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Our Visits to Buffalo Nation

Since first created on February 12, 1998, you are visitor number:


Buffalo Nation is a volunteer effort to put physical, human bodies, between the guns of the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) and the buffalo as they migrate out of Yellowstone looking for grazing in the winter.  Buffalo Nation has a cabin in West Yellowstone as their center of operations.  I heard all about them on the First Nation/Wounded Knee mailing list that I subscribe to, and since I lived not too far away, I saw that here was a chance to finally be able to DO something worthwhile.   I called Buffalo Nation and got directions, and Saturday, January 17, 1998 packed up the car with our winter gear (from California) and headed off for West Yellowstone, hoping to be able to go out on the "late" shift that day, which goes out at 11 a.m.

Naturally, it didn't work out that way.  First, the directions.  The directions themselves were just fine; the freeway exit I was told to take was the correct one.   However, as I was coming from the east, from Livingston, and this was the western-most exit past Bozeman, the westbound exit was not marked for West Yellowstone.  Previous exits *had* been marked.... Bozeman evidently prefers visitors to travel all the way through town on the main drag, rather than skipping past on the freeway.  And since the exit I had been told to take wasn't marked for West Yellowstone, I thought perhaps it was the next one, and drove on.  Unfortunately, we were now out in the boonies, and the next exit was some 10 miles down the road before we could turn around and head back east.  Coming east, however, the exit *DID* say West Yellowstone.  Naturally.  Still, I thought we still had enough time to get there in time to go out on the afternoon shift.

The next problem was time.  I had a rather hazy, and considerably incorrect idea of the distance involved.  I though it was 40 or 50 miles down the road, maybe less.   WRONG!  Try a hundred or so.  Also, on a nice, early January morning, the narrow, winding road that exits Bozeman and traverses through Big Sky and cuts through one corner of Yellowstone National Park, was covered with snow; something we hadn't had much of in Emigrant and Livingston.  We zipped along in the 55 mph zone, at about 25 mph., part of a whole convoy of trucks and 4-wheel-drives towing snowmobile trailers, and the requisite assortment of 18-wheelers also headed south on business of their own.   It was perfectly beautiful, however, coming along the Gallatin River as far as Big Sky, the hills and mountains covered with trees and snow, and the river was just incredibly lovely, blue and rushing with occasional snow/ice covering the banks and shallower, slower parts.  When we passed through Moose Flats, appropriately enough, we saw a moose and baby standing out in the river, still as statues in the time it took us to pass. 

We passed Big Sky, of which all there was to be seen were two gas stations and any number of snowmobile rental places, and a little farther on, a school.   About this time *sigh* we passed a snow plow, coming the OTHER direction (of course).    Then back into the undeveloped hills and wooded areas, and on through the northwesternmost corner of  Yellowstone Nat'l Park.   At this point we lost all the trucks and cars towing snowmobiles that had made up the traffic crawling along the road; most of them were headed for the various snowmobile trails in Yellowstone.

Finally we came around the bend out of Yellowstone, and turned to travel a smaller road along the interestingly named Quake Lake.  And found ourselves, only a couple of hours behind schedule (and just after shift change) at Buffalo Nation's cabin.

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There was hardly anyone there; the morning shift had not quite started straggling back in yet.  A car was pulling out as we drove up, and a couple of people  hung out the window and called to us to go on in and make ourselves at home.  Which we did, and it really was a case of making yourselves at home!  There were only a couple of people there right then, one young man shoveling the steps and a couple of people in the living room of the cabin, told us to take off our coats and set a spell, then sat down to chat rodeo-tipi.jpg (5785 bytes)with us.... it was like that the whole day.... I've never seen anything like it..... everyone there and everyone who came in later recognized newcomers and came up to shake our hands and be introduced, to ask how we got there and how long we were staying, etc.!   The first couple of guys to come back off shift went outside to work on their "snow tunnel" in the--ummmm--front yard, for lack of a better term!  They invited Christina as well as another little girl whose mom was there, to go out with them and help.  Hey, it really was a TUNNEL!  They'd only dug it in about 5 feet or so, and they used the kids to empty out the buckets of snow as they dug it out.  The snow was about hip-height on the path they had trampled to get to the snow tunnel, and right outside the entrance to that they had made some "chairs" (by just sitting down in the snow and let the snow pack itself down into a chair around you) for visitors.... what fun!  Plus, there were LOTS of dogs running around, most of whom didn't belong to the Buffalo Nation folks, but to the other string of smaller cabins nearby, and two huskies belonging to the tipi just across the driveway.    

It was about this time that we realized that the "cute" snow boots we'd bought from the catalog in California, and the very pretty, warm chenille gloves we were so thrilled with, were not quite what was required for *REAL* winter weather!!!!   Chenille isn't so warm once they've been IN the snow, and the pretty boots that just came above our ankles and were so nice and slender and chic, did nothing to keep the snow OUT of the insides, and further, the lovely soft flannel quilting didn't do much good when wet and frozen.  Also, the boots were fashionably narrow, not a broad surface for walking on snow, so we kept falling through the packed snow every time we took a step! Christina fortunately had snow-overalls, but I only had my jacket, and once your sit (or fall!) in the snow, they STAY cold and wet and perfectly miserable!  oh well, live and learn :) 

That evening, after the late shift returned, everyone gathered for a full report of the day, including the location of the buffalo that had been spotted outside of the National Park boundaries, and where the DOL had been seen and what they were up to.    Then everyone volunteered for the various patrols and shifts for the next day.    Shifts were only two:  The morning shift at 5 a.m. and the "late" shift from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  The locations and type were various; Bear Trap and Duck Creek were car patrols, while Horse Butte was a combination of walking and/or skiing and/or snowshoe.   Various other volunteers went out on cross-country ski patrols.  Each location of course could have more than one type of mobility required, depending on whether or not buffalo were already there or nearby, and some of the patrols were stationary for radio relay from other locations, and some patrols were just to scout for migrating buffalo, to try to spot them before the DOL so our people could move in and be in place before the guns arrived.

We had a talk/lecture/demonstration/discussion that evening on nonviolent resistance.   It was quite interesting for me, as I had done any kind of political activism before, not to mention any kind that involved direct confrontation with the Bad Guys -- and that's what they DOL goons were, too -- BAD guys!  This is when I first heard the stories of people being "accidentally" hit with DOL vehicles, one young man had been run into with a snowplow by the man who owned the buffalo slaughter facility; and the DOL had more than once ACTUALLY attempted to herd the buffalo INTO the volunteers--and buffalo are very dangerous, very large wild animals -- no matter how slow and passive they may appear, they are NOT!  Most of the volunteers who were there were "regular" activists and demonstrators.... many traveled from place to place, wherever they were needed.  A number of them had just come from the forests of Northern California, where activists lived in the treetops to keep the lumberjacks from felling the trees.  Many were vegetarian, which made for interesting dynamics in the kitchen.  All food, by the way, was either donated, or bought with donations, and all cooking was done by volunteer effort. 

Christina and I signed up for the Sunday morning patrol.... the one that meant getting up at 5 a.m. for.  Around about 10 p.m., those of us on the morning shift went to bed, and the rest went out on the town, into West Yellowstone. 

The cabin itself, by the way, had three bedrooms, plus the living room (with two HUGE loft areas), small kitchen and bathroom, complete with shower stall, sink and toilet, and a LARGE size washer and dryer.  The first bedroom, just off the entrance hallway, was the "Command Post" where those who actually ran Buffalo Nation did the running thereof... computer, radios, paperwork, it was all done in there.  Then there was a large sleeping room, and a smaller sleeping room just for the staff.  Whoever couldn't fit in the sleeping room or the loft, sacked out in the livingroom, on one of the two sofas or three chairs or the floor.  There was a really HUGE wood stove in the livingroom, and a clothesline over that for gloves, socks, hats, etc. to dry out overnight, and it kept the cabin quite lovely and warm :)  Especially as this was Montana mid-January, and snow was still falling besides the several feet already on the ground!

Oh lordie, 5 a.m. came EARLY!!!!  There were amazingly few moans and groans, however, as people stood in line for the (one) bathroom, while someone else put on a huge pot of water on the tiny stove, and everyone crowded into the kitchen rummaging to make sandwiches (cheese, or PB-and-jelly)and grabbing fresh fruit to take with them on shift.   I'd been bright enuf to bring our big thermos, so I filled that up with BLACK, hot sweet tea.  Christina initially opted not to go when I first tried to wake her up, but all the bustle got her interested, and she decided to come on patrol anyway. 

We both probably regretted volunteering the moment we walked out the door of the cabin at 5:30.  It was pitch black--at least, upstairs where the sky was; there was snow falling lightly, and lots had fallen during the night, and I had to brush and scrape about 5-6" of snow off my car windows, plus brush it off the car hood so it wouldn't fly back against the windshield as I drove.  As neither of us could ski or snowshoe, we had been assigned to Horse Butte with a several guys who'd been there before.  We crammed two of them in the car, I turned the heater on full-blast, and we cautiously crept down the driveway and turned onto the highway towards West Yellowstone.  When we turned off the highway at Horse Butte, the (unpaved) road had snow-plowed banks about four feet high.  Slowly, slowly, we went and negotiated the turn towards whereever they were taking us.  butte-tipi.jpg (9012 bytes)At an apparent dead-end (it turned out to be an L in the road), we parked, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  We broke a path through the seven foot bank of snow, and trod  through snow that was knee deep, about a quarter mile back towards some woods where there was -- lo and behold! -- a tipi!  There were cots in it, a wood stove and a huge pile of wood out back, and we all settled in while one of the men -- Rodeo, I think it was -- stomped a path around the tipi and came back in and got a fire going... once we found some matches, which took a bit of searching.   Two other skiiers had been dropped off by the car that was doing the Duck Creek patrol (I couldn't carry everyone in mine) and they went off to check out some buffalo nearby just as the sun was rising , and the rest of us tromped back out on our little path to my car and went off to check out a pair of buffalo a few miles away on another part of Horse Butte.  So we drove off, turned here, turned there.... and came upon a house with a HUGE fenced enclosure, full of -- wolves!  Wolves, curled tight in little balls in the snow, another couple coming out of an attached small log building to lope up to the fence to object to our passing.  Rodeo told me these were mostly rescued wolves and hybrids.

safe zone.jpg (10338 bytes)The sun had risen now, and we drove on and parked, then tromped through snow, here hip-deep, to check on the buffalo, who were standing stolidly in the snow, like massive immovable, impenetrable objects.   They didn't even deign to turn their heads towards us to acknowledge our existence.  They just ... stood!  They were in what was apparently a "Safe Zone" ...privately owned property whose owners had designated that the buffalo could NOT be shot on their land, or hazed off it.   Furthermore, Buffalo Nation had distributed notices for posting to those owners willing to designate their properties as "Safe Zones", and it was amazing the number of houses and garages and shops -- and once, even, an outhouse! -- sporting hot pink "Buffalo Safe  Zone" notices!



We decided to head back for the tipi and check in with our skiiers and get the report on their buffalo, and on the way out we stopped and parked outside the house with the wolves, as I was just crazy to get a closer view.   It's the first time I've ever seen a real wolf (aside from the zoo) ...and at a distance of about a half-dozen feet. There were two black wolves, a couple of obvious hybrids and three grey wolves, one of which was HUGE! Oh they were breathtakingly gorgeous! They barked as we got out of the car,  then two of the greys threw back their heads and began to howl, singing to us, and the rest joined in.......

The people who lived there weren't home, but I took several photos, so that when I return I could take them with me in the hopes that they would buy me an introduction (which in fact was the case!)..... I have never truly seen such *MAGNIFICENT" creatures in my life.... pictures are no more than just faint impressions of the reality of being face-to-face with a wolf. 

The skiiers weren't back yet, and for some reason the Horse Butte patrol was an all-day shift, so at about 11 the guys sent Christina and I into town for pizzas.  Nothing loathe, Christina and I did a great job of checking out West Yellowstone, and I picked up "Lakota Woman" and "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" at a bookstore while we waited for the pizzas to be ready.  Then back to the tipi.  After tripping through the snow to the tipi (I kept falling through the packed-down snow on the path, with my narrow NOT snow boots), the guys had decided we should picnic out by the buffalo... the ones the skiiers were shepherding, not the ones out past the wolf pen.   So off we tromped through about 500 feet of snow to see the buffalo (mostly so that I could take pictures of 'em).  They were grazing placidly inside a fenced area, and we didn't get too close, not because we were afraid they would charge, although discretion is always necessary, but because they were settled down for the duration in a Safe Zone area, and we didn't want to get them stirred up, to perhaps wander off out of the Safe Zone.   We never got so much as a sniff of the DOL that Sunday, btw.  Anyway, we went back to an area that had been much tamped-down, and we all settled into snow "chairs" and set out the pizza and had a feast.  Up til then I'd been having a great time, I was absolutely frozen stiff, I fell every other step because I kept going through the packed snow, which was still a couple of feet above the actual ground, and it wasn't easy to get up -- no leverage, because it's all snow, and if you try to lean on it, it just collapses under you.... a couple of times I got so stuck that all I could do was just lay back and laugh helplessly.... because I just could NOT get up!  All that, plus trying to protect my camera (coverless, of course) from the snow... but by the end of the shift I was so tired and frozen that the last time I fell, which was into the snowdrift between the pasture where we'd had the pizza and the car,  I just couldn't get out and one of the guys had to help me out of the snowbank!  I swear, I have never been so COLD in my life! 

We stayed for the briefing that evening at the cabin.... which was just after we got back.... and headed home.  Which was a big mistake.   It was late and we were exhausted.... I only made as far as Yellowstone Park before I just could not keep my eyes open and focused on the road.  Fortunately there were all those trail heads with parking areas, and I pulled over onto one and slept for almost two hours!  (Christina had fallen asleep practically before the cabin was out of sight!)  It was just coming on to sunset by the time we reached Bozeman, and we stopped for dinner at a cafe there.... another mistake... <grin> It was all I could do to get us home!  I think we dragged our carcasses into the house and dropped exhausted into our beds about 8 p.m.


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Below is the transcript of my report to First Nation/Wounded Knee mailing list, which I wrote up briefly and posted on January 19th; it contains some of the above accounts, as well as further information on the situation with the DOL, Buffalo Nation, and the Buffalo.

January 19, 1998, as posted to First Nation:

My daughter and I got back late last night from spending the weekend in West Yellowstone with Buffalo Nation. These folks are doing a splendid job of protecting the buffalo from the Department of Livestock (DOL) while at the same time pursuing a "non-violence" policy. From what I was able to tell, they have earned the respect and support from a great deal of the local community, and (respect at least) from the local law enforcement as well, which says a great deal! Things appear to have been going well to date.

This happy state of affairs is not expected to continue. The DOL guys are very unhappy about their loss of income as a direct result of BN's interference and from what I understand, they seem to be taking it increasingly personal (rumors are they receive $200 per buffalo, don't know if this has been verified). At any rate, they have been attempting on occasion to herd/spook the buffalo INTO the activists! That seems pretty personal, to me. With an anticipated 70 head of buffalo due to leave the Park with some immediacy as part of the 250 in the process of heading for the Park borders, Buffalo Nation is expecting the confrontations to escalate enormously, not just in quantity, they are expecting *seriously* intense confrontations with the DOL, as well as possibly significant slaughter of the buffalo.

I myself can't see how they can protect 250 buffalo at all times from hostile guns, there is almost no way that some buffalo aren't going to be lost. I would urge everyone to do what they can... and ANYONE who can get to West Yellowstone in the next few weeks needs to do so as the situation in this timeperiod may become quite critical.

The Buffalo Nation site will bring you up to date on the latest developments as well as the impending critical point.

As for Christina and I, we spent yesterday wading and stumbling through hip-deep snow to check on bison in various safe resting spots. It was quite incredible to see these animals close up (relatively speaking), I got lots of pictures! We stayed over Saturday night at the cabin. It is the most wonderful place, and the people are just fantastically friendly and relaxing to be around... when you walk in the door you feel like you've been there all your life, you just sit down somewhere and feel right at home, and with the people there, it's like walking into a room full of old friends that you've know since kindergarten! While Christina went out and help a couple of the people who'd just come off a shift dig a snow tunnel, I sat in the cabin and just soaked it all in, asked a few questions and listened as people talked about their experiences. I sure learned a lot! When I went out Sunday morning (5 a.m., ugh!!!) with the patrol I was assigned to, I was quite amazed and pleased at how MANY "Buffalo Safe" area signs were posted... on driveways, fences, walls and even front windows of homes!

The DOL seems quite determined to SLAUGHTER the buffalo. It is not enough for them that the buffalo are in designated SAFE lands, well away from the cattle themselves; they use their crackerbarrels to try to frighten them OFF the safeland so they can kill them on the spot or haze them into their "capture" facilities for slaughter. It seems to me.... wasn't the concern over the buffalo coming onto public lands, the possibility of brucellosis spreading to cattle (to be more specific, the public's *perceived* danger of brucellosis) supposed to be the justification for the slaughter? If the buffalo are in designated safety zones, and even some of that (according to what I was told) belonging to cattle ranchers themselves, and the cattle are in NO danger (real or otherwise) of coming into contact with them.... what, then, is the justification for the continued attempts and declared intention of continued slaughter?

I can give you the justifications... a few thousand of them, and they are all green.

Please, PLEASE visit the Buffalo Nation site and do anything you can!

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January 31, 1998:   Bummer! I went to take my roll of film (with the buffalo and the wolves from Horse Butte on it) and discovered that it had for some reason torn half-way through... However, we went back to W. Yellowstone the next weekend when my mom came to visit and I got lots more pictures of the wolves at least!

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February 10, 1998As of this weekend the buffalo were Safe! :) Not that I got to see any... or that *I* had anything to do with it :( I rounded off my long and hellish week by SERIOUSLY spraining my ankle, unloading groceries Friday night. Christina said "We can't go, Mom, you can't even WALK!" and I said "DAMMIT, we are GOING!" and we did... I turned out to be useful anyway, because someone had donated a huge ham, and no one knew how to cook it, so I ran into town and got some brown sugar and cloves to make a glazed ham... it turned out *fantastic* :)   It was all very frustrating though, as we'd gone out the week before when my mom was visiting and bought oodles of REAL cold weather gear.... underwear, socks, snow boots, gloves, hats, gaiters, you name it!... in order to go out with the buffalo.... hell!  I couldn't even get the snow boots ON, my ankle was so swollen!   Darn it :(

shotah-profile.jpg (7352 bytes)However, I got to meet my (until then Email) friend BlackWolf and he introduced me to Rosalie Little Thunder, who is instrumental in heading Native American support for the Buffalo Nation effort.  Rosalie had brought her 11 y/o grandson Timmy; he and Christina hit it off immediately and spent the weekend playing in the snow, helping with the snow tunnel, and "hanging around" the cabin -- literally!   One of the activist college gals brought out some rock-climbing gear and slung it over the rafters in the livingroom and got the kids into it, and hooked 'em up to the ropes and taught them how to go up and down by sliding the knots, and they spent literally the entire afternoon and evening hanging around!  

Thankfully, no DOL bullies were in sight that weekend, at least!

shotah-butte.jpg (5833 bytes)I did see WOLVES!!! YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I even *HELD* one! :) :) :) And took pics of her too!   BlackWolf had a 6-week old wolf/dog pup named Shadow, a fuzzy bundle of fur with big bright eyes, just a DOLL!!!!!!!! It was instant love!  Also, I went over to Horse Butte as soon as we hit town Saturday morning and I knocked on the door of the cabin by the wolf pens.  A lady came out and I gave her the pictures I'd taken of her wolves previously.  I got more pics, and we stood there about half an hour talking and she was telling me about them... such beautiful animals! She was pleased that I'd brought the pictures... not only that, but the wolves sang for me again!  They are a pack and the big one I'd admired is the alpha male, the father of a number of them, although others are rescues and not related at all; his "pups" are about four years old now, she said..  She has Internet so I gave her my address and hope to hear from her :)

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February 21, 1998  My last trip to Buffalo Nation was towards the end of February.  Christina and I were dying to go to the IMax Theater and shop around, and so we did that Saturday, heading for the cabin by the early afternoon.  On Sunday Christina slept in, and I went on patrol with a young man I'd met at the cabin before, a regular amongst the volunteers, named Peaches.   This time we had as our patrol station Duck Creek.  This means parking by the driveway leading to the DOL and the slaughter house, and waiting for them to come out, and following them wherever they may go.  We were in place by 6 a.m. and sat and waited, and waited, and waited.  Finally there came a snow plow, driven by the owner of the slaughter facility... the same one who had hit a volunteer with that plow the very first trip I'd made to Buffalo Nation... and I got a couple of pictures of him.  Then the DOL guy came through and took off towards town.  Ergo, so did we.  He drove us through town and around and about a bit, then parked.  We parked.  He came and wrote down my license number <grin>  He then walked across the street and went into the church.  One certainly hopes he was praying for his soul.... praying to GET one!!!!!  We went and got gas, and returned .  He eventually emerged and drove a couple blocks over to a pancake house.  It seemed a good idea not to follow him in -- other volunteers have in the past, but neither Peaches nor I felt that our discretion was at its highest point, and we decided to leave temptation alone in the Pancake House, and as he wasn't going to be shooting buffalo if he was busy stuffing eggs in his face, and all the buffalo we knew of were in Safe Zones, we headed on back to the cabin.

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