Buffalo torture 2010: Firsthand witness account of Tuesday's haze
by Jim Macdonald
Here is something to keep in mind before reading any further. When describing through any medium the cruelty of a buffalo haze (forced march), you need to keep in mind that these moments are highly edited moments. We followed this haze for six hours - mostly on foot - it continued for hours longer. It's probably going on right now as I begin to write this account. You miss the step after painful step; each whoop and holler and whistle of an agent on a horse; each desperate breath prolonged over time; each blade of grass or sagebrush plant trampled under foot. I cut out many points of dialogue, many repetitive words of desperation.
Yet, as necessary as editing and cutting down is - much like the video footage I spent the whole morning collecting - you the reader miss so much of the experience over and above the sense experience you obviously cannot fully fathom. I can paint, but I can't breathe life into these words - for that, the sad truth is that you will have to see for yourself. And, if you cannot, then I hope you can appreciate the sadness of it all to take whatever action you have time for (as I know that injustice is pervasive everywhere). Yet, if you are touched, donate your time for the buffalo, even if it's as simple as sharing with others their story or as complicated and involved as organizing (and we desperately need more organizers and activists - especially in my area).
Anyhow, on to a sad story, one that happens every single year . . . the story of the forced removal of wild buffalo back deep inside Yellowstone National Park, the thing that's supposedly the more humane alternative to outright slaughter.
Here is my account of a haze. As I haven't spoken with my running partner for this gauntlet about my intentions in writing this, I will leave her name out of this; however, let me say that I couldn't have asked for a better partner and friend for this ordeal, which is the worst thing I've personally witnessed in my life. To her - as I expect she'll be reading this, too - I just hope I've been faithful to our experience and perhaps more importantly to the experience of the buffalo. I hope, my friend, that something good can from my writing (from the footage that I took as well) that will bring the people out who can make a difference for future generations of buffalo. Alas, it is too late for this one.
Okay, the haze . . .
It is relatively overcast at 8:30 AM, Tuesday, May 11, 2010. The temperature hovers somewhere in the 30s, as an overnight snowfall has already mostly melted. Our vehicle has just followed a horse trailer all the way to a field just past the Romset Summer Homes, which is about 8 miles west (as the crow flies; it's much further by car) of the boundary of Yellowstone National Park. The day before, a patrol had spotted buffalo in the area, and we expect that this is where the haze will start.
From their vehicles, agents appear. Today looks to be a major haze day; we would see agents from many law enforcement agencies (Montana Department of Livestock; National Park Service; U.S. Forest Service; Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; Montana Highway Patrol; and more). Out of one of the vehicles pops out Christian Mackay, Executive Officer of Montana's Board of Livestock. Even the bigwigs like Christian are out today, and this is a dispiriting sign that today is not going to be a good day for Montana's wild buffalo population.
Agents mount their horses and begin to ride in the direction of buffalo who we can see just beyond the parking area in the willows. We now follow on foot. I'm carrying a video camera; my partner has a radio. Our job is to get as much useful video footage of hazing operations as possible. Thus, with horses moving and buffalo running, the challenge is to keep up and yet be able to stop long enough to hold the camera steady enough to get something useful for Buffalo Field Campaign as they edit and share footage with other media and the world. Doing that while moving, while keeping your emotions in check, while trying to catch your breath can be extremely difficult. And, when the most crazy abuses happen, it's often at high speed; you aren't stopped, and so you can't effectively document.
So, the agents on horse are moving; they approach a channel that pours into the Madison River as it widens into Hebgen Lake. They stop; the buffalo herd is on the other side, at the moment unconcerned with the danger they face. I am close enough to the agents to hear their radio transmissions to each other. They decide that it is too dangerous to cross the channel with their horses and that they should wait for the helicopter. We relay that information to other Buffalo Field Campaign patrols in the field, who are strategically placing themselves in order to gather footage of the hazing operation.
We worry that the helicopter might plan to run the buffalo into the channel that is deemed too dangerous for the horses.
Within a couple minutes, we hear the loud whop-whop-whop-whop-whop of the helicopter and soon can see it. The helicopter flies extremely low to the ground, not entirely clearing all the trees. My camera focuses on the chopper, as I'm no longer in a position to see the buffalo. We cannot stay at our previous position in fear that the buffalo would be run right over us. The helicopter flies low to the ground, though, and scares the buffalo into movement. Someone later suggests to me that it is the air of the helicopter that moves the buffalo; the helicopter flies forward and backward, up and down, then circles. Sometimes, it is so low the nearby trees actually block the view.
We notice the agents on horseback positioning near a field. Based on the position of the helicopter and the agents, it looks like the buffalo are thankfully not being run through the channel but instead around it and into a big swampy field. The horsemen take off, and soon we see the buffalo and the helicopter. The horses, as though we are watching a cattle roundup from an old Western, move around the herd and direct it along with the helicopter. Here is a big open field where I can take a wide video of the entire scene - buffalo that were once peaceful are now suddenly marching, forced along by helicopter and horsemen. When buffalo go the "wrong" way, horsemen whoop and holler and run them down to turn them around. Confusion sometimes reigns, and buffalo occasionally turn on each other with aggression.
Before you know it, they cross the field, and we're running to catch up. Splash, splash - this is soggy stuff, as snow pack has only just melted in this area. The terrain is uneven; we are not running on a track or a trail. Buffalo also don't have the greatest footing, especially when stressed. I've seen them fall in snow before and stumble on the ground; here I don't notice that happen - just the obvious fact that they are being forced to move on this ground against their will. This is the beginning of a very long day.
I gasp when I notice that the buffalo are being run fast up a steep hillside that rises to a nearby wooded area. With this group are a number of newborn calves. They have all been born anywhere from that very morning to the last couple of weeks. They too are being forced to run. Everything is happening too fast for me to count; there seems to be a few dozen in this group, but perhaps there were more. In a matter of a few minutes, all the bison are all the way up the hill and out of sight; we are significantly behind.
We're running through the swampy meadow and then up the steep hill. We each have small backpacks, and I'm carrying the small video camera in my hand. At this point, there's nothing to film; all we can think about is seeing if we can catch up with the haze. I'm breathing heavily; my partner up ahead is amazing. Whether running or walking, she moves nimbly. This inspires me to keep moving but to keep pacing myself; I know this is the beginning of a long day. Yet, I know that moving quickly and smartly here is the key; whatever video footage I can get depends on it.
The path of the haze is not hard to follow. Besides the loud buzzing of the helicopter, the trail of the haze is also just as obvious. Grass and sagebrush have been destroyed by an onslaught of 1,000-plus pound buffalo (females, yearlings, and then smaller babies) followed by the horses being forced into this cruel labor. There is an unmistakable path of destruction, and we are trudging desperately over it.
For the first of many times, we feel like we might have lost the haze for good, but around one of the bends on our descent on the other side of the hill, I catch a glimpse of a horse. We are catching up with the back end of the haze, and so we press forward. We keep moving down and notice a road. As it turns out, we are near some more summer homes around the Lonseomehurst Campground along the South Fork, which flows north into the Madison River (Hebgen Lake). We cut down to the road climbing quickly down a steep embankment. Then, we catch sight of not only a horseman but also a buffalo with a newborn calf.
The horseman is Christian Mackay, and he is personally hazing this pair to the main group of bison being hazed. We continue moving south, and I take every chance I can to stop and film this politician playing cowboy for a day. It's hard to film because I'm breathing so heavily. My breath naturally moves the camera up and down; I'm trying to keep my emotions in check so that I can film this. Then, the pair runs up another road (I think it's something called the Contour Road). This isn't where the powers that be intend them to go. Christian rides up the hill with his horse and chases the pair until they return back to the main road. I think I get good footage of this, but it's not satisfying because I'm afraid that the world won't notice what's happening.
Then, the helicopter flies low near us. Suddenly, I see another newborn with her/his mama racing out of the woods onto the road with the other pair. All four take off running scared. The horse chases them, scaring them to run harder. How is it that these babies in their first days of their lives have to spend it running from horses and a low flying and very loud helicopter? Of course, further behind, we start running as well. We are not anywhere near enough to be contributing to the haze, but the thought nevertheless strikes me that maybe I'm part of the rampage of humanity scaring these buffalo. I know that I'm not, but it's a disconcerting thought all the same. The day before, nearby, I was documenting a haze when a second part of the hazing operation had buffalo running right down the road where we were standing, hemmed in by a barbed wire fence and buffalo on each side of it. Could I have blamed the buffalo if they had gored me and hurt me badly? No. Could I have blamed myself? I don't think so, and yet you still wonder.
To our surprise, we see our friends with the vehicle up ahead of us. When we get to the car, we join them, continuing to film the haze as it approaches and then crosses the South Fork, where it soon hits Madison Arm Road and a whole large section of forest south of the Madison River. At this point, there is no reason to stay along Denny Creek Road where we are, and so we drive to a new location, attempting to get in a better spot to film the haze.
It hasn't taken long for these buffalo to be pushed a couple miles and across the river. Yet, again, their day had just begun. Those who were older have been through this every year since they were newborn calves; now their children are joining them for this awful rite of passage.
We drive around the Madison Arm area to the other side closer to the park and in through the Madison Arm road so that my partner and I can re-deploy in the woods. The goal is to get direct footage of the haze while avoiding what are called "lawful orders." A lawful order is not something I had ever heard about in years of protest and activism in other parts of the country; however, they are the main mechanism that law enforcement officers here use to keep us from getting footage of the haze. While they cannot legally stop us from filming, they can keep us away from the operations. Often, patrols will get stuck behind the last vehicle in the hazing operation, and the haze will become virtually invisible much of the way. That is not ideal for bearing witness to the rest of the world about what the state of Montana and the federal government are doing to wild bison.
We are dropped off near mile marker 4 of the Madison Arm Road, meaning four miles from U.S. 191 and just a little further to Yellowstone National Park on the other side of the road and Madison River. We are now in the middle of burnt forest; this is forest that burned only a few years ago. Beneath this forest of lodgepole pine trees is now a lot of vegetation. Though the Christian Mackay's and the Rob Tierney's (another livestock official) have tried to claim there is no bison habitat in these woods, it just isn't true. The buffalo love the burnt areas and find plenty of food growing in areas now exposed to the sun by the fire.
We set up a spot in the woods where we can hide but potentially still get footage of the haze when it arrives. For awhile, we have nothing to do but wait and talk while listening to grim reports from the radio. We talk about our sense that maybe we aren't doing enough for the buffalo, even if we succeed in getting the best footage possible. We talk about what else might be done. This happens between reports from the radio on the progress of the haze. We hear blurbs talking about how one of the hazed females has started to give birth right in the middle of the haze, how two grizzly bears are being caught up in the operations, about how more and more buffalo are getting caught up in it. Some of these buffalo have already been moved so many miles, and here the two of us are still recovering from a relatively short distance that was difficult enough for us (two people who had just run in a 10K race just a month before).
After awhile, we finally see some U.S. Forest Service vehicles, and then we see our first buffalo. Some look extremely tired, but further on they are forced to press. Babies abound; there are so many newborn calves in this haze that I can't keep track of them all. The only blessing is that I don't see any injured buffalo - which isn't to say that there aren't any. Last year, footage shows a newborn buffalo forced to march for miles with a broken leg.
Then, all of the sudden, there is a horse on top of us. As I have been looking through the video camera, I don't see the horse until it is within about 10 feet of me. We try to scatter quickly, but, of course, the agent sees us. He immediately issues us a lawful order to stay away from the haze. As that is rather vague, we continue to run a distance from the haze. The lawful order does us a favor because we are now moving to better positions to catch footage. Now, we can hear the helicopter, the horsemen (and women now) whooping and hollering. We can see the relentless push of the bison - yet so many are stopping for a brief second just to eat before being pushed further. Herds are being combined, family units are being consolidated and in many cases scattered. Just the day before, a cow and a calf were separated from the haze and forced off on their own where they had no choice but to fend for themselves - essentially grizzly bait.
The Fish, Wildlife & Parks agent who gave us the lawful order approaches again and has the nerve to tell us that all our running is spooking his horse and that we need to be further back; this isn't phrased as a lawful order, but we aren't taking any chances. I tend to think that he, the agent, is being spooked by our presence; with helicopter buzzing, bison running and grunting, horses neighing, and an operation that has no business being here, our running isn't spooking his horse! Give me a break. His horse should not be in that position in the first place; what a cruel thing to do to the horse. And, I don't believe it anyhow; his horse is spooked by the entire circumstance that he has put his horse into - whether it is because it is his job to do that or because he is a true believer in cruelty to bison.
In any event, the haze has now moved off the road, and we wait for vehicles to clear before crossing in pursuit. We lose time waiting, but we have little choice after these confrontations with the agent in the forest. We even see the car that was with us move on the road ahead of us. After they pass around a bend, we take off after the haze.
Again, the direction of the haze is easy to follow; vegetation was dead everywhere. I know that we cannot ascertain any feelings for all the dead plants, and so it becomes next to impossible to empathize with that whose feelings you cannot possibly fathom, but I become upset all the same. Cruelty to bison is something that might move you; how much does cruelty to the land move you? Should we just be running roughshod over anything that gets in our way just because we don't understand or appreciate its place in our universe?
We sometimes run and sometimes hike quickly over hills, over dead trees that had fallen all over the place, through muddy and trampled dirt. The helicopter looks like it's too far from us, and we again fear that we've lost the haze for good. Eventually, we hit the Madison Arm Road again. Just prior to that, I realized that we have been on something of a short cut. It was becoming clear to me that this was a haze determined to go all the way to Yellowstone because previous hazes had stayed close to the winding road; however, this one was showing no regard for the road - simply the shortest line to Yellowstone, whatever the terrain. So buffalo are having to move their relatively thin legs up and over a forest of fallen logs and up and down these hills. If any bison have fallen during this part of the journey, I cannot say, but it's hard for me to imagine given the terrain that accidents haven't happened.
Back at the road, we are a little discouraged because we are behind. Then, we notice behind us a Park Service vehicle leading our vehicle. Somehow, we have moved faster than our friends, though we had started out behind them. The man in the Park Service vehicle tries to play nice with us, expressing in a friendly tone, "You have covered a lot of ground today, haven't you?" I don't particularly care if he is being sincere, if he is trying perhaps to let us know that maybe he's not the biggest fan of the haze - something you hear is true of many rangers. The fact is that he is a part of it and helping to enable it. And, today just as much as yesterday or tomorrow, I don't want to hear friendly words from sympathetic and yet complying officers of the law. Until he stops, I perhaps am angrier with him than I am with every Christian Mackay in this world because I know that Christian is a true believer in his torture of buffalo; I know who he is and what to expect from him. But, we could deal with him if he and his ilk didn't have the support of the people who work for the National Park Service.
So, I ignore him and joined my friends in the vehicle. It looks like we are only an hour from our shift change, where we would be relieved from the field. I do not want to be relieved. Though I am tired and have already seen more cruelty than I had in my life, I don't want to abandon my post in the field. I know that my partner and I have perhaps a better chance than any other group in the field at keeping up; we just need another chance. Then, almost just as quickly as those thoughts leave my lips to my friends in the car, our chance comes. We saw the haze off the road across a field.
Out we go trying to catch up.
We run some more, and we keep gaining ground on the agents and the buffalo. It seems they are having more trouble. We are soon back into burnt forest, and the fatigued buffalo are becoming more aggressive. Individuals and small groups run in different directions; the whooping and hollering of the people on horses becomes more frantic. Horses race them down, and calves are run off of positions just as easily as the yearlings and adults. There is no regard for anything except moving these animals in the right direction. The helicopter continues to hover nearby; it seems it is driving another group of buffalo into the main haze group. Then, yes, it is obvious that it is.
All of a sudden, this group of buffalo being hazed by the helicopter starts to merge in with the main group, but they keep running. They are running straight toward the spot where we are standing. "Oh no!" or something like that I shout. It is extremely scary for us, and we have to scramble away as quickly as possible. If it's scary for us, it must be that much scarier for the buffalo who have just gone from a morning of peaceful grazing to this awful trail they are now blazing back into Yellowstone. Whenever I can, I film, but when buffalo are running straight toward you, you run just like they do, and you are thankful that someone has your back.
Our emotions continue to well up; it is getting harder and harder to contain them. Sometimes, I'm angry; more often I am intensely and emotionally sad for what the buffalo are going through. And, yet, my emotions are also mixed with more positive feelings. I am happy with our ability to catch up repeatedly with the haze, happy as I could be with the footage I have been getting, and extremely happy to be out there with someone who I can call a friend, who is feeling and seeing things the way I am, who is extremely empathic, who is extremely dedicated, and who can keep me running and moving and inspired to keep my wits about me. Nevertheless, mixed feelings are still being drowned in growing sadness.
We keep moving through burnt forest, now not falling behind but actually starting to move to the side of the haze. These animals are all exhausted, including some of the horses. I see an agent actually stop in the forest and tie up his horse while the others continue. We move forward, lose sight of the animals, but then notice that we are actually now in front of the haze at mile marker 1. In fact, we are now almost directly in front of the haze that is now back on the road.
I get my closest footage from this vantage. Buffalo after buffalo, now a much larger number than had started our day, move past the shot of my camera that I keep fixed on a spot. Newborn calf after newborn calf . . . Behind me, I can hear my patrol partner apologizing to each as she or he goes by. The group out front, not immediately being pushed, stops along the woods for grass. They keep congregating near me, and I realize a couple times that I need to keep moving back. I hear a yell about a bison getting close to me, and I retreat as quickly as I can, again so thankful to have my partner looking out for me. The same Fish, Wildlife & Parks agent that had given us the previous lawful order approaches us yet again, yelling that I had gotten too close and telling us that this would be the last lawful order he would give us about getting too close to the haze. We assume that he means it would be the last lawful order until we would both be arrested. Having a 2-year-old child and a significant other back at camp, I am in no mood to tempt fate, and neither is my partner. Our footage might be useless if we are pulled from the field by agents and our tape confiscated.
So, we keep as far away as possible, but sometimes we are accidentally close to the haze again. Near here the road veers away from the Madison River, and we accidentally keep veering toward the river. We end up along the shores about a half mile from U.S. 191. So, we hike until we reached the road, and I'm thinking our day is about to be done. When we reach U.S. 191, traffic is stopped in both directions. We catch a glimpse of the haze we've been diligently following forever and the buffalo being forced across U.S. 191; soon these animals would surely soon be forced across the Madison River and into Yellowstone National Park. Their journey is not nearly done, though.
Radio patrols ask us to move to the northeast bluffs of the Madison River on the other side of U.S. 191 and to the Yellowstone National Park boundary. As we hike up the hillside to the steep, tall, and sandy bluffs overlooking the Madison River, there is a feeling of spectacle and confusion. Cars are all around; locals and tourists alike are out with their cameras watching the hazing. A newborn calf and its mama head by themselves north on U.S. 191. To give them space, we actually go into the very wet and swampy area below the Northeast bluffs until we are sure we aren't disturbing them.
At this point, we're both physically tired - we've covered a lot of ground, but we still are hiking uphill to the top of the bluffs. The hope is to get a better view of the haze from on high. However, we yet again think that we are outside the main part of the action.
We hit the top of the bluffs when a local's chihuahua comes running at us threatening to attack us. After having survived too many close calls with buffalo running at me, I am both skiddish and yet bemused by the absurdity of this scene. We get around and make it to the park boundary. It's clear some of our friends are out on patrol from this point. The Park Service is also up there, and we run into the same guy who had tried to be nice to us from the vehicle. Here he told us that he knew of us and the lawful orders given to us and that we're the ones who have been out spooking horses. The suggestion seems to be that we had better be careful or else.
The helicopter continues to buzz around low to the ground. Surprisingly, he flies over us where we now spot a group of buffalo inside the park at the top of the northeast bluffs. The helicopter all by itself forces these buffalo on the hillside in the park to race down the very steep and very sandy bluffs into the water below and the woods on the other side. So, all the sudden, we are in another part of the hazing operations, and my camera is fixed on buffalo going down the side of a cliff. We move along the bluffs, now inside of Yellowstone National Park and where the buffalo have just been driven off; in the distance, we can see the main haze being moved down the Madison inside the park. You see, these operations don't stop at the park boundaries; they continue for miles and miles inside the park. There are often further hazing operations inside the park of buffalo that have never left it to make room for the buffalo being pushed in - this can go on well inside the Wyoming border within 10 miles of Old Faithful.
Five park rangers on horseback come up from behind us. At this point, we are frazzled and worried about getting arrested. To our luck, there are some teenagers and a woman (a longtime Buffalo Field Campaign volunteer who has just arrived) who serve as eyes and ears for us. They let us know about bison still on the bluffs that are close to us, about agents coming; they are a fantastic help to us. Our senses are shot; all I can hear playing over and over in my brain is the buzzing of helicopters, the whooping of agents on horseback, the babies marching over fallen logs, buffalo charging in our direction being chased by horses, and mamas and babies being separated from their families. What is immediately around me mixes in with all these very fresh images now burned forever in my memory.
Still, we move along the bluffs, now at a much slower pace due to our exhaustion. We still almost catch a group of horses and see yet another buffalo forced to race down the cliffs, apparently to funnel her into the Madison River valley. Down below we see the occasional mama and calf that hasn't yet been rounded up by the haze running scared in the forest below.
We stop, though, knowing we can't keep up with the fast pace of the Park Service horses as they mop buffalo into the river valley, knowing that we've reached our physical and emotional limits. We don't yet realize how far into the park we have hiked.
We finally get word that our shift is about to be over; the haze continues.
In the end, I don't know how far the haze went or for how long, but it was still going on when I left a couple hours later. My partner - my ever dearer friend - and I hiked back out and to the vehicle waiting to take us back to camp. It was filled with others who all had their own stories and perspective on the day. When we saw a group of buffalo on U.S. 287, a group I had briefly seen hazed the day before and who I had kept watch over for an entire night on the highway, I could no longer keep my emotions in check. Yet, I was too dehydrated for the tears to flow. I was crying without tears, and I couldn't take it emotionally anymore.
And, I've been in that place ever since.
Whatever good I took from the day - my ability to keep up with the haze, to work with a wonderful and amazing person, to stand bravely and take footage - was lost and has been lost in the powerful images that I'm remembering and desperately trying to paint for you with my words. I know these words fail; I knew they would fail before I tried. Yet, I have to try. I have to do anything I can to let you know about it, to let you know what these animals are going through. Because, if you are inspired, you will help them, help me help them, or work on something completely different with them in mind.
And, I've been gloomier and gloomier and sadder and sadder since. But, I am determined to write and do more.
There's still a lot of buffalo in Montana, and so hazing operations are no doubt going on right now as I'm writing. You may all wonder why this happens or expect me to go into the whole policy; I've done that before. The absurdity of the policy and the execution of the policy could take up accounts much longer than this one. But, it would be hard to understand even if the policy were the most sound policy you could dream up how the consequence would be this kind of cruelty and torture to these beautiful, roaming grass eaters. How can any of that matter to what I'm writing?
So, I have to hope what I'm doing means something and that I have the creativity to do more and the inspiration for others in joining me to do more. I know that I can't stop the state and federal government by myself; I need friends. I need partners. I need people who want to work with me. And, I need to overcome some of my own weaknesses.
Okay, writing has exhausted me, too. I'll leave my account at that and pray that you were not only touched but moved to act in some way as well. And for those of you reading who are acting, who are there far more than me, who have been far more dedicated than me, please help me be as strong as you are and as strong as those buffalo who keep you strong. Just as I needed her pulling me along by moving a little more quickly than I thought I could, I need all of you to do the same in your own ways.
May 12, 2010