Introduction to Dan Brister's In the Presence of Buffalo: Working to Stop the Yellowstone Slaughter (Westwinds Press, 2013)

by Doug Peacock

Great herds of totemic animals have thundered through human consciousness since the beginning of our kind. Today, we witness the tip of that ancient iceberg of animal craving when we witness the wildebeests of the Serengeti or the caribou of the Arctic. But the greatest herds ever to roam the face of the earth were the American bison of the Great Plains. The numbers we hear stagger the imagination: 60 million bison at the time of Lewis and Clark; a single herd of 10 million buffalo taking several days to cross a great river in Iowa. Native Americans honored, preserved, and hunted this sacred beast for more than 13,000 years; the birth of a white buffalo calf was a call to worship for Plains Indians. Yet by 1902, the number of American bison remaining in the wild was twenty-three animals.

The given reasons for their demise are the usual ones: Manifest Destiny, European dominion, the need for agricultural lands, or a way to deal with the final solution to the Indian problem by eliminating the people’s commissary—the bison. We dealt with other native inhabitants of North America in much the same manner; the wolf and grizzly come to mind—creatures that got in our way.

But there was something different about the way we went after the buffalo. Unlike wily wolves or fierce grizzlies, the bison just stood there and took it. Buffalo were killed for their hides and tongues, for sport, and for the hell of it. The army gave out free ammunition to any dude riding the railroad who could shoot them from the train, leaving millions to die and rot. Bison have a “ceremony of the dead,” like elephants milling around a fallen brother. Buffalo hunters could shoot a “stand” at great distance, taking their time, killing as many as 120 bison from a herd in forty minutes.

It’s impossible to imagine that magnitude of slaughter, killing that many huge mammals. How do we even think about one species inflicting near extinction on another large animal in a heartbeat of recent history? Between 1800 and 1893, white Europeans killed 50 million bison. Bull buffalo weigh up to a ton, cows less than half that. At an 800-pound average, 50 million buffalo would add up to 20 million tons of biomass. That’s equal to all the sperm whales alive today; it’s ten times the mass of all blue whales now swimming our oceans.

But none of this adds up to the real question: Why did the bison hold a place of such reverence and respect for Native Americans for millennia while European immigrants gleefully annihilated them in record time? Two cosmologies could not be more divergent. I’ve never quite been able to wrap my mind around this bedrock contradiction. Our American history books don’t discuss this dark quandary that seems to represent the beginning of our Western relationship with the continent’s wildlife and the land itself. To attempt to understand this particular breach of history is to beg the question of the nature of human attitudes toward the planet.

Westwinds Press has published a new book by Dan Brister, In the Presence of Buffalo: Working to Stop the Yellowstone Slaughter. This is an important book in several respects.

For fifteen years, Dan Brister has followed the herds of Yellowstone’s buffalo on the ground, on foot, across the snow-drifted sagebrush valleys, and into the lodgepole pine forests of our nation’s oldest national park. Only a handful of modern people have peered so long and deeply into the eyes of wild American bison. He knows, as few do, the daily round, herd behavior, and seasons of the buffalo. Dan recognizes individual buffalo and senses the shaggy gravity in this huge dignified beast. He has come to love the solitary animals, herds, and the quintessential American species itself.

This is a particularly courageous time to publish a book on Yellowstone’s buffalo. The senseless killing of bison continues today on public land, on the fringes of Yellowstone Park, this time led by the state of Montana’s Department of Livestock (DOL), aided and abetted by the National Park Service. Since the winter of 1996-97, the DOL and park service have shot and killed almost 4,000 wild, native bison. The pretense for the slaughter this time is a European cattle disease called brucellosis. Cows gave it to elk and buffalo; there is no documentation of bison ever giving it back to cattle in the wild. The only wild, free-ranging herd of American bison on earth is no longer allowed to roam free.

Dan Brister’s book bears witness to the last fifteen years of this bureaucratic madness to tame the last vestige of wild America and domesticate the earth. Leading the resistance is the Buffalo Field Campaign, a brave, dedicated group of activists. This hardy tribe lives out in the cold winters of Yellowstone, risking their freedom and lives to stand by their brown brethren in the hair coats.

I have a great deal of respect for the buffalo warriors; their very presence at the dying fields where Yellowstone’s buffalo are shot down by DOL agents brings us again to the lingering question of what kind of mindless hate could have allowed us to kill 60 million buffalo in a single century. Is it a kind of original sin, a hopeful vision of the frontier replaced with a cast of butchers? Defending the right of the buffalo to return may allow us to readdress an ancient historical insult.

My own partisan views are carved from decades of watching buffalo. Forty years ago, I lived alone in the backcountry of Yellowstone for months at a time filming grizzly bears. Back in the 1970s, grizzlies were less common; sometime you didn’t see a bear for a week or more. But the buffalo were there, every day, prancing and rolling and bellowing—dominating the landscape. Watching them became an entire way of thinking. And these bison were the great, great, many times great grandchildren of those twenty-three buffalo they couldn’t catch in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley in 1902. Their kinship gave me immense pleasure. May our own grandchildren someday share this vision of America’s quintessential animal?

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