outrageous, in fact. Our very existence is almost astronomically impossible – this very moment of our lives – and instead of allowing the wonder that we are alive and moving take us, we try to bottle up. It becomes so precious to us that we ruin the spontaneity of its essence. We live in our little boxed houses, in our little square streets, in our little cages. Many of us insist this of our children, our loved ones. I sure know I have been guilty. We also do this to bison.
Anyhow, I made it to my car and headed on U.S. 89 toward the park. I felt large pangs of pain for the quarantined buffalo. Again, the sense of power I felt in being connected with these animals transformed into the futility of realizing that I could not actually reach them with my voice, with my compassion, and maybe not with my action. They remain behind those fences tonight sleeping with no idea how they have been made pawns.
I drove south, and then I saw something I hadn’t seen in two years. I saw wild buffalo on the other side of the Yellowstone River, north of Corwin Springs, meaning outside the park boundaries. My heart, however, did not leap at the sight. I did not think immediately to stop and simply watch them, to ponder about their nature like I do from the quiet environs of my apartment. Immediately, I worried for them and felt the danger of their situation. At least a couple dozen bison were on the other side of the Yellowstone, and not terribly far from these buffalo I could see several vehicles congregating.
Instantly, I felt almost as if I were on a field patrol; however, again, I was in my own car and alone. I had no video camera, no partner in the car with me, no sense of what I should be doing in the moment. Yet, I felt a compulsion to go nearer, to see what was happening. To be honest, I felt like I was stumbling a bit. There were no rules, no music to which I was dancing. I didn’t know what my next step would be, why I would be taking it, or what the outcome would be. I was just following the lead of some vague notion in my heart. Yet, at the same time, I knew what might be happening. I had seen the script play out too many times before. There was likely a hunting party on the other side of the river, and they either had hunted buffalo, or were hoping to hunt this particular group. I might have been stumbling, but I wasn’t ignorant.
Now, most people driving by the same scene not knowing what locals or volunteers with Buffalo Field Campaign probably know might have simply marveled at the buffalo grazing in fields not far from the Yellowstone River, which was still glistening. They might have hopped out to take pictures, or having just seen so many buffalo in the park, remarked, “Oh, there’s more buffalo. Imagine that.” A camera crew might have been bored with no wolves stalking the herd. Yet, how wonderful it would be simply to be able to live in the moment of that scene – of wild buffalo in Montana outside of Yellowstone National Park. How peaceful and serene, to take in the mountain ranges in all directions beyond, highlighted by Electric Peak. Perhaps, one would argue it brings better energy to block out all the negativity and focus on the positive moment – that buffalo almost to the point of extinction are alive and breathing in lands outside of a national park.
Yet, how can I of all people do this? I know the truth. I know that those buffalo were probably being tracked by a hunting party; that if they managed to stay outside the park that the Park Service has recently expressed the desire to capture more than 60 bison for more experiments; that if they avoid that, that if they go too far North, they will be shot; that if they manage to stick around too long into the spring, that the federal and state governments will forcibly haze them all well inside the park – often right at the time these same herds will be giving birth to their newborn calves. How can I out of some phony sense of good energy and positivity pretend when there is so much injustice going on with these animals? When I know that the plight of buffalo are but one of millions and millions of injustices being perpetrated by humanity right now, right this instant, how can I just block that out? Get real! This is real, that though there was something quite beautiful in that moment, something truly special, that there was real ugliness all around. And I can’t stand by!
I couldn’t stand by and just do as so many do watching their favorite cable news show taking sides as if things like the death of Hugo Chavez, drones, sequestration, and the election of a new pope are merely like sports competitions to be watched. What side am I on? Did our guy win? How does this look for our team in the next election? All these things matter greatly. Many, many, many are affected by acts big and small around the globe; didn’t I just say that the decision of a turtle somewhere else might determine who lives and who is never born? What I couldn’t do in that moment – however lacking intention I had – was pretend that the moment didn’t matter, that I was merely a spectator or a witness. Always, that same edge, which got me wondering about direct action on a hike with fellow volunteers, must drive me, must be the truly real sense of positive energy that I take with me – the one that acknowledges that bad things are bad things and that it is intolerable.
And, when it comes to buffalo, what does it matter who is in power and what side wins? Current buffalo policy dates to the Clinton Administration, continued under Bush, and continues unabated under Obama. Montana was governed by Republicans who waged war on buffalo, and then reached new heights of slaughter under current Democratic administrations. Right now, Democrats control executive power at both the federal and state levels, and bison get the shaft. When power has been shared or exclusively under Republican control, bison get the shaft. And in a world much bigger than buffalo, it is really impossible to feel good about settling for this game and simply accepting the few things done better by one side versus another. I saw a homeless man on my way home in a parking lot; I can’t speak for him, but I wonder if his fate matters much in the outcome of which side wins. What matters is that we cannot possibly sit completely and passively still. We have to move; that it’s our very natures to move! We can’t look on things and simply sit still and pretend. Even in our stillness, there can be every need to move rapidly lest we slip in the muck.
So, I drove across the bridge at Corwin Springs. There, I noticed the vehicles that had been parked somewhat south of the buffalo. They were retreating. I saw several vehicles with Idaho plates packed with native people heading away from the buffalo. This looked every bit to me like a Nez Perce hunting party; I had seen it so many times before. Nez Perce and Umatilla are hunting right now because they have treaty rights in the area to hunt game, though they pretty much exclusively come to hunt buffalo. I am not going to get into the whole treaty rights issue here; it is a really complicated and delicate subject. Yet, I will admit relief for a moment when I saw the hunting party retreating.
These buffalo were for the moment safe because they were on private property, property that happens to belong to a controversial religious group called the Church Universal and Triumphant. They hold land called the Royal Teton Ranch, and their role in the buffalo story is convoluted to say the least. Talking about this issue would also take me far afield, and yet that was exactly what I already felt the entire time. The world and America and Yellowstone and buffalo had become so convoluted and complicated by people that I could not simply see buffalo grazing near a big river. Instead, I saw an overly complicated human web tied together in a vast history – significant parts of it involving genocide and religious persecution – all converging before my eyes. My brain danced from the scene to the knowledge occupying it. Imposed on this land was my own internal political grid. What lies we learn from the nature shows on television, of a delicate balance of predator and prey relationships in some vanishing land known as “the wild.” Do we dare take on the myth for a second so that some day we might actually be able to appreciate what is really before our eyes? When will I be able to see that pregnant mama and not have to think of the distinction of private and public land, treaty rights, and what the hell I am doing there in that moment driving my Subaru around?
In all these words, I am covering up something terrible I did see, though. When I reached the point where the cars had been converged, I saw in the field before me so many buffalo gut piles that I didn’t even attempt to count them all. It was a gruesome sight that instantly took me into flashbacks from two years prior of finding so many gut piles, often finding them after skiing over a trail of blood – often bloody tissue matter hanging from sagebrush along the path. Across the road from this very field, I had once watched a buffalo get gunned down. Seeing these gut piles took me to that and so many other moments all in an instant. I indeed was in a killing fields, a small patch of public land that buffalo must pass in order to reach the point those still living had reached.
I should have known because ravens were all over the place having a relative feast on the leftover carcasses.
I cannot describe really what this did to me, but let me try. Volunteering an entire season at Buffalo Field Campaign was an emotionally traumatic experience in terms of the suffering I saw. Some volunteers return year after year and have had the fortitude to be a witness to this so many times more than I have. Yet, I still feel an open gaping wound from the experience. I still cannot fully process the sheer volume of things that I saw and experienced. What’s more, it is impossible to find the right sort of environment to talk with anyone about it. Everyone processes grief in their own way, and I didn’t have people by and large who grieved the way I grieved when I volunteered. Where many around me kept it inside – which was their own way, I suppose – I wanted to emote. I never felt I adequately did that. What’s more, the whole experience no doubt exposed serious problems in my long-term romantic relationship. I left that experience thoroughly depressed – having not fully processed my grief and struggling to figure out what I was doing in my relationship. Life kept rolling, things broke open last June, and then life changed dramatically. Yet, the open wound of grief for the buffalo was still there. I had not figured out what to do about my emotions, about the horror I witnessed.
Now, at this moment, it was before me again, like an avalanche. Living buffalo in the distance, but death was all around me. Now, I was by myself, though I always felt in some ways alone. I was in my home land, but so much was wrong. The experience was exerting a kind of magic on me, and yet it was at that moment pressing in all around me. What was happening? Why was the same scene for the buffalo still happening with or without my presence? I didn’t know, but I felt an urgency to keep going.
I headed along the Old Yellowstone Trail road in the direction of the park. I could see buffalo chips in the fields everywhere. Eventually, I saw another herd of buffalo on Royal Teton Ranch land still outside the park. Near the park boundary at Beatty Gulch (this is still miles north of the North Entrance), I could see even more gut piles. I had read about buffalo being killed at the boundary, about some having survived the initial shots and then scampering back across the boundary only to die there from their wounds. The tribal shooters were not allowed to collect the buffalo due to where they died; the buffalo were now simply food for ravens and eagles. Now in the park, in the direction of the massive Stephens Creek Capture Facility, I saw buffalo I presume by the hundreds in scattered groups all over the grounds near the capture facility. Currently, I could see and have heard of no buffalo in the facility, but there would be a huge number that could be captured if the Park Service saw fit to capture them. And yes, I have witnessed buffalo many times that never left the park that were captured. While hunters cannot gather dead buffalo inside the park, the Park Service can capture and ship buffalo to slaughter almost on a whim. The management plan allows for very wide latitude. Only politics spared a mass slaughter in 2011 when the governor, citing the spurious concern of brucellosis being spread by buffalo being shipped to slaughter, forbade bison that year to be shipped to slaughter. Yet, many hundreds languished for months in captivity.
I continued south worried about these buffalo, realizing that they could be captured or could just as easily move a mile north to meet their doom one way or another. I thought I’d drive through the town of Gardiner and then north on U.S. 89; however, I came upon a herd of bison in the road heading in my direction. I simply turned around and gave them the road.
Yet, it was at that moment that I realized why I was there.
It was definitely the buffalo that were calling me to reconnect with them, that they are in need of something that I’m supposed to provide. At that moment and at this one, all I can think of to do is to share their story and my place in their story. Tonight, buffalo are moving and sleeping. They are powerless to share their story. For most people, the story of buffalo is one of the past – of mass slaughter by 19th century hunters. Or it is the somewhat legendary story of the recovery of the species; the species has not recovered, but that’s another issue altogether. Or it is the story of a leaner type of meat that is healthier than cow beef. Or it is the story of how they blocked the road on that trip to Old Faithful. Or perhaps it is the story of Indian peoples. All of these stories are certainly part of the fuller story, but they are not the essence of the story I need to share. I need to share that under the same sky we sleep under tonight, buffalo that I saw are sleeping, too. They are in peril. They are in a beautiful land that is being hurt by human beings. They are affecting me and are playing some role in helping me put my own life together. They are calling me, and I am calling you.
There are a lot of strands running through this. Being called, finding my sense of space, looking for where I am, thinking about buffalo, witnessing brutality in the midst of beauty, dancing, being alone, affirming life, being real, taking action, and a lot more besides. Normally, I try to bring the strands together, but that somehow feels wrong and even contrived. I know that the glistening Yellowstone was unsettling to me; that still seems to be the image I take with me even though it was the buffalo that were calling me. Somewhere, I need to sit and reflect on next steps to get this story out there, to raise my voice, to do something for this place and these animals that have done so much for me. If in the process, I can unsettle you to the point of inspiration, I think that would be a larger goal. Our world is so beautiful; how can we stand it? How can we stand by and watch what gives us life suffer under our hands?
Life is beautiful; my world; my home is beautiful. I am blessed by regularly seeing the most beautiful people and places and animals anyone could ever hope for. Yet, part of that beauty is its life, its dynamism, its ability to move. We can learn a lot from watching buffalo move; we could learn a lot more if we’d let them and ourselves do the same.