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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Thursday, August 07, 2008

    Yellowstone buffalo: Borders, migration, and the privileged lords

    The map on the left, courtesy of Buffalo Field Campaign, shows bison herds and migrations inside of and outside of Yellowstone National Park. All the problems with and all the inspiration we have of buffalo herds must take these migrations into account.

    Humans have an issue with migration because the variance in movement often comes against boundaries that humans have set up. Many Americans have trouble with the migration of people, especially from Mexico, who are often escaping the economic boundaries placed on their own existence by global trade policies - many of them promoted by American politicians. Boundaries create boundaries, and the consequences of the boundaries often create unexpected movements. In 1872, Congress set aside Yellowstone National Park, with boundaries that have not changed a great deal since then. No one could communicate with the animals those boundaries, but each animal has had its movement impacted by those boundaries and others.

    Bison, in particular, are bound by the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, by the movements of its visitors, of its vehicles, but they are also bound by other policy considerations. They are bound by those who control lands both public and private. They are prevented from moving by those who put the values of livestock industry interests ahead of their movements -just as the park boundary prevents those interests from moving cattle and other livestock. They are physically prevented by park rangers and agents from Montana's Department of Livestock, who make sure that bison stay out of Montana. Yet, the boundaries also set up the terms of migration. Because bison need to move by the boundaries of winter, of the need to eat, they move. They move across boundaries.

    In that context, some of the bounded entities within the boundary of the United States, groups with very conflicting missions, have been thrust together to manage the movements of bison and to determine their fate. The bounded partners created a new bounding document--one called adaptive because presumably the boundaries can shift, though how and why is a mystery - called the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). With that, the lords of the border - the ICE of Yellowstone - enforce a reality on buffalo, who continue to roam as they must.

    And, what a mess it has been! More bison were killed last winter (1,613) than at any time since the 19th century. More than half the herds in Yellowstone from the previous fall are now dead, some killed because they could not move away from the winter. Now, the partners of the IBMP have been meeting the past couple days here in Bozeman to consider the parameters of their torture and death, to determine the appropriate ways to implement the plan without ever considering whether the border that has been set up makes any sense at all.

    Of course, borders of a kind are necessary. To type these words, I am creating all kinds of borders, choosing words that might not have been otherwise and placing them in a space, all with their own boundaries. I am the lord of this essay; I presume to make my point. If life is motion, and motion arises from and creates borders, then borders are necessary. However, the imposition of borders without reason is irrational. That is, it makes no sense to keep beings from pursuing their own survival because of a perceived need to protect the integrity of a nation state or the integrity of an allotted use of private or public land. All of that is to protect an entitlement or privilege for which there is no good reason to presume at the cost of that freedom. Borders in a physical sense are necessary, but as means to defend the arrogance of arbitrarily defined entitlement, they are disgusting.

    Is it not enough that we are bound by the four seasons, by the fact that we will die, by time and space? Why do we insist on enforcing boundaries the way we do?

    I was only able to attend the IBMP meeting for an hour, and even then, I could not hear more than a few minutes of anything because I was bound by the noise of my 10-month-old son. In fact, I was told that the noises from him that I labored to keep from distracting the meeting in fact had been at least somewhat distracting. My son's movements bounded me and bounded others, and so I moved elsewhere. It was entitlement and privilege that allowed me to be there at all; it would have been for nothing to have stayed under those circumstances. I removed the boundary and left. Yet, there are no similar qualms about disrupting the lives of so many buffalo. What passes for rational discourse among the pre-ordained stakeholders is actually the most arrogant noise of all on the land north and west of Yellowstone. If I had been more ornery, I would have felt perfectly justified not only to let my son cry to stop the meeting but also to join in the chorus myself - to disrupt the moment, to bring people into the primal moment of our physical limitations, to insist on a boundary in that meeting to stop what they will do. But, of course, they will enforce those boundaries anyhow. At this time and place, it was not for me to presume. But, they presume all the more.

    What a privilege it is to stand over an entire border and be able to build and move fences, to deal so flippantly with the lives who are so bound by one's decisions. What a magnificent and deadly power that the wildlife manager has, that the livestock owner, the World Bank president, and the general all have. And, what a privilege I have as well in the domain where I set borders and where lives are influenced by my every action. But, why are we so arrogant, so non-chalant? The IBMP partners met as though it were just another meeting, just something that had to be done. It wasn't even news - at least not yesterday. We are so numb to this power, this abuse of power, that we think nothing of it. We don't think anything of what we run over, who we run over, and we're always happy to point the finger elsewhere.

    But, what of us? Is our silence not complicity? Is our inability to see the buffalo issue beyond the bonds of buffalo not also a kind of complicity? We are constantly stomping things, erecting borders, and we do so with the same arrogance of entitlement. And, we are almost bound to do so in order to survive the winters in our world.

    I still believe that undoing all this is possible if we will own up to it, talk with each other, and collaborate together in resistance against the kinds of borders all of us are bound to set up. Resistance is not simply against what's not us, it's also resistance against ourselves. We all bleed with the boundaries of nationalism and capitalism, and we are enforcers of it.

    But, deep down, we are still humans, we still cry, we still make uncomfortable noises, we still move the way the buffalo do. If we can make those noises, that is, collaborate together, then we can do something for ourselves, others, and buffalo. That's what I've committed my life to doing. Who will join us? I come with my own baggage and limits; so do you. But, let's work. Because right now, I can't tell you that these IBMP people aren't going to keep up their arrogance; it goes unchecked. But together, we can at least tear down these fences.


    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    You make a great point that human boundaries have never served animal migration routes well. They need to go where they can survive. That instinct is built in them. If we as humans spent more time observing them than trying to change their biological instincts we might be able to better serve them.

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    8/11/08, 3:03 PM  
    Blogger American Puzzle said...

    First of all, I had no idea the killing of bison was getting so out of control. Yellowstone has such a special place in my heart and mind that this information affects me emotionally. You raise such excellent points about boundaries and their arbitrary nature - also the idea of resistance and silence - when we are silent in such matters as these or wherever we witness injustice, silence is active, not passive. We actively choose to be silent and in that silence some of the worst crimes can be committed.

    8/15/08, 4:36 PM  
    Blogger Jim Macdonald said...

    Hey, thanks again for the comments. The buffalo situation has been out of control for a long time; last year just happened to be the worst.

    I enjoyed the essay you just wrote about the "Academic Community" - there's a lot to chew on there in terms of the nature of community and how it's utterly lacking in our society. Look at this correspondence. You are God knows where; I am in Bozeman. We probably have read things that we are thinking about more deeply than people who are close to us in other ways. What then is community? What are these strange new boundaries? How are some overcome so easily, creating quasi-communities, not so in others? How much more disconnected and connected can we become?

    That goes in some part why I feel such connection to the buffalo and to the indigenous peoples on the plains who have been severed from that and so many other connections. If we do this for the buffalo, we take a step toward re-drawing boundaries in ways that favor the more sensual / the more experiential aspects of connection; the ones closest to our perception and being.

    In many ways, I think we are driving at the same thing, eh?


    8/16/08, 12:14 AM  

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