We left the plateaus, canyons, and rugged mountains of Utah to travel north through the Rockies on the invite of the Buffalo Field Campaign. As we traversed the open meadows and cascading peaks of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem we could sense a transition into wilderness. The massive crags of the Grand Tetons rose eminently on the horizon, forests of lodgepole pine and quaking aspen surrounded us, and we entered the migration plains of the buffalo.
Over the years this has been an ecosystem of contention and controversy. After decades of systematic extermination at the behest of the settler ranching industry, gray wolves were nearly made extinct in the region. In 1995, against the hostility and opposition of the sport hunting and livestock-ranching communities, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in response to mounting scientific evidence of their biological and ecological significance. Since the late 19th century, European settlers have been slaughtering the buffalo to rid the Great Plains of any competition with the growing market of cattle grazing that was the staple agricultural system of colonization and domination of the land. Buffalo extermination also served the purpose of maintaining occupation on indigenous lands and forced assimilation into Euro-settler culture.
Today these colonizing attitudes still dominate the land. Wolves are misunderstood, scapegoated, and feared by settlers and have become the target of opportunity in recent years as the federal government has lifted protections. Similarly, the buffalo are condemned for competing with cattle for forage and subsequently harassed and slaughtered. Buffalo naturally migrate seasonally in search of sufficient forage. In winter the snowpack in the higher elevations of National Park makes foraging difficult and the buffalo historically have travelled to lower elevations, outside of the arbitrary park boundaries, in order to survive. It is here they are met with hazing, trapping, and systematic slaughter at the hands of the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL). Since 1985, almost 8,000 Yellowstone buffalo have been killed.
It is in this climate that Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) found its roots. Formed as a coalition of native land defenders and settler-environmentalist allies, BFC is the only group working everyday in the field to defend the buffalo, their native historical range, and their ecological and spiritual significance. BFC uses tactics that range from patrolling, to documentation, to direct action.
We arrived that evening on the shores of Hebgen Lake, where volunteers were building and maintaining cabins and yurts against the backdrop of the Northern Rockies. We swiftly left with a volunteer who eagerly wanted to show us the land that they defend. As we drove along rough forest roads, he spoke with reverence for the buffalo and the wildlife that thrive on the landscape. He spoke disdain for the settler culture that is destroying the land and the animals (both wild and domesticated). He spoke with devotion to their freedom.
After we explored the land and its stories, we headed back to camp to share a meal with BFC volunteers. We learned how they became involved in this work and they listened as we explained our tour and our backgrounds. They left to monitor and document the owls that surround the cabins and we turned in for the night. We feel asleep under a full moon, in the silence of the forests, prairies, and mountains. In this setting we were left to imagine the land prior to European settlement, domination and occupation, prior to animal agriculture, prior to trophy hunting and eco-tourism. In its place we could imagine balance and the ebb and flow of ecology, where indigenous peoples are not subjugated and can live in their traditions with the land, where cattle are not systemically transformed into commodities, where wolves are integral members of a complex food web, and where the buffalo can roam free.
We would like to dedicate this post to Rosalie Little Thunder, who passed away the day before we arrived at the Buffalo Field Campaign camp. Rosalie was a Lakota leader and co-founded Buffalo Field Campaign (then Buffalo Nations) after witnessing buffalo slaughter first hand:
“Since I witnessed the 1996-97 slaughter, I have continued to be involved in the ongoing effort to stop the slaughter. Mike Mease and I collaborated and founded Buffalo Nations, whose mission was simply to protect the Yellowstone buffalo herd. Two strategies evolved and therefore, two projects also evolved. The immediate threats to the herd, demanding immediate action, was undertaken by Buffalo Field Campaign. The second strategy was to coordinate cultural approaches and seek tribal involvement.Buffalo Nations continued to function by its Lakota name, Tatanka Oyate.”
A memorial fund has been set up in her honor. Please contribute if you can by sending a check to:
Rosalie Little Thunder Memorial Fund
PO Box 1894
Rapid City, SD 57709