Wild Buffalo Slaughter

Sera Bilezikyan

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