Like a rerun from years past, the buffalo who live in Yellowstone National Park are being slaughtered by the government. In the past week, according to a count by Buffalo Field Campaign, 117 bison have been sent to slaughter. Counting the 112 that have been killed this winter by hunting, approximately 5% of the buffalo in this area have been killed this winter.
As one would expect in these circumstances, many who have not followed the endless cycle of buffalo hazing and slaughter by the National Park Service and Montana's Department of Livestock wonder why this happens. There is a lot of talk about brucellosis. There is a lot of talk about the Interagency Bison Management Plan. Many groups and individuals speak out for and against (and here) something that takes explaining; that is, it takes explaining how the government of the 20th and 21st century harasses and kills animals of a species that was nearly destroyed by the end of the 19th century.) It feels like a million years that I've been writing out against the buffalo slaughter (see for instance here - egads - and here and this pdf public presentation - "Genocide Against the American Indian, Destruction of the Buffalo, & Imperialism in Iraq").
The what's and why's of the arguments over the bison slaughter are very important, but it's not for me here to go into them. That this is an ideological values struggle - not a struggle over science, as has often been claimed - is something that I have been arguing for many years. That the values of solidarity with buffalo and those who stand with them is extremely important is something I have done my best to convey for years (or else why would I give a public presentation to social justice and anti-war activists on Columbus Day in Washington, DC about the connections of bison slaughter to the rationale in our current foreign policy debacles). More of those arguments will come from me as new contexts present themselves.
But here, I simply want to consider what there is to be done. That is, if you understand what is happening in Yellowstone to these wonderful animals, if you understand what is happening to Yellowstone itself, and you accept the values of solidarity with buffalo, what is there that we should be doing?
Year after year, volunteers from Buffalo Field Campaign are out in the field doing their best to advocate on behalf of the buffalo; year after year buffalo continue to suffer and to die. I cannot imagine the degree of heartache that the volunteers must feel witnessing the awful things that you can see on their Web site. And, yet, still, we go through cycles where bison numbers are cut down, where they rebound, and where they are cut down again. The last bastion of wild buffalo were 23 in Yellowstone National Park; to this day, they are not allowed to regain even a foothold into their historic range, where they numbered between 30 and 40 million at the start of the 19th century.
Now that I have moved near Yellowstone, it's imperative that I find a way to plug into this struggle. That's why I plan on going to West Yellowstone on Saturday where Buffalo Field Campaign is holding a rally. I want to meet them, know them, provide support, and then see if there really is a way for me to plug in.
However, until I do that, I can't say that I feel comfortable committing in that direction and not some other. One thing that years of activism and organizing has taught me is that while one can show solidarity with all kinds of diverse groups, one can truly only belong to a group where one has affinity, where those in that affinity group truly have an empowered voice in the consensus process. Since I see the hierarchical attitudes that people have had over other people and other beings to be the root cause of this situation - one where the parks were set up in part to stop people from destroying all the wildlife but one where the parks reserve the right to decide when that wildlife still might be destroyed - I need to know firsthand the organizing process of the group to which I might belong, to which I'd volunteer my time, and give all my effort. And, despite years of contact, I really don't know how it all works. I don't know whether there is affinity or merely affection and a shared drive. Many years fighting within the anti-war movement, with its haves and have nots, with those who would manipulate the politics of the situation for their own power, have taught me that this is not an unimportant consideration.
Action on behalf of the buffalo must be consistent with resisting the processes that put the buffalo in jeopardy in the first place. That probably was the number one reason I gave up eating all meat - not because there is something intrinsically better or worse about eating one being over another - but because of the direct relationship with how that meat ends up on my plate with the causes of suffering of those I love. And, while no one ever finds any kind of ascetic purity with regards to the causes for which one fights, it is still necessary to draw clear distinctions when one finds oneself moving in a particular direction.
Consistency of process, breaking down hierarchies, opening discussion, practicing solidarity might as well be the recipe for starting any anarchist group. Yet, this is exactly what I'm talking about. The value of standing with the buffalo is not to keep any buffalo from being killed within Yellowstone National Park. Buffalo die every year from cold, from wolves, from old age. No one is out there advocating the eternal life of buffalo. What is being advocated for ultimately is a truly free ranging buffalo population, one that can expand beyond the park and ultimately occupy its historic range. To do that is to repudiate centuries of genocide, to repudiate the rationale for that genocide, and even more importantly, to recognize the integrity of other beings as they pursue their interests and their space. There is no doubt that this is a radical agenda, and because it is a radical agenda, it suggests a radical process of action. It does not mean that one cannot show solidarity with less radical groups; it does mean that the actions here are serious actions with serious consequences to the way we live.
So, in the particulars, I'm struggling to know what to do. Writing is great; it raises conversation and provokes response (both reasonable and very angry). Yet, what will stop the slaughter? What will stop the hazing? Obviously, I don't know, and the people in Buffalo Field Campaign who are a lot smarter about these things than I am and have been working at it a lot longer still don't have the magic key. It's very difficult in a political world where party hardly matters here, where killing bison is a bipartisan solution. It's very difficult in a world where we will not easily convince enough people people to stop eating beef, thereby taking the economic incentive away from the cattle industry to wage this ideological war. It's certainly difficult when one person can only reasonably exert so much force on a world without becoming the authoritarian that one hates. What is there to be done?
It seems to me that one always must start small and within the local context where one resides. Instead of feeling the hopelessness of saving the world, one should relentlessly concentrate one's hopes on the beings in one's immediate environment and go from there. Obviously, on my end, it won't be enough. Yet, what difference does it make? How else am I supposed to live? Just because I was never able to save a single Iraqi life, does it mean that living in complicity with the alternative is acceptable?
So, in my case, I'm going to West Yellowstone, where I hope to bring a few things for the volunteers of Buffalo Field Campaign. I want to know them and see if there's a place for me to listen, learn, help, and bring whatever skills I have to the struggle. If I discover that there is no affinity for me to Buffalo Field Campaign, there is still solidarity and struggle. It doesn't mean that working on behalf of this struggle is not for me. For you all in your contexts, the challenge is no doubt different. Everyone has their own concerns, and for the vast majority, the plight of the American bison is probably extremely low on that list. And, yet, there is solidarity. Whatever you do, if I'm reaching you, what can you do? How can you show solidarity? What are the small actions you can take? To what extent are those actions consistent with the processes that resist the forces that have killed so many buffalo?
Yet, through small actions we must start, one must not mistake smallness for justifying useless actions. On top of all the things I have just written about action, I'd urge that we always be self critical about what we are doing. One thing that comes to mind is that people often think that voting is all they can reasonably do as an effective action for change (or else, why would people be so energized by Barack Obama or any other politician who promises change)? You can vote all you want, but it will do nothing for Yellowstone's buffalo. Chew on that one. Though we must act within the spheres of our environment, can we always be doing something else? Might my time have better been served stuffing an envelope than writing a stuffy essay? Not tonight, but another day, no doubt.
What else is there? If people have ideas of what they can be doing, even if the buffalo is a tangential part of another struggle, please share. If you want to have a values discussion about buffalo policy, I'd prefer to save that for another time. If you've followed me this far, what's next?