It has been a quiet week on Lake Hebgen, my home ground.
Winter Solstice is a time for reflection and strengthening our resolve. I recently agreed to become BFC’s Director of Communications, after having been mostly away from Montana for the last decade, and the situation I moved back into is remarkably different than the one that I remember. I thought it might be revealing to share my personal reflections on what has changed - and what has not - in the twenty years I’ve been friends with the Campaign.
The short version is: A LOT has changed! When we follow a spiritual path, it can be helpful to look back and see how far we’ve come. More than perhaps any other conservation group in the U.S., BFC’s is a spiritual mission. And under the visionary leadership of Mike Mease, and more recently the spiritual leadership of James Holt, BFC really has come a long way.
Even before I moved to Montana in 2002 to practice forest law, I heard tales of this hardy group of activists living in one of the coldest, wintry places in North America -- conjuring up images of Valley Forge in my mind’s eye -- doing their best to shine the light of the global media on the atrocities carried out by Montana’s Department of Livestock on the majestic wild buffalo of Yellowstone. I lived in Boise with a fierce young woman who’d been gassed at the WTO police riots, and who was dear friends with Whitni ~ who held a BFC benefit at Boise State’s student center. As an uncompromising Earth First! lawyer myself, BFC appeared to me as an exemplar of principled activism, unlike many of the environmental groups I’d become disillusioned with. BFC and Earth First! in the late 90’s were what Extinction Rebellion is today.
Whitni, of course, went on to become a successful restauranteur and long-time Board member for BFC, living nearby in Driggs, Idaho. One of her sons, Dakota, has volunteered here, and is now embarking on a career in science.
Not long after moving to Missoula to work with the Ecology Center, which shared the old converted CERETANA grain silo there on the train tracks with Darrell Geist of Cold Mountain/Cold Rivers, Jim Cofield of Wild Rockies Information Network, Doug and Dru of High Plains Films, Alliance for Wild Rockies, and Sierra Club. My first involvement with BFC was bringing a pro bono civil rights lawsuit on behalf of several BFC activists who’d been repeatedly subjected to false arrests, physical assaults, and reckless behaviors at the hands of law enforcement officers aligned against Yellowstone bison. Coming to BFC Headquarters back in those days was not unlike visiting a war zone, with many of the activists seeming to suffer from something akin to battle fatigue.
It touched me deeply. These people were all heroes on the front lines of corporate America’s war on the environment. Many of them paid a steep price to serve the buffalo, and for Mike Mease it has always been his life’s great love and vocation. I find it remarkable that with Indigenous Tribes now rekindling a relationship with the buffalo that has existed since time immemorial, there may be no one on the planet who has spent more time with wild buffalo than Mike. He’s the anti-colonialist version of Buffalo Bill! And to those who know him, he really is a larger-than-life, big-hearted character.
While our civil wrongs case never made it to trial, it served the important purpose of humanizing BFC activists to the various, worst-offending law enforcement officers, during many hours of depositions, and it also served to put those LEO's on notice that we would come after their homes if they continued acting outside the scope of their duties (i.e., by being jerks). The lawyers and defendant-officers could not help but be impressed with the intelligence and dedication exhibited by plaintiffs like Megan Gill, who would go on to become a psychotherapist serving traumatized veterans, Valerie Coulter, who is now a social worker helping victims of abuse, and others. Young, committed activists have passed through BFC’s doors and gone on to become service-oriented doctors, lawyers, paralegals, lobbyists, ecologists, biologists. Many met their spouses here and raised amazing families. Others are no longer with us, and we remember them fondly.
After that lawsuit went away, and things seemed to simmer down on the front lines, I was asked to become a Board member for BFC. I remember telling the other Board members, while on a visioning retreat at Chico Hot Springs, that I was drawn to BFC by a desire to serve the activists, who I held in awe, while the activists themselves were drawn by their desire to serve the buffalo. While I was active on the Board, I handled an unsuccessful appeal of an Endangered Species Act (ESA) case involving illegal hazing near an Eagle’s nest. And then, through friends I’d made through the Campaign, I was asked by another legendary activist, Jon Marvel, to open a Montana office for Western Watersheds Project (WWP) with Summer Nelson - herself a long-time BFC activist who’d just graduated from law school.
That began a fruitful alliance between BFC and WWP that continues to this day. The first case Summer and I worked on was a legal challenge to the 2000 Interagency Bison Management Plan. We lost that case, too! But because of the media relations BFC did around a terrible decision from Judge Lovell, in which he bragged about Montana’s “long tradition of slaughtering bison,” the political landscape shifted seismically. Governor Schweitzer temporarily halted the shipping of bison to slaughter in the wake of that global embarrassment. The following spring, the long-time battleground of Horse Butte, which witnessed the worst hazing of buffalo with newborn calves every Spring, become an informal safe zone for bison, with big assists from Karrie Taggart and HOBNOB (Horse Butte Neighbors of Buffalo). I remember vividly attending a BFC Board meeting here at Headquarters that Mother’s Day, and having free-roaming buffalo showing up for the meeting! In 2015, Schweitzer’s successor, Steve Bullock, formally turned Horse Butte into year-round habitat for Yellowstone Bison - a first for the state of Montana! And a direct result of all the dedication and perseverance of BFC’s staff, volunteers, and local supporters like HOBNOB.
Summer and I also took over a process BFC had initiated petitioning the Department of Interior to list Yellowstone’s herds as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. We were able to enlist one of WWP’s biologists to write up the critical scientific portion of the application, which prevailed through two rounds and eight years of litigation — thanks largely to the combined efforts of BFC’s Habitat Coordinator Darrell Geist, a paralegal, and our attorneys with Friends of Animals — resulting in a court-ordered “threats analysis” under the ESA just this year. Long before that petition was filed, I went off to San Francisco to study ecospychology. Early-years BFC activist, then lobbyist, Josh Osher eventually replaced me at WWP, and later became their National Policy Director.
The political landscape seems to have shifted dramatically from my earlier involvement to the situation I walked into this year. Back then, it seemed like all the agencies, federal and state, were aligned against BFC and its mission, with armed officers carrying out their marching orders. Today, as we saw vividly on display at the recent winter operations planning meeting in West Yellowstone, it seems like the Tribes, the Park Service, the Forest Service, and concerned citizens are all aligned against the state of Montana and its Department of Livestock, who have lost their power to demand an annual quota of buffalo to be killed. There are more Yellowstone buffalo today than ever in the Park’s history - 6000. BFC can take a lot of credit for that. And as I heard Park Superintendent Sholly tell a public gathering earlier this year, the days when hundreds or even a thousand buffalo would be shipped off to slaughterhouses every winter are over.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t come back if another hostile Republican administration came into power. But we should nonetheless celebrate this turn of events, and recognize how far BFC has come on the buffalo’s behalf.
More significantly, from my (Buddhist vegetarian) perspective at least, is the change in the way Yellowstone’s buffalo are being killed today. There was never anything humane, let alone 'honorable,' about the way the population was brutally suppressed under the now-defunct bison management plan from 2000. It was a bunch of rowdy cowboys whooping it up and treating wild bison like livestock, and it was shameful. It’s heart-wrenching to even think about wild buffalo inside a slaughterhouse. It was also painfully obvious to me, living in Missoula, how traumatizing it was for BFC activists witnessing that mistreatment. And, of course, it was re-traumatizing for members of the Indigenous Tribes, who never stopped seeing buffalo as their relatives, and still suffer from the generational and cultural trauma that survivors of genocide are forced to live with every day.
Obviously, BFC does not support killing buffalo for any reason. But this is Montana, after all, buffalo are wildlife, and we share the determination of the Tribes and Montana’s nature-loving recreation enthusiasts to secure the same protections and respect for wild bison that have always been accorded to elk, antelope, mountain lions, and bears. Which means they will be subject to hunting as a condition of being allowed to freely roam across their ancestral range on still-abundant wildlife habitat in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The fact that the Tribes effectively and strategically took over an annual hunt that was originally intended by Montana’s legislators for state hunters, and that most of the buffalo being taken out in the field are now being taken by Tribal hunters, is not a bad thing! How could it be, after more than a century of forced separation at the hands of the National Park Service? Whose heart doesn’t skip a beat now driving into Yellowstone National Park and seeing authentic teepee encampments?
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy for BFC staff and volunteers. Nobody who volunteers for BFC wants to see a bison die in the field. We’re a resilient, cross-cultural band of biologists, psychologists, grad-students, and social activists united by our love of Nature and wildlife and our awe for the American buffalo. At the same time, we all understand and appreciate the importance of resurrecting the sacred relationship between Tribes and buffalo. That has always involved honorable harvest and subsistence. It would be wrong on so many levels to deny that.
We bear witness with love, compassion and understanding for Buffalo and for the life ways of the Buffalo People, as our co-founder Rosalie Little Thunder taught us. And we advocate fiercely for the day when there will be 6 Million wild bison on the land, not 6000.
So, yes - a lot has changed since the founding of BFC. And yet, there have been at least two constants.
Number one, BFC’s mission is unchanged. Whatever happens to Yellowstone’s wild buffalo out in the field, our staff and our volunteers will be there to bear witness. While that used to mean regular confrontations with law enforcement, frequent arrests, and filming the annual chaos attending hazing operations on Horse Butte, nowadays it means monitoring the migrations of bison in Montana, especially in their year-round habitat on Horse Butte, while maintaining amicable relations with officers and hunters - who are usually good sources of information. The truth is, almost everyone we encounter in the field these days seem to want the same things we do. Honor. Respect. Restoration.
Habitat, habitat, habitat.
It also means bearing witness to the hunting of bison by both Tribal and state hunters - so far this season, we’ve either witnessed or confirmed 29 kills, and another 4 on the highways. And it means working skillfully, especially in the spring and summer months, to avert collisions between bison and vehicles on our local highways. With few exceptions, it does seem like everyone now respects and appreciates BFC, the result of 25 years of consistent leadership in the field.
Montana’s livestock-dominated legislators, or course, are no fans of BFC. That’s the second constant, and a badge of honor. As long as there are cows on public lands in Montana — attributable to highly-subsidized grazing fees for ranchers who put their cows out onto National Forests, onto federal rangelands, and even into National Monuments — there will be monitary-based opposition to wild bison grazing those same meadows and grasslands. For the entrenched special interest welfare ranchers -- which is not to say ALL ranchers, or even most -- the only good buffalo is a dead buffalo. Five Montana Department of Livestock officers killed one lone bison bull this summer in Paradise Valley, near Pray. Because a private rancher called and asked them to. The buffalo had wandered about 30 miles from his herd, mixing into an area populated by wild elk. It posed no threat at all. And yes, if it had been on public lands, a Tribal hunter could have harvested it for his family and neighbors (Tribal hunters always share their bounty). And if there were thousands of bison in that valley, no reasonable person would have a problem with that here in Montana. It's called subsistence hunting, and it's much more honorable than buying beef from factory farmed cattle. If you don't believe that, then you've never visited a factory farm or slaughterhouse.
But make no mistake - that livestock special interest grows weaker by the day. Ranching arid and semi-arid lands in a prolonged era of climate-induced draught and over-production of beef makes no ecological sense. The changing climate demands changing behaviors, because we are living in a time of emergency. We need beavers to tend the waters, mitigating drought, we need more trees and more wildlife in our forests to mitigate a century of timber industry mismanagement and climate fires, and we need bison - both domestic and wild - on grasslands to increase diversity of plants and animals, drawing CO2 down from the atmosphere before it gets taken up into the climate cycle.
That's the way of life Tribes understand better than anyone, and the majority of Montanans and Americans prefer the Tribes’ life ways to the cowboy way of death that thinks nothing of shipping wild bison to slaughterhouses. I think the most progressive thing Joe Biden has done as President is to appoint Indigenous Americans to be Secretary of the Interior and Director of the National Park Service. We've come a long way from Cowboy Ken Salazar!
I moved back to serve BFC because we're living through a time of climate emergency and extinction rebellion. Because BFC is on the right side of history -- and who wouldn’t want to be part of that? At BFC, we’re pro-Buffalo, pro-Indigenous people and culture, and we’re pro-survival. We're eco-oriented, sharing the Indigenous view of people inhabiting the same ecology as buffalo. Right relationships and eco-restoration are the keys to humanity’s future.
And the future is closer than you think...