They’re one of the last wild buffalo herds in the U.S. but every year hundreds are shot or slaughtered. A group of camera-toting activists wants to make sure the world sees.
Clarence Gilmer has sharp eyes.
“I think I see some bison,” he says. I look up from my snowshoes but see nothing more than white snow and the dark blue of the Madison River on a cloudy day. Just inside the border of Yellowstone National Park, we’ve been walking along the river for fifteen minutes. Despite the snow that was blowing here earlier today, by mid-morning it has now sufficiently warmed for Gilmer to wear only a fleece vest over a cotton t-shirt.
Eventually, I start to recognize the brown shapes tucked against the far side of the river valley, but Gilmer is again well ahead of me. “I just counted about 27,” he says. After ten years observing bison on the Yellowstone landscape, he has a well-trained eye. Gilmer is a member of the Buffalo Field Campaign activist organization, and has dedicated much of his life to protecting the animals.
The herd of buffalo before us (“bison” and “American buffalo” both refer to the same North American species) is within Yellowstone but only a short walk from Highway 191, which marks the park’s western border. If buffalo leave the park they can be hunted, as part of an effort to keep the herd from growing too large or roaming too far. Gilmer and the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) believe this is unnecessary and unethical. But the campaigners can’t do anything to stop the hunt, or the organized round-ups and slaughter of buffalo by government agencies. Instead they try to document it for the outside world, in hopes of generating sympathy for the species.
BFC patrollers like Gilmer keep a close eye on buffalo that are nearing the park boundaries, and track them once they leave. If a buffalo runs into a hunter or is rounded up by Montana’s Department of Livestock, the idea is that someone will be nearby with a video camera.
As we watch, one of the buffalo begins to act up, stomping and shaking its large shaggy head. Gilmer says that if it’s a young bull, “he could get the whole group riled up.” That could push them closer to the highway, and though the buffalo probably don’t know it, toward danger.
The BFC’s morning patrol is coming toward us now: four people, skiing and snowshoeing down the riverbank. I ask Gilmer what it is about buffalo that makes them worth this commitment. He reminds me that buffalo roamed long before humans made their way into North America. “It’s a look at something ancient.” Gilmer wants to be here, on what he considers the front lines of the battle to let wild animals be wild.
The stomping buffalo settles and does not rile up the rest of the group. For now all remains quiet along the western front. “When we know where the bison are,” Gilmer says before we leave, “it means we’re doing our job.”
Gilmer, who grew up in Annapolis, Maryland and went to college in Baltimore, first came to the BFC in 2006. He’s a tall, broad-shouldered African-American with curly hair, a wide smile, and a now unused business degree.
Throughout the winter, Gilmer lives at BFC headquarters, a sprawling collection of yurts, log cabins and vehicles in various stages of wear and tear on a hill above Hebgen Lake. The camp’s centerpiece is a low-slung log cabin. Its thick walls and the interior warmth provided by a single wood stove give the impression of a building designed to be buried under heavy snows.
On the evening before I go out with Gilmer, campaigners trickle into the cabin living room for the evening briefing and a dinner of spaghetti with “meatless balls of doom.” There are eleven people on hand. Most volunteers are in their twenties, and the group is evenly balanced between male and female. While everyone else currently at the cabin is white, and while African-Americans make up just 0.6 percent of the population in Montana, Gilmer says race has hardly been an issue during his life in West Yellowstone.
After some communal living issues are discussed in the briefing, the morning and afternoon patrols give their reports. It’s been an uneventful day. The buffalo are close to the border but staying within the park, where early spring warmth has melted snow and uncovered grass.
“This is as close to stability as I’ve ever gotten,” Gilmer says as he does the dishes. Other patrollers echo the feeling of belonging. Deleana Baker, 21, first came to the BFC with family friends as an eleven-year-old. She’s returned every year since. “Buffalo aren’t roaming free yet, so I’ll keep coming back until they are,” she says.
Mackenzie Daigneault, a twenty-year-old from Massachusetts, left her job to join the Buffalo Field Campaign. “This is a wonderful cause,” she says. “It’s a lot more important than rolling burritos in a restaurant.”
Gilmer too left a job three months before his inaugural trip with the BFC. “Fourth floor, corner office, I miss it sometimes,” says the former well-paid IT consultant for the investment bank T. Rowe Price. He liked the paychecks, but the office and the city wore on him. His fiancée left, his Dad passed away, and Gilmer up and quit. As Gilmer tells it, this led to a whirlwind of adventure and mishaps that eventually deposited him in West Yellowstone.
A friend invited Gilmer and another buddy to try sailing a small boat out of the Chesapeake Bay and down the coast, hoping to eventually reach Brazil. The three made it to Virginia before running aground, springing a leak, and abandoning the craft. Still seeking adventure, they travelled to Mexico, where they got robbed. Next they tried hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs the length of California. Unprepared and with little backpacking experience, they got lost on the fifth day, and then ran out of water. After nine days, the trek was over. Still together, the friends traveled to San Diego, where they worked for two months feeding captive animals at Sea World. From there they traveled up to Northern California. While camping in the Redwoods, one of Gilmer’s friends saw a bulletin about the Buffalo Field Campaign. Gilmer had never been to Montana, never lived in the communal style of the BFC, and never experienced a western winter.
The trio of friends signed on for a two-week stint, and stayed nine months. Temperatures hit negative forty during his first season, which was in 2006.
He had also never seen a bison, until his first patrol, what BFC’ers call “the rookie rove.” Standing on a low ridge, one hundred yards outside the park, he saw a buffalo standing below him. Struck by how big and powerful it looked, he did not see the hunter. The patrol kept moving and the buffalo dropped out of sight behind the ridge. There was a gunshot. Then a second, then two more.
When they reached the bison, Gilmer says, it was still warm. He pauses… “Very warm.”
Each time they returned over the next few days, he saw a blood spot in the snow. “That kind of sealed it for me,” he says.
He has been back every year since, arriving each fall, spending his winter and spring patrolling. Summers are spent teaching ecology and outdoor survival to children, at different schools around the country.
He eventually became a volunteer coordinator, recruiting and guiding new arrivals as part of a paid skeleton staff. The bulk of the patrols are volunteers who receive food and board during their stay, and free usage of outdoor gear and clothing, much of it donated by the company Patagonia. The group is supported by individual donations, fundraising drives and corporate sponsorship from eco-friendly companies such as Klean Kanteen, Dr. Bronner’s, and Osprey, a backpack manufacturer.
Today, there are an estimated 4,900 buffalo in Yellowstone, one of the last wild populations in the U.S. A group of federal, state and tribal agencies tasked with managing the park’s bison seek to reduce the population to somewhere around three thousand. It’s what they say Yellowstone can sustain without overgrazing or crowding out other species.
Since the year 2000, when the current buffalo management plan was created, over six thousand buffalo have been killed, according to the BFC’s count. The group considers the hunt unsporting, the round-up unconscionable, and the driving of buffalo back into the park – a process called hazing, intended to reduce the spread of disease – unusually cruel.
Videos posted on the group’s website show buffalo pounding across fields and through forests on their way back to the park. They are chased by pick-up trucks, ATVs, government cowboys and, in some cases, even helicopters. This is the annual hazing. The BFC says it counts as animal cruelty, since the buffalo are not given sufficient breaks to rest and drink water. The hazing usually follows calving season, which means young buffalo are forced to run long distances before they’re ready to.
A video made by the Buffalo Field Campaign shows the annual hazing that the group protests.
During a haze on May 26, 2015, a group of buffalo were driven ten miles. The calves, whose new fur is light brown and fuzzy, alternated between bounding beside the mature buffalo and charging ahead of their thundering hoofs. Toward the end of the haze, they were clearly exhausted. Mature buffalo stopped for a moment, while the calves loped slowly and hung their heads, panting.
This recent haze is nothing compared to what happened in 2006. A group of twelve bison being herded across the lake by Department of Livestock Agents on snowmobiles broke through the ice and ended up in the freezing water. In the video the buffalo move listlessly, their movements slow as the cold water penetrates their thick coats. Its wide dark eyes panicked, one bison pushes aside chunks of ice with its nose to nudge another, which is not moving. Another seemingly tries to pull himself out, horn scraping along the more stable ice in a search for leverage. Two drowned, their bodies eventually towed out with snowmobiles.
In 2006, two bison drowned while being herded across a frozen lake.
The buffalo conflict has gone beyond its local roots. Public comments on the most recent Environmental Impact Statement regarding bison came from 28 different countries. There were 508 commenters from California, 265 from Montana.
Sam Sheppard, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks supervisor for the Yellowstone area, has worked with wildlife for 29 years, in two different states. He says he has never dealt with an issue as complicated, controversial, and closely-observed as bison management. The buffalo issue is “in a fishbowl,” he says, “because it’s so ripe with people on both sides … that have very staunch beliefs and passion.”
Unable to agree, the agencies have backed down from a proposed slaughter goal of one thousand buffalo for this spring. Instead of a hard number, the official language used in public statements is “managing for a decreased population.” As of early May, 593 had been killed, according to the BFC’s count.
One of the primary reasons officials give for limiting the herd’s growth is the possibility that buffalo can pass a disease called brucellosis to cattle. Although there’s never been a documented case of a buffalo transmitting brucellosis to a cattle in the wild, were the disease to get into Montana’s cattle herds, it could be devastating to the livestock industry. In cattle, brucellosis can cause infertility, weight loss and decreased production of milk. But the real danger may be the perception of the disease, and how it could hurt Montana’s livestock industry.
Mike Honeycutt, executive director of the Montana Department of Livestock, says other states, and even international trading partners, would stop buying Montana beef if there were signs of a brucellosis outbreak. The state has worked hard to keep this from happening, he says, and cattle from areas near the park boundaries are subjected to additional testing for brucellosis before being sold.
Honeycutt says what his department wants to convey to the livestock industry outside Montana is this: “we’ve got this risk well under control, there’s no reason for you to put cattle coming from Montana under any extra scrutiny.”
Elk, which are far more prevalent in the state and roam unrestricted, also carry the disease, though in lower percentages than bison. Ranchers worry about a chain of disease that runs from the bison to the elk to cattle.
The Buffalo Field Campaign sees a brucellosis outbreak via buffalo as scientifically unlikely and a sham argument. Gilmer says it’s really about control: ranchers don’t want to see buffalo grazing on their land, and knocking into cattle.
Pat Povah has a ranch about five miles west of the town of West Yellowstone. That puts it within the Hebgen Basin – the area patrolled by Gilmer and the BFC. Povah runs around six hundred cows, plus calves, on 1,600 acres of grassland, and says buffalo roam onto his ranch most springs. His family bought the ranch in 1947, at a time when the buffalo numbers were limited to below one thousand. When I called him in late April, he had recently run a herd of thirty to forty buffalo off his land.
Although he acknowledged there had been no documented cases of buffalo-to-cattle brucellosis transmission, the disease is still something he dreads. If the DOL finds brucellosis in his cattle, they’d slaughter the whole herd. Even if they don’t, the increased testing his cattle go through because of their proximity to the park costs him time and money, he said.
Povah has more immediate reasons to dislike buffalo. The groups that leave the park and amble on to his ranch tend to do so in the spring, just as the snow is melting. Povah wouldn’t graze his own cows on much of his land until June, when the ground has dried out from the snowmelt and the grass has had time to take root. But the buffalo aren’t on his schedule, and if they stay too long on the saturated turf they tear it up. “That ground will not recover in our lifetime,” Povah said.
Then there are the fences. Buffalo are “fully capable of jumping the fences or plowing through them and they tend to do both,” he says. The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department said they’ll provide new fencing material, but it’s the labor and time that cost Povah the most.
Povah sometimes sees BFC patrols on the edges of his property, or looking down from the bluffs surrounding it. Though the patrollers can’t come on his land, they sometimes try to film from the edges when buffalo are being hazed off the property, which is usually carried out by the Department of Livestock.
“They’re an idealistic bunch,” Povah says, adding that his problems are with the National Park Service.
Like the BFC, Povah doesn’t think Yellowstone National Park is right to call the buffalo wild. The animals are so used to humans they stand still in the middle of roads, aren’t deterred by fences, and don’t shy away at the sight of people. Unlike the BFC, he thinks that means they should be managed more, not less. He’d like to see them confined to a specific area, and to see the population decreased to the levels they were at before 1967 – roughly 4,000 fewer buffalo than there are today.
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This winter, Gilmer moved from being behind a camera pointed at bison to being in front of one, naked. In remote locations in Honduras and South Africa he participated in the reality show “Naked and Afraid.” Contestants are thrown into 21- and forty-day survival situations, in the buff.
“I didn’t make my first fire until I was 26 years old,” is how Gilmer starts his audition video. He’s standing in front of a teepee and rubbing two sticks together, one leg artfully bent upward at the knee. He skins an animal with a rock, then chops wood, with objects or other limbs always tastefully placed to cover his nudity. He quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on times of challenge, not comfort, showing the measure of a man, before concluding with “I may be naked, but I am not afraid.”
Clarence Gilmer’s audition video for “Naked and Afraid.”
Gilmer believes being on the show will give him a voice to talk about the plight of the buffalo. He’s the third “Naked and Afraid” participant who spent time patrolling with the BFC, and learned survival skills from one of his predecessors.
The extra paychecks were welcome, but for the most part Gilmer lives a low-cost lifestyle. He has no cell phone while in Montana, eats communal meals in the BFC cabin, and pays a minimal rent for his own small cabin, heated by a wood-stove.
Some day soon, Gilmer would like to get married, have a house and a family. For now though, the bison, and the people he patrols with, keep him coming back to West Yellowstone. He’s been told his season of “Naked and Afraid” should air soon, and hopes to turn the screening of the first episode into a fundraiser for the BFC.
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Many of the homes in a small subdivision near West Yellowstone sport orange and black signs provided by the BFC that read “Buffalo Safe Zone, No hunting or harassing of bison by any person or agency.”
Though the signs keep the Department of Livestock off the lawn, every spring the neighborhood watches helicopters and agents on horseback drive the bison out of their community and back toward the park. All the residents I spoke with were firmly against the haze.
Kim Hawks, a retired factory worker, once lost a dog that got too close to a bison grazing behind his house. “She got tromped,” he told me. The buffalo ruin his yard, but despite all this, he likes having them there. “They were here before we were, and they should let them roam.”
Convinced I might find an advocate for the haze, I chose a house with a camouflage jeep in the driveway. Inside I met Patricia Sasser, a 44-year-old who lives with her three youngest children. In her house, a stuffed bison head faces the front door, flanked by two deer mounts. Moving left around the room was an elk head, then a display of stuffed birds, including a goose, a pheasant and a variety of ducks. Sasser sat on the couch, behind her hung a row of furs: an ermine, a bobcat, a skunk, a red fox, a badger, a coyote, and one species she can’t quite remember. Needless to say, the Sassers are avid hunters. The bison mount, she specified, was a gift. Though she likes the meat, she believes bison should be allowed to roam as they wish, and not hunted unless it can be done fairly. She does not support the haze.
When the bison are calving she keeps her own children indoors, but like grizzly bears or wolves, she sees the buffalo as just a part of life here on the edge of Yellowstone.
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Gilmer recalls filming a haze one spring. Some 150 buffalo were being driven back to the park by government agents on horseback. Hoping to get a good angle on the herd, he climbed a tree on top of a hill. The buffalo started being pushed toward him, up the hill, and then directly toward his tree. The herd shook his perch as they thundered around it. With one hand on the tree, Gilmer filmed with the other. “If I’d fallen off the branch, I would have been trampled,” he remembers. Tromped.
When the Department of Livestock agents saw him, they called for him to get down. “Hippies are growing on trees,” he recalls them saying.
In December, Montana Governor Steve Bullock issued an executive decision allowing for bison to roam an area bordering the park year-round. The new zone is centered around Horse Butte, a peninsula which extends into Hebgen Lake and includes the subdivision. The new rule will avoid pushing the buffalo back into the park before they’re ready, while still allowing for hunting and the removal of bison from outside the newly designated area.
For its part, the Department of Livestock is concerned about precedence. Will the zones of year-round tolerance for bison continue to spread? If they do, the number of cattle seen as at risk of brucellosis gets higher. Regardless, Honeycutt, the department’s executive director, said the Governor’s decision now carries the force of law.
“When May 15 comes, usually that would be the date when we start to push bison out of there back toward the park, and we won’t do that anymore,” he said.
The controversy over how to treat Yellowstone’s bison isn’t going away anytime soon. The two sides continue to disagree over the science, the ethics and pretty much everything else.
“We have an altered world now. It’s not the natural world of days gone by,” the rancher Pat Povah said. And that may be the one belief he shares with the Buffalo Field Campaign.
Gilmer is 36 years old, which makes him a wise elder compared with those gathered in the BFC cabin. A lot of passionate volunteers come for a few years during their twenties, he says, and then move on.
“It’s hard to do this for ten years, and it’s even harder for twenty,” Gilmer says. But he sees the fight as a moral imperative. The buffalo keep bringing him back. “It’s an important cause, with good people, and a great view.”
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Andrew Graham has covered energy and land-use issues in the West and abroad. He is finishing his master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Montana. He lives in Missoula, Montana and could probably use a real job.