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Wild Buffalo Slaughter
Over 65 million buffalo once roamed this country. A massive extermination of the species was launched in order to destroy the native peoples of the Great Plains, recognizing their dependence on the buffalo for every purpose from food and materials to spirituality. By 1900, when the native peoples were themselves massively reduced in number, only 23 wild American Plains Bison, the largest land mammal of this continent, remained. Through one of the most successful conservation projects in history, by 1997 there were over 3,000 buffalo in the Yellowstone National Park area, direct descendants from the 23 that remained in 1900 and the only genetically wild herd of the species left on the planet.
Yet despite the miraculous survival of these immense and traditionally sacred beings, as well as their cultural importance to Native Americans, the State of Montana is still waging war against them. Spurred by the power and monetary interests of the cattle industry and masquerading behind the myth of a disease called brucellosis, the current Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) policy is either to haze buffalo who exit the boundary of Yellowstone National Park into a capture facility for a series of long tests and transmitters or to shoot and kill them immediately. The argument for killing the buffalo is that the animals that exit the park might have brucellosis and will pass it on to cattle. In reality, this is Montana trying to maintain its “brucellosis- free” cattle status, more easily carried out through destruction than a more broad understanding of the complex situation and the precious wild Rockies ecosystem, not to mention the motives behind industry.
There has never been a case of brucellosis transmitted from wild bison to cattle. If this disease was truly seen as a threat, it would be examined more completely—in both its rarity, difficulty in transmission between species, and presence in other animals in the Yellowstone area such as coyotes, moose, and elk. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease found in both domestic and wild animals. Infected domestic cows tend to abort their first calf and then birth normally; it does not seem to affect wildlife. Domestic cows as well can be successfully vaccinated for the disease.
The bison need to graze outside of Yellowstone Park in the winter, as the park ecosystem is not sufficient in food supply. Buffalo grazing is as familiar to Americans as anything, the DOL even hand out pamphlets to park visitors in the summer entitled “Give me a home where disease-free buffalo roam.” On leaving the park boundary, the bison are subject to violent and unnatural hazing operations by the DOL, where they are often injured or killed. The capture facilities are on private land and are inhumane and cruel. Buffalo advocates and activists in the area working to protect the buffalo, many part of the Buffalo Field Campaign, are constantly subject to harassment and arrest. Forest Service Officers specially trained in pain-compliance tactics and extremely harsh winter weather conditions (as cold as –40 F without wind-chill) prove the dedication of those determined to save these creatures.
During winter 1996-1997, the wild buffalo herd was reduced by two-thirds—1,083 were killed by the DOL and Park Service, and an estimated 1,800 died from the harsh winter. The winter of 1999-2000, due to hard work and direct action by activists as well as a mild winter, was the first year since 1983 in which no buffalo were killed. The recently elected governor of Montana, Republican Judy Martz, served as lieutenant governor under former governor Marc Racicot and plans to carry out similar policies towards the buffalo while she is in office. As of this writing, the winter of 2000-2001 has been tense, but so far no bison have been killed.
The situation of the Montana bison slaughter has attracted international action and concern for many reasons. Countless parallels can be drawn between the killing of these creatures and the global trend of sacrificing biodiversity for economic gain. The trivial- ization and illegitimizing of nature at the hands of corporate and governmental interests allow the destruction to continue, as these same forces attempt to tame, buy, and conquer the wild. The buffalo are not just a symbol of the past, and of the kind of life that once had space and freedom to coexist with humanity. These living symbols of tradition that once stood for possibility and freedom should be part of a future that puts value on creating and sustaining life. Z
More information available at: www. wildrockies.org/buffalo. Sera Bilezi- kyan attends Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. She has written about the resistance of the Dine' Navajo at Black Mesa, AZ, and other environmental and social justice issues