Hazing in the Hebgen Basin

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Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

Three hazing operations took place within two days this week, on the cattle-free private lands of Gallatin National Forest. While buffalo have gained year-round habitat, it is all to the north of the Madison River. Lands to the south of the river were excluded, even though it is well known that buffalo utilize and need this habitat. A small bachelor group of bull buffalo, and a small family group with a brand new calf had made it out to the Denny Creek area, near the South Fork of the Madison. It was the bull buffalo who were targeted, beginning Monday afternoon. The family group got away long before the agents could catch them.

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Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

It was one of the strangest hazes we have seen. Five riders from the Montana Department of Livestock, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service went after the bulls, but not in their typical, aggressive fashion. They simply walked. They even allowed the bulls to graze some and get brief drinks of water. As terrible and unnecessary as hazing is, this was an extremely rare occasion where we witnessed some semblance of benevolence. Maybe it was because the former DOL agent Bridger Cunningham quit. Maybe it was just one of those days. Either way, the haze was slow, and riders dropped off along the way, with just two ending it without even pushing the bulls across the Madison River. Once it was over, the bulls just went to grazing, and we got to spend some amazing time in their gentle presence. But, we suspected that the agents had other things planned.

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Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

The following day, the agents returned. This time there were six riders. They went back down the Madison Arm Road where they had left the bulls the day before, and proceeded to look for them as well as the family group who they had lost. They found the family group, but not the bulls. And this time, they weren’t so gentle, even though there was a brand new baby buffalo in this group. They ran them hard through the thick deadfall of the forest, down the dusty road, and out towards the Madison River. The buffalo were hot and panting, and the little calf was exhausted.

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Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

The buffalo were hazed out to the mud flats at the edge of the water where the Madison River starts to become Hebgen Lake. They were then pushed away from the shore and through more fallen trees that are hard for a two-legged to negotiate, and much, much harder for a tiny, brand new four-legged buffalo. The agents intended to push them back to and across the water, and over to the northwest bluffs, where they are free to roam. After it was over, they had succeeded. The buffalo crossed, and, exhausted, climbed the steep bluffs where they were finally left in peace.

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Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

We stayed in the area until all the agents loaded up their horses. Our rove patrol, upon returning to their car which was parked relatively close to the livestock trailer, found the bulls. The agents did not, but as they were heading down the Madison Arm Road, seemingly done for the day, they kept stopping and we could tell they were looking for those bulls. The youngest one in the group had struck out on his own for a stroll, and was unfortunately spotted. All six riders unloaded their horses, and some went after that bull, while the rest went in the direction he had come from to look for his more mature friends. Unfortunately, they found them. But, today, the bulls were not so cooperative.

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Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

These bulls were full of it, really frisky, jumping around, sparring, rolling in the dirt. These big boys definitely made the cowboys work, and the rest of us couldn’t help but laugh. Because bull buffalo don’t have families to take care, little ones to shelter, they don’t feel the need to flee as mother’s protecting young do. They can play around with the agents, give them a hard time, and it’s these little things that raise our spirits when they are being bullied by cowboys. After some time, the buffalo were hazed in the same direction as the family group had been earlier, but unlike the family group, they didn’t climb the bluffs as the agents would have liked them to. Who knows where they might be now. Maybe right back where they started before they were so rudely interrupted.

Quarantine Sadly Approved

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Buffalo Field Campaign photo.

In other news of wild buffalo abuse, Yellowstone National Park announced yesterday that their dreaded 50-year quarantine plan has been approved. This means that Yellowstone will conduct capture operations — which will include slaughter — to find buffalo subjects who they can domesticate, under the guise of “conservation.” Quarantine is a livestock management paradigm not fit for any wildlife, and for wild buffalo, it means the end of the wild way. Quarantine can also result buffalo being sent to zoos, commercialized, ranched for meat, or otherwise made commodities of.

The Ft. Peck Indian Reservation will likely receive some of these quarantined buffalo, yet it is pretty hard to trust anything from the government. Last year, Ft. Peck was told that if they built a quarantine facility then they could bring buffalo there and quarantine them on the reservation. They spent half a million dollars on the facility, and then were told by Montana and the federal government — the same agencies who told them to build it — that because they are outside of the brucellosis Designated Surveillance Area that they could not bring the buffalo there. Later, after fifty-two bulls who were being held captive in Yellowstone “for quarantine purposes” were released, Yellowstone and Interior stated that those buffalo were set to go to Ft. Peck any day. We then called Ft. Peck’s Tribal Chairman, and he had been told nothing of this. It’s sickening how the government uses Native Peoples to push their agenda through. While we fully support the return of wild buffalo to tribal lands, out of respect for the buffalo, the people, and the land herself, migration is the way to accomplish that. We will continue to fight against this tool of the oppressor every step of the way.

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Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

Ending on a positive note, more and more wild buffalo babies are being born every day. Patrols come home with huge grins after spending so many hours in their presence. Horse Butte is teeming with buffalo babies, and they are all safe there. Their moms can give birth to them in peace there, and they can grow strong and healthy and not have to worry about bully cowboys coming to chase them off of the ground they choose to be on. It’s still amazing to us that this tranquility exists. After so many years of Horse Butte being a veritable war zone, with helicopters, state, federal, and county law enforcement, and yelling cowboys descending upon hundreds of buffalo to chase them down dusty roads for relentless miles, there is now peace here.