Today, I was very disappointed that the weather forecast scared me from a much needed trip into Yellowstone. However, I was happy to attend a presentation at the Bozeman Public Library this afternoon by Buffalo Vision, a small nonprofit trying to set up a private herd in Eastern Montana, based on principles that were outlined by their guest speaker, former Yellowstone ranger Bob Jackson - most famous for fighting poachers in Yellowstone's Thorofare region and winning a fight related to keep his job after whistleblowing.
Bob Jackson now lives in Iowa and runs a bison ranch there of about 400 buffalo. He ranches buffalo, he says, based on the family units that he observed from decades working in Yellowstone. While he has no choice but to fence in the bison, he presented evidence that managing buffalo as full familial units - which include not simply the young and the females but also the males as well - could revolutionize not only the way that bison are managed in places like Yellowstone but also should serve as a model for our own social interactions as well.
One of the main principles besides the holistic integrity of the family unit was the notion of equality. All animals in the herd serve their function, and they all have an equally important function in respect to the entire family unit. Young calves lead the migrating bison, mothers tend after the young, siblings tend after siblings, and adult males watch along the edges in smaller groups. In what Jackson calls "dysfunctional" herds, bison are scattered along the range and "chaos" reigns - these are herds where there is not a strong familial connection (usually because that's how they've been managed). In the herds that are allowed to follow their familial instincts and have self-determination, herds are grouped together, larger clusters, relating to extended familial clusters. In these herds, not only are buffalo healthy, but the vegetation, even the riparian vegetation, is often healthy as well. Jackson showed a lot of photographic evidence of this on his own ranch as compared to what one finds in the "dysfunctionally" managed herds.
Buffalo Vision hopes to use the land it has in Eastern Montana to follow Jackson's insights in managing buffalo while using the land as an educational ranch where people could learn more about buffalo. Ultimately, there is hope it might be an early step toward creating a Buffalo Commons, though Buffalo Vision admits that their herds will reach the point where they will need to kill some of the animals to keep the herd viable.
The most interesting claim was that the principle of family - the notion that human family is currently dysfunctional - and the principle of equality - that they claim to observe in buffalo populations - is a recipe for needed change in humanity. They frequently cited Plains indigenous tribes and their relationship with buffalo as a guide not only to understanding the buffalo but also in understanding the buffalo giving guidance to themselves.
I found Jackson's talk intriguing. Though, on the one hand there seemed to be a general lack of analysis in connecting the principles of family and equality to the larger systemic problems of the earth. For instance, Jackson's operation and Buffalo Vision are essentially private operations that require a lot of money to sustain themselves (Buffalo Vision is a nonprofit, but their wish list requires a lot of money in donations). Nevertheless, on the other hand, it was encouraging to hear a talk that was essentially embracing the main principles of anti-authoritarianism, especially the kind I practice. Our voices are most empowered in small groups, whether they be our immediate family, or our circle of friends. Small groups have often found the power to sustain themselves, especially in concert with other small groups. In these affinity relationships, self-determination is not the pre-requisite of creating the group; rather it flows as a consequence of being part of and accountable to a group. That is, it's not libertarian. Most importantly, I don't believe in any hierarchy of roles. There are certainly different roles, and some do them better than others. However, there is no essential value placed on certain types of roles or beings over others. We don't value simply the calves, or the gene stock, or the tenderness of the animal; in my beliefs, all are equal (before the grace of God.)
What went unsaid is that Bob Jackson's observations of buffalo and other herding animals have essentially led him to anarchism (my characterization, not his) - which does not mean chaos - it means essentially, the governing of small clusters of independent affinity groups (what are essentially families) on a non-hierarchical basis so that each member can find self-determination within that structure. We are all fenced in by the laws of physics or by our emotional desires or by logical necessity; however, it does not mean that we don't have self-determination. The only thing I would change about Jackson's metaphor is that ultimately there's no reason for the human to corral buffalo, except to survive. His project is not analogous to what one found on the Plains; it only points the way to what's still missing.
It is a very interesting and engaging idea, though.
Jackson has recently criticized the way that Yellowstone National Park has been corralling and slaughtering buffalo (we watched a very disturbing video of bison being corralled at the Stephens Creek facility). There is no doubt a criticism also in the way that the livestock industry treats cows. If the notions of family and equality were allowed to pervade, these policies and agricultural practices would evaporate (as likely would the fences around his property). But, would the result be chaos? Or, would we and the buffalo then have a better chance at dealing with the dysfunction that currently exists in most facets of our lives. Even those of us who have families, who have strong kinships, at many levels, must know what I mean.
As I sat with my partner and my baby in a room full of total strangers, with no familial kinship outside my immediate one, I could sense the dysfunction and the possibility all at once.