Terrain.org 11th Annual Contest in Nonfiction Finalist
On Montana’s annual winter bison harvest outside Yellowstone National Park.
Gardiner, Montana: Late Winter, 2020
The first of the bison hunters arrive on February 8th, the eve of the hunger moon.
Heading out to walk the dog, I spot a truck parked in the typically empty pullout across from my driveway. Here, Yellowstone National Park’s boundary, heralded only by a few orange-tipped wooden stakes, turns into Forest Service land, bristling now with the snowy spears of Artemisia tridentate, big mountain sage.
Here we go, I think. I’ve known the hunters’ arrival was imminent after the heavy snows that dumped into Yellowstone’s northern range and Paradise Valley earlier this week, turning the land into wind-blown, sun-dazzled moonscape. As the kettle lakes freeze solid and the drifts pile higher in the sagebrush steppe of the Lamar Valley and Blacktail Plateau, where two-thirds of the park’s bison spend their days, North America’s largest land animals do what they’ve done for thousands of years: migrate. They strike out, not for greener pastures (there’s no such thing for miles) but at least for snow that’s less than shoulder-deep, where they don’t have to work as hard to plow it aside with their massive heads and humped, muscled backs.
Approaching, I see this hunter’s got a big black Super Duty Ford truck with a spotting scope set up just outside the driver’s side door. He’s a young guy, with that unmistakable Western Sportsman Vibe involving flannel, ballcap, and well-cultivated scruff. He must be one of the 40 Montana residents who landed lottery permission to hunt these animals here on the borderlands of America’s first national park.
“Looking for the bison?” I say, as my dog trots over to sniff him. It’s pretty empty out here in winter along the old dirt road into the park, and I rarely leash my old collie. I see no reason not to be civil with this person who is carrying a very big gun in what amounts to my backyard.
“Yep,” the hunter drawls, looking us over, trying to determine, perhaps, if we’re friendly to his cause or have come to harass or preach the free-range gospel.
“They’re out there,” he says, gesturing vaguely at the scope, a slender Nikon, which is pointed into a distant draw beyond the Park Service’s Stephens Creek Facility. “But of course the year I’m lucky enough to get a tag they probably won’t leave the park.”
“Of course,” I joke back. His black lab appears suddenly, sticking her head out of the truck to bark shrilly at us, so we wave and walk on.
The Stephens Creek Capture Facility contains a spiral trap and series of corals, where hundreds of bison will be collected, a few quarantined, and most shipped to “terminal pasture” (governmentese for slaughter) in service of meeting the established numbers for the annual cull. This year, as in the past several, that quota falls between 600 and 900 animals, a goal intended to achieve the Desired Total Bison tally of 3,000. Recent counts of the park’s herds revealed a little under 5,000 animals, so the culling is a gradual chipping away, a battle between recruitment and removal. The hunters, both Montana residents and Native Americans, will take a portion of this quota; NPS will see the rest removed, culled, destroyed, slaughtered—however you’d like to say it. Most of the meat will be shipped to tribal reservations.
These seemingly arbitrary numbers stem from a legal ruling following Montana’s 1995 lawsuit against the National Park Service. (Yes, the Big Sky State sued NPS over roaming bison. Oh give me a home….) The resulting settlement saw the establishment of the Interagency Bison Management Plan, IBMP, made up of stakeholders representing the National Park Service, Forest Service, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana Department of Livestock, and Montana Fish, Wildlife, Parks—a ragtag group of decidedly varying agendas. In 2009, the group added the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, the InterTribal Buffalo Council (presently representing 69 tribes from 19 states), and the Nez Perce Tribe. The IBMP partners typically meet three times per year, voting on cull quotas and addressing issues and concerns around bison management, including, most recently, a discussion of how many abandoned carcasses are too many (drawing bears and lawsuits, both dangerous) and what to do about it. Can you compost that many carcasses? Like, in a dumpster? “How many animals could each dumpster hold?” the minutes from the December meeting inquire.
I see no reason not to be civil with this person who is carrying a very big gun in what amounts to my backyard.
In 1894, Field and Stream reporter Emerson Hough, dispatched to Yellowstone to report on the country’s rapidly diminishing bison, stirred up public attention with an article detailing the capture of local rapscallion Ed Howell, who, despite being caught red-headed poaching the last of North America’s bison, soon wandered free. Hough’s description of the arrest, by local scout Felix Burgess, of “the notorious poacher,” was compelling and swashbuckling, describing Howell as “a most picturesquely ragged, dirty, and unkempt looking citizen.” Once apprehended, Howell wanted to shoot his own dog for not alerting him, as he had stooped skinning out a bison head, of Burgess coming his direction on skis across the snowy dunes of Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley.
The outcry prompted by Hough’s article spurred the passage of the Lacey Act, which gave teeth and consequences to anti-poaching enforcement in the park. It’s been illegal and punishable ever since to hunt or kill any animal within the park’s boundary. But the story changes when wolves, elk, mountain lion, pronghorn, mule deer, black bear (not grizzly, yet—but almost, though that’s a different story) and bison leave the park, where no fences, barricades, or electric wire intervene. When a Yellowstone critter walks on its four paws or hooves from federal to state land, management by the surrounding states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho inevitably involves some level of control by killing.
During the winter of 2018/2019, Yellowstone reported 460 bison removed. “Bison are killed because they do not have enough room to roam,” the park’s website declares simply—though talk to Chris Geremia, Yellowstone’s head bison biologist (a guy who named his son Roam), and he’ll say without hesitation that we don’t know how much room they need. We don’t know how many bison is too many bison. We know that ecological carrying capacity is not the same as social carrying capacity, and that communities around the park are often less than welcoming to their big brown neighbors.
The bison are coming closer. In town the following weekend, I eat breakfast at the Yellowstone Grill across from a group of hunters. They laugh, forking omelets and huevos around a large table, in chairs whose upholstery features bison skulls. One young guy is wearing a Nez Perce Tribe: Treaty 1855 sweatshirt. That “establishment” year, like the kind you’d see on an Ivy League college tee, denotes the treaty the Washington territorial governments signed with some of the Nez Perce, moving them to increasingly smaller reservations to free up the rest of their traditional territory for settlers and gold prospectors. It’s the treaty Chief Joseph and his band refused to sign, and, after a violent encounter with the U.S. Army, led to their famous flight from Oregon’s Wallowa Valley through Idaho and Montana, passing through Yellowstone, and eventually to their surrender in the Bear Paw Mountains just shy of the refuge they sought in Canada. There, Joseph delivered those oft-quoted lines: “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
From that weekend on, the pullout by Beattie Gulch is crowded with trucks. Many have decals announcing them as tribal police or as various nations’ conservation enforcement officers. The tribes typically send their own wardens to oversee the harvest, and often a designated marksman or two, rather than many armed hunters working independently. Extra hands are mostly for the dirty work of field dressing and butchering. A lone park ranger cruises the road in a white pickup, lifts a finger from the wheel when I wave, pulls over once to pat the dog and tell me to be safe.
At first, the bison leave the protective park boundary but linger on the east side of the road, in a buffer zone near my neighbors’ homes. They cannot be killed there. They cannot be moved or encouraged to cross or harassed in any way. They must be on public Forest Service land on the road’s west side to be harvested, and they must get there of their own free bison will. Some homes out here have BUFFALO SAFE ZONE signs stapled to fence posts. Oblivious, the bison do what bison do: meander, follow their matriarch, shovel snow with their faces, drop steaming piles of dung, find enough grass to keep their rumens going, chew their cud.
Quiet predominates this time of year. In May, when calves are born, they’ll talk nonstop, grunting or gruffing in the constant reassuring babble of mother and offspring. In August, during the rut, the bulls bellow, moan, pant. Now, they move on the snow and muddy roadbed and you cannot even hear the lovely clatter of their hooves as you will if you catch them on the move on paved park roads. It’s winter, and everything is reduced to its elegant essentials, as Bernd Heinrich says, and everything conserves its precious energy. The bison don’t talk much.
The first kill happens while I’m away. I come home from a long day in the park and there are great dark mounds across the road. The bison crossed; the hunters were waiting. From my upstairs window, I watch men and women scurrying around each mound, cutting it open, skinning it out, usually taking the head, quartering its vast frame and hanging the quarters from metal racks in the back of their trucks. We won’t walk the Forest Service road into the hills again for weeks.
Most of them wear camo, which gives me pause. There’s no hiding out there, no stealth in this.
March 20, just as the dog and I leave the house to go for our mid-morning meander, sticking to the road now, I hear shots—but we can’t stay home every time someone’s hunting or processing or we’ll both go stir-crazy. As we hit the end of the driveway, I see a row of four trucks parked along the road, and some hunters, long rifles slung over their shoulders, making their way back across the fields to the vehicles, presumably to swap hunting gear for butchering tools.
Most of them wear camo, which gives me pause. There’s no hiding out there, no stealth in this, and one of the public objections to the hunt is the lack of fair chase, the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel element of standing just north of the line you’re waiting for the bison to cross and then close-range killing an animal that is habituated to human tourists. But I guess camo is just a default; there’s snow on the ground, after all, and if they were truly trying to be camouflaged they’d be wearing dirty white.
Turning left at the driveway’s end, we walk south toward the boundary, away from the trucks. Bison hoof prints punctuate snow and mud. I keep the dog leashed now because of the commotion, the riot of smells. He longs to drag me up the hill into the carcass fields, that olfactory bonanza.
Not far down the road, a sound pulls my attention and I realize that a hundred yards or so west, on the next rise, a group of seven bison are moving in the same direction we are. They aren’t running, but they are hurried, a large adult cow in the lead, and with her juveniles and yearlings, traveling downhill toward us. I keep an eye on them, and before long they burst from the sage and cross the road just a dozen yards ahead, traverse a thin creek through cottonwoods, then break into a run in the open meadow beyond, towards more bison I can see in the distance, within the park. I can smell the sage’s cool spice in the air, shaken free from their passage.
There is no doubt in my mind these bison are the group harvested from moments ago, fleeing the scene of their lost herd mates. I’ve seen smallish skeletons in the fields, but I don’t think the hunters take true yearlings—which means some among this group have just lost their mothers. Their mothers, given the time of year, were nearing full term in their pregnancies of new calves they’ve been carrying since August, building a bison through the haggard, hungry winter.
For the most part, the hunters are also not harvesting the big bulls, thicker-horned, vast-headed behemoths who might reach 2,000 pounds. Solitary creatures, the bulls are usually off on their own or in small bull bands, what I call “dude herds,” groups of two or three or five. A few younger bulls might have wandered out or be nonchalantly tagging along, but most of the large, migrating nursery herds are made up of cows and their calves of last spring, and individuals too young to rut. Calving every year is the norm, the newborns fluffy and copper-colored in May’s green valleys, and twins are exceedingly rare. If the goal is population reduction, I suppose killing a pregnant cow is an effective approach.
I watch this group barreling south away from me. It’s arresting to see them out there racing across the snow in the sunlight. To see how their great legs move and carry them almost lightly, kicking up bright icy dust in their wake. Light splinters off the Yellowstone River, a stone’s throw to the east, and the northern slope of Mount Everts (named for a man lost in the park for 37 days in 1870, nursed from death’s brink by a pint of bear grease) gleams in the distance as the bison grow small.
Over lunch at the Wonderland Café, I’m introduced by a friend to one of my neighbors. There aren’t many of us living out there on the old road, and this fellow’s been a resident for some 40 years. He asks whereabouts on the road I am, and, when I tell him, says, “Ah, the Beattie Creek condos.”
I haven’t heard this term before for the little group of homogenous brown-sided green-roofed “cabins” in a cul-de-sac across from Beattie Creek at the boundary line. But it makes perfect sense: each cabin is someone’s second home. I’m just renting for the winter, and can’t stay come summer because, like Cinderella’s pumpkin, the homes turn into vacation rentals for tourist season. Like many little towns on the edge of some place America has deemed vacationable, Gardiner’s localness is being chipped away by rising land prices, outside money, and the vacation rental economy. The school’s gone to a four day week, and the most recent superintendent lived for a year in a canvas wall tent in my friend’s backyard before throwing up his hands and moving to Billings, where he might reasonably afford to buy a house. A number of park rangers commute in from Livingston, 50 miles away.
Since it’s the season, and I’m a little closer to the action, my neighbor and I compare notes on the bison hunt.
“Oh, I suppose letting the Indians hunt them is better than just slaughtering them in the pens, but I sure wish they wouldn’t do it right there by the road, it’s such a terrible mess,” he says. I feel my eyebrows laddering up my face and try to control them downward. “What I want to see is the day you can walk into a gas station and buy a bison tag, just like you would a deer or an elk,” he goes on. “That’s their ticket to freedom—that means we’ve accepted them.”
We agree there. Anti-bison contingents, particularly ranchers, have always maintained that brucellosis, a disease the bison carry that can cause calf-abortion, is the primary problem with bison leaving the park. Not once, however, has documented transference of brucellosis from bison to cattle occurred—though this has been documented from elk to cattle. Elk, however, have free run of the Rockies, are viewed as majestic, worthy quarry. They feed families and pump money into Montana’s economy, which charges almost $900 for an out-of-stater to get a general elk combo tag (I pay $20 for mine). They sell thousands. There’s plenty of hypocrisy in the contradictory management of elk and bison—and more than a little racism.
Native hunters do much of the visible work, and take the brunt of criticism, for the bison cull. The reason the Nez Perce and the Blackfoot and the Umatilla and the Yakima and other tribes come here to hunt stems back to the treaties they signed with the U.S. government at the loss of millions of acres of their homelands. While 26 tribes are officially recognized as “affiliated” with Yellowstone, 563 tribes are federally recognized nationwide (the Little Shell Chippewa in Northern Montana were recognized just this past year, after years of effort). The 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla, which the Nez Perce signed, along with the Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Yakama, says:
The exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams where running through or bordering said reservations, is further secured to said confederated tribes and bands of Indians, as also the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places, in common with citizens of the Territory, and of erecting temporary buildings for curing them; together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses and cattle upon open and unclaimed land.
In this case, it’s Forest Service land that’s “open and unclaimed,” and it’s this language that provides the legal basis for the native harvest of Yellowstone’s bison, and under their own rules, as established by the 1832 “tribal sovereignty” case Worcester v. Georgia, a lawsuit brought by the Cherokee Nation against the Peach State.
During the council that resulted in the Walla Walla Treaty, Territory of Washington governor Isaac Stevens, presiding over negotiations, told the tribal representatives gathered: “This promise will be kept by the Americans as long as the sun shines, as long as the mountains stand, and as long as the rivers run.” He is also reputed to have said to his interpreter: “Tell the chiefs if they don’t sign this treaty they will walk in blood knee-deep.”
Oh, I suppose letting the Indians hunt them is better than just slaughtering them in the pens, but I sure wish they wouldn’t do it right there by the road, it’s such a terrible mess.
“Why doesn’t the park vaccinate the bison?” visitors often ask me after a bison management discussion. I take my time answering. For one, while some ranchers vaccinate stock near the park, the best available vaccine is still only partially effective. Additional research is difficult: the brucellosis bacteria itself, as of this writing and following a recent public comment period, is included on the select agent, or bioterror, list—alongside anthrax and Ebola.
Additionally, Yellowstone represents what David Quammen calls the paradox of the cultivated wild. It is NPS practice not to interfere medically with animals in the park. For this reason, bison don’t receive any form of veterinary treatment or medical care. When a bison is injured, it’s primarily the big predators who monitor the outcome.
For this reason, too, wolf lovers and biologists watch, helpless, as Canis lupus populations dip in years of canine distemper outbreak, or as wolves chew off their fur and freeze when mange races through a pack. It’s been suggested that the mange Yellowstone’ wolves and other animals periodically suffer from may even be a descendent of the mange Montana introduced into the population in 1905 when the legislature mandated that state veterinarians capture wolves and coyotes, infect them with the disease, and release them back into the ecosystem to spread suffering and death. If that isn’t bioterrorism, I don’t know what is.
Towards the end of March, I take a stroll with my friend Garrett and our dogs. We’ve agreed to walk up the Forest Service road through the killing fields, where I haven’t ventured for weeks. Hunting has slowed and maybe stopped as the weather warms and the wandering bison drift south back into the park. We both want to see what things look like up there, agreeing it will be a sensation-fest for the dogs, a rarified sniff-ari.
Garrett’s dog Hank, a six-month-old German wirehaired, goes berserk as we approach the field of bison debris. Spine and leg assemblages surround the road, along with chunks of hide, indeterminable gore, a few skulls of smaller cows, eyes rotting, and one large, swollen carcass that appears mostly untouched. Something wrong with it? Trembling, eyes rolling, Hank bolts out of his collar and Garrett has to summon him back with concentrated sternness.
“He’s afraid of all the rot,” I guess, and understand his fear. Hank has never been around death’s decay before—a puppy discovering mortality. Just off the side of the road, we pass a fetus, the shape apparent in the desiccated remains of its purplish amniotic sack, pulled from its mother’s womb during field dressing. Garrett recalls last year walking up the little gulch by Beattie Creek and finding fetus carcasses tucked away there, carefully placed with offerings of sage bundles and oranges. This one’s simply been left roadside.
The place reeks, but by next fall, the bones here will be bare and vaguely interesting for a dog to sniff. A bison skeleton is a marvelous thing, showing off the bizarre dorsal process vertebrae that stick straight up out of the spine, reminiscent of nothing so much as a stegosaurus, but which do the essential work of supporting the massive muscles of the neck and back. This year’s bones will join the accumulated skeletons from previous hunts, a few hard, twisted hide segments nestled among them.
Calories don’t go to waste out here. Ravens, those masterminds (a few sporting solar-powered GPS backpacks courtesy of University of Washington corvid research) keep a close eye from juniper branches and cottonwood limbs. I’ve watched bald and golden eagles take their share over the past weeks. Magpies yawk and join the party. Coyotes, foxes, rodents, the bears when they wake up—all come to this feast for the masses.
Just when I think it’s over, at the very end of March, a few more bison are harvested. I’m driving home and hear shots. Approaching my driveway I can see live bison crowding around dark, humped shapes on the ground, and several trucks just yards off. Unlike the animals running parallel to me that day, these bison are not scared away. Much like elephants, bison show attachment to their dead—staying close by while the herd visits the deceased, sometimes fending off predators from the carcass.
Rushing upstairs to my living, room, I watch through binoculars as the hunters start up their trucks and harass the lingering bison away, pushing them through the fields beyond their dead. It’s afternoon already, and the hunters need to start processing these animals. They don’t have time to wait for the bison to hold their funeral.
This year’s bones will join the accumulated skeletons from previous hunts, a few hard, twisted hide segments nestled among them.
One of my favorite things is to witness a tourist experience their first wild bison. Whatever I’ve been saying, I shut my mouth. People will ask their questions later; no one is hearing a word if they are seeing bison for the first time. There is a magic to them, passing near them, looking into their deep, dark red eyes, or seeing the vast herds move like a single living thing in the Lamar Meadows. They’ve changed my brain. When I drive on Montana’s backroads now and see cows, I get a little confused, a little uppity, like, what are these inferior bovids doing here?
Sometimes I probe my visitors about what makes this magic. “Wait,” I joke. “You mean you don’t have bison wandering around your yard in New Jersey? In Georgia? In Michigan?” They used to.
Bison population estimates prior to the arrival of colonial Europeans approach 30 million and sometimes higher: bison covered most of North America. Following western expansion—and the U.S. government’s systematic extermination of the bison as a means to subdue and demoralize Plains tribes and take their land—the estimated number of wild, free-roaming bison in America was 25 animals. And they were here, in Yellowstone. The herd of 5,000 that roams the park today is descended from this small handful, which were supplemented by bison from two private herds out of Montana and Texas, funded by Teddy Roosevelt’s congress, in what is now viewed as one of the shining success stories of American conservation.
In 2016, the U.S. made the bison our “national mammal” without acknowledgement of the history of genocide against either the bison or the Native peoples who relied on them. The text of the act contains some interesting commentary, a list of things that “Congress Finds,” including that “bison were integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies,” a poor and inaccurate use of the past tense. It also notes what bison biologists in the park have known for ages, despite claims that roaming bison will deplete grass resources, that “bison can play an important role in improving the types of grasses found in landscapes to the benefit of grasslands.” It notes “several sports teams have the bison as their mascot.”
I prefer Steven Rinella’s summation, calling the bison, “a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness… of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture… of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents a frontier both forgotten and remembered; it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”
As a guide in the park, I often tell people that, while they’ve probably never thought that free-roaming bison are things they need an opinion on, I encourage them to form one, to keep an eye on the hunt and management updates. I also work to avoid painting the issue as simple. I recognize the plight of ranchers and acknowledge their fears—but ask my visitors not to ignore the role of bigotry and anger balled up in the issue. I do my best to present varying perspectives, and I often use the sterile terms of bureaucracy when describing the hunting of bison. “Harvest,” I say—and sometimes an earnest visitor astounded by the sight of these animals, by the gut-grip of being near their enormous, prairie-shaping bodies, will ask me, “Why don’t you just say kill? Why don’t you just say shoot?”
The hunger moon, which occurs in February, is so named for its appearance in what is often the harshest month of the year, when food stores run short and little else is available. Spring is still a month away, winter continuing to bear down with all its cold weight. The bison bend their heads to the blinding snow. Their breath freezes in the air. They carry soft copper calves in their bellies. It’s the time that Mary Oliver, in her poem “Snow Moon” (the other name for this month’s lunar fullness) calls “not quite spring… the gray flux before.”
I like to think that, in regard to bison, we are still in that gray flux, a strange place where we gleefully cheer for bison sports teams and call this beast our national mammal with little recognition of the brutality perpetuated against bison and native communities. A gray flux where we snap selfies and ogle bison from sunroofs in the late August light in Lamar Valley, but are oblivious or indifferent to the slaughter of hundreds of animals even as a Montana law prevents their transfer, except by a slow trickle through a small and tedious quarantine program, to tribal lands all across the country where they are dearly wanted. A gray flux where we glorify and preserve elk but refuse to consider free-ranging, public hunt-controlled bison populations. I have to hope spring is on its way.
Last August, 55 bull bison, who spend less time in quarantine than the cows due to the conveyance of brucellosis through birth fluids, were released onto the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana. There, the Assiniboine and Sioux are working to establish a significant herd of their own, which will ideally serve as a source for other tribes who would like to see the bison returned to their lives and lands. A video I watched of the bulls’ release showed them launching from metal trailers and out into open grasslands, met by song.
By March’s end, the park reports over 800 bison killed by hunters or consigned to slaughter. A new moon comes. Snows recede. Emerging grizzlies pull bison carcasses from Blacktail Lake where they’ve been refrigerating since plummeting through the ice. I leave the Beattie Creek Condos for less battleground territory. Soon, the tourists will throng, and I’ll witness them lose all sense of safety and sanity when seeing their first bison, including the wobbling-then-leaping new calves we call red dogs because of their rusty color, their tender hornless heads. I’ll tell them what may happen to those calves, and ask them to carry the knowledge with them. I’ll look for the slim red sprouts of spicy, edible Claytonia lanceolata, lanceleaf spring beauty. I’ll hope for wolf pup sightings, and walk on the waking land, where, to return to Mary Oliver, “lately white snow lay upon the earth like a deep and lustrous blanket of moon-fire, and probably everything is possible.”
Corrie Williamson is the author of the poetry collections The River Where You Forgot My Name (2019 SIU Press/Crab Orchard Series in Poetry), a finalist for the Montana Book Award, and Sweet Husk (2014 Perugia Press). She lives in Montana, where she has worked as an educator at Carroll College, Helena College, and Yellowstone National Park. She was the 2020 PEN Northwest/Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency fellow, and spent seven and a half months living off-grid in a remote cabin in Oregon along the wild and scenic Rogue River. Find her at www.corriewilliamson.net.