I have never hunted before. I don’t listen to much country music and until a few days ago, I had never seen a bald eagle. For most of my life, the stars above my head have been covered by a layer of smog and I have fallen asleep to the rumblings of cars and mechanical whirrings of sardined neighbor’s household appliances. Nonetheless, I have always considered myself a nature lover. My mom takes me and my brothers on annual camping trips, I’ve done some backpacking of my own, and I love to hike and climb. Despite this, I realized landing at Bozeman International Airport that I had never truly seen the Earth. For the first time, I opened my eyes and was met by a horizon not intersected by perpendicular freeway lines or high-rises, but made up, uninterrupted, by land and sky.

Upon arriving in Montana, I picked up my first banjo and saw that bald eagle. I witnessed not only the stars and their constellations, but the Northern Lights. My first night, I was struck by the quiet — a murky lagoon of silence that was easy to drown in until the scuttling of mice above my head allowed for a breath of uneasy air. However, any feelings of claustrophobia at night were more than made up for by the vastness of day. Lakes, mountains, plains, and clouds all seemed capable of swelling into endless stretches of infinity, an infinity that I soon felt a part of.

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These transcendental feelings were amplified living and working at the Buffalo Field Campaign. There, I found a group of people that shared my love of the wilderness, and more importantly, who were driven to protect it. The walls of the BFC cabin are adorned with drawings of natural scenery, its shelves with foraging guides and poetry by the likes of Henry David Thoreau. It is a sanctuary for those who call the natural world home, and all of it is centered around the keystone species that allows for that world to thrive – the American buffalo.

Coming to BFC, I considered myself well-versed in the history and present-day legislation surrounding the buffalo. Majoring in Political Science and interested in indigenous sovereignty, I investigated their near extinction at the end of the 19th century, their sacredness to the Lakota and other plains tribes, and the ongoing controversies regarding their restoration. However, despite my research and armchair expertise, I was wholly unprepared for what would meet me in Yellowstone.

Seeing the enormity of Montana’s natural landscape firsthand strengthened my desire to protect it. Unfortunately, I soon realized that this was simply one of many competing interpretations. While terms like “Westward Expansion” and “Manifest Destiny” have always been familiar in the urban classrooms that I grew up in, it took coming to the plains to truly understand that America’s colonial tendencies are steeped into the very ground on which it lies. And no being, flora or fauna, encapsulates this endless battle between conquest and conservation like the buffalo. Shooting bison from carriages on the transcontinental railroad may no longer be America’s favorite pastime, however, to many in America’s Northwest, the buffalo still represent the remnants of a wilderness left untamed.

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Despite much of the successful work done by BFC in the past few decades, perceptions that buffalo are pests, dangerous, diseased, and in need of control remain commonplace. While much of this sentiment has been peddled by Montana’s cattle-ranching industry, which sees the restoration of Buffalo as a threat to their ability to profit from public lands, such beliefs have permeated into the many agencies that “manage” buffalo and their habitat.

Much of my work at BFC has been devoted to raising awareness about the problems – scientifically, ethically, and culturally – with these perceptions. I have made written and video content to promote petitions that would grant buffalo access to public lands, given public comments to the Interagency Bison Management Program, and talked directly with state officials. However, my one-month stay with Buffalo Field Campaign is but a blink of an eye in the long, bureaucratic processes that go into changing environmental policy.

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Watch the public comment given at the Interagency Bison Management Plan meeting here!

In a few days, I will return to the city I call home. The smog and rumblings of traffic will resume and the intangible feelings that come with being immersed in nature will once again be reserved for weekend trips. However, I take with me a piece of Montana and a piece of the buffalo. From afar I will continue to fight, with the community I have found here, to defend the last wild herd from those who would prefer to see it conquered.

~ By David Eick, Intern for the Buffalo Field Campaign