It cuts a disturbingly graceful, almost mystical scene, this long and ultimately bloody death march of the buffalo that has lumbered for weeks out of the icy, pristine wilderness of Yellowstone National Park.
In groups of 10, 20, sometimes 50 at a time, the shaggy, hulking creatures tromp casually, yet purposefully, down from their drought-ravaged winter grounds in search of forage and, some biologists think, a return to that vast home on the range where millions of their ancestors once roamed.
They mosey past the remains of the old Army fort, built to stop poaching that all but wiped out the species back in the frontier days. Then they move on over to the Yellowstone River trail or on to the highway that runs by the stone-covered Teddy Roosevelt arch at the park’s northern gate.
After leaving the park, some of them amble through the streets of this tiny tourist center, grazing as they go on stalks of grass that pierce through the snow or piles of hay dumped in town by concerned, though some say misguided, residents.
They take a bite, then take a step, take a bite, take a step, right up the river valley that widens into lush, snow-covered pasture just north of Gardiner. Right into the telescopic gun sights of a crew of state-sanctioned hunters assembled to mow them all down before they can get very far into Montana, where buffalo are considered a health threat to the pricey cattle so important to the local economy.
Since late January, a total of 525 of the brawny giants, some weighing in at a ton apiece, have been shot--more than half of what had been the park’s 900 strong northern herd and nearly 20% of the entire Yellowstone buffalo population. And, if the animals keep coming, the killing could continue until the spring thaw, when they are expected to head back to their summer feeding grounds deep inside the park’s protected confines.
Such shooting of a national symbol has evoked howls of protest from animal rights activists, who claim National Park Service authorities should have done something to stop it. And, in the wake of last year’s devastating fires that scorched nearly half the Yellowstone landscape, it has revived a simmering debate over hands-off management policies that critics say can ruin the park for tourists but naturalists think will lead to a more vibrant and diverse mix of plants and wildlife.
“This is reminiscent of the 19th-Century buffalo massacres,” charged Wayne Pacelle, executive director of the militant Fund for Animals, which opposes hunting in any form.
Thwarted Herding Attempts
Such talk, officials argue, is both irresponsible and misleading, since bison have pretty much thwarted all attempts by park personnel to herd them with fences, helicopters, scary noises and the like. They have also proved to be amazingly resilient as a species. Indeed, fewer than 100 of the animals remained in the park after authorities trimmed back herds in the 1960s to reduce the threat of disease. But by last year, the park boasted more than 2,700 of the animals in three separate herds.
“The interior herds of Yellowstone are in no way, shape or form threatened with decimation because of this hunt or harvest,” said Park Supt. Bob Barbee.
The bison furor is only part of a broader controversy facing park officials. Seven consecutive years of unseasonably mild winters and wet summers helped boost the population of not only bison but also elk, deer, wild sheep and many other animals to record levels by last spring.
But a combination of 1988’s severe drought, the fires and a return to normal cold and snowy weather patterns this winter reduced natural food sources for many species. That is expected to lead to a heavy die-off in coming weeks of weak and elderly wildlife--many of whom would have died years ago but for the mild weather--as they burn off the last of their winter fat reserves.
Such winter kill is part of the normal cycles of nature and will provide a feast for grizzly bears, coyotes, eagles and other predators. Modern man, however, has often had trouble accepting such harsh realities and has tried to intervene.
“As a country we’ve become ecologically illiterate,” said Hank Fischer, the regional director of the Defenders of Wildlife. “We don’t understand these natural processes and when they’re brought into our living room via TV we get all upset. We just don’t understand death in this country.”
Like the bison, huge numbers of hungry elk have also left the park in search of food. Last year, Montana hunters bagged only 100 elk in season. This year, they took 2,300. On any given day, hundreds of elk can be found milling about Gardiner and gnawing on hay scattered by residents.
Park officials have urged people not to feed wildlife, arguing that the practice can actually kill more animals than it saves by encouraging them to gather in unnaturally large groups that facilitate the spread of disease. But such warnings have been ignored by Loretta Adkins, her brother-in-law, Mike Adkins, and other residents who have spent more than $5,000 on feed.
“You just get to a point where you can’t sit by and see them starve and die,” she explained. “You can’t live next to it and not do anything.”
Though bison have been eating at the feeding stations as well, their wanderings from the park may be motivated by more than hunger. Even in recent mild winters when forage in the park was plentiful, the northern bison herd has been edging closer to the park boundary. That has led some biologists to speculate that members of the herd, extremely gregarious by nature, are being moved by some unexplained instinctual force to reclaim the wide open ranges.
“They are attempting to recolonize the Yellowstone River Valley,” suggested Mary Meagher, Yellowstone’s bison specialist. “If we could give them a century, they might try to recolonize the Great Plains.”
Standing in the way, of course, are hundreds of cattle ranches, not to mention a Montana law that puts a death sentence on all buffalo that set hoof in the state. The reason is economic.
About half the buffalo in the herd are believed to carry brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause cows to spontaneously abort their calves. Though there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission from buffalo to cattle, veterinarians say tests have indicated such a prospect is theoretically possible.
And Montana ranchers, now able to command top dollar for their cattle on world markets because their livestock is considered brucellosis free, do not want to take any chances.
“It could cost me $50,000 right quick,” said John Ragsdale, who recently saw 25 buffalo wander on to his 5,000 acre spread at Yankee Jim Canyon, 20 miles north of Yellowstone. “I’d have to turn all my breeding stock into hamburger animals.”
Killing wayward buffalo is nothing new in these parts, but the frequency has increased dramatically this season. Last year’s toll was 39, the year before that only six. And fueling the uproar over their deaths is a change in the method of extermination. Once, state game wardens did the shooting. But a 1985 law required them to pass the task to hunters under tightly controlled conditions. State game officials pick the hunters by lottery, lead them to their prey and literally stand by their side while they shoot.
It isn’t much of a sport, since the stoic buffalo usually can be found grazing serenely in some pasture, aren’t easily spooked by approaching vehicles and hardly even flinch at the sound of gunfire or the sight of their bison buddies biting the dust.
Outraged by the scenes, the Fund for Animals has trailed the hunters with a video crew and pieced together a 14-minute tape which, according to executive director Pacelle, shows graphic highlights of animals shot numerous times at close range but still lingering in pain.
Pacelle insisted that the deaths were a “preventable tragedy” that could have been stopped by pushing the buffalo back in the park, inoculating them against brucellosis and administering new drugs to help reduce their fertility.
Park officials, on the other hand, say medicating the beasts would conflict with natural management policies and that previous attempts to herd them have all flopped. They have walked through fences and cattle guards, ignored helicopter sorties and proved largely indifferent to cracker shells, tin-can rattles, vehicle sirens, flashing lights, bird shot, rubber bullets and recorded wolf sounds.
During the harsh 1975-76 winter season, park personnel tried to stop a northward movement inside the boundaries by erecting barriers in the Yellowstone River to prevent buffaloes from swimming across. That led the animals to bypass their traditional river migration route and discover the main highway, which has only made travel easier.
Biologists say the herds are led by pilot cows who seem to have a capacity to learn and remember new migration routes. As the years have progressed, more and more cows have acquired such knowledge, setting up conditions for a wholesale exodus. “The last 13 years they’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing,” said Barbee, the park superintendent.
To lessen the chance of future conflict, both park service and environmental groups have urged the purchase of land along the Yellowstone River Valley to expand the winter range for elk and bison.