Buffalo and ‘ag gag’: Battling to save Yellowstone’s hairy humpbacks

There’s a free speech fight over how bison are killed as part of park management efforts to limit animal population

In 2008 for a story for Harper’s magazine, journalist Christopher Ketcham stalked the snowy, pine-filled landscape on the Montana-Wyoming border in Yellowstone National Park with a group of environmental activists known as the Buffalo Field Campaign.

For decades, volunteers for the group had filmed men working on behalf of the West’s powerful agribusiness industry as they ran down and killed bison that tried to migrate out of the park.

But this year, when Ketcham and the campaign asked for unrestricted access to a corral just inside the northwestern corner of Yellowstone where park employees pen hundreds of buffalo before they are trucked to slaughterhouses, the National Park Service (NPS) said no.

That refusal has sparked outrage among activists beyond those concerned about animal welfare, putting the dispute over the fate of the buffalo into the realm of free speech. Late last week James J. Holman, an attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming, sent park officials a letter threatening to sue the NPS.

“The First Amendment aspect is what got us involved,” he said. “The bottom line is this is something that is very important to a lot of people.”

The spat over press freedom is the latest twist in the fight over one of the most contentious mass wildlife slaughters in America. Yellowstone is the only place in the country where by 1900 a few wild bison (commonly known as buffalo) survived a government sanctioned mass extermination that annihilated an estimated 30 million of the animals and brought the species to the brink of extinction. That some wild buffalo were saved here was such a point of pride to the National Park Service that its emblem features a white buffalo, considered by many Native Americans the most sacred animal.

Legal experts say that the battle today for a clear view of how Yellowstone employees chase buffalo into the corral, prod them onto semi-trailers and butcher them at slaughterhouses is similar to the fight against anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” laws passed in many states. Opponents say “ag-gag” laws laws deter free speech and criminalize whistleblowers, activists and journalists who are looking to expose illegal practices and working conditions.

“We are hoping the park will recognize they are part of the government and they have the duty to allow the press and public to observe their activities,” said Jennifer Horvath, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Wyoming, adding that such scrutiny of public officials was a powerful way to hold them accountable.

Al Nash, a spokesman for Yellowstone, said that the park has made a video available of a biologist talking about the social struggle to conserve buffalo and that officials will take members of the press and public on a tour of the buffalo corral in a valley called Stephens Creek at a date yet to be set.

Ketcham worries such a tour will be sanitized. “I want free and unfettered access to the facility,” he said, “so I can watch what’s going on, smell the blood and the feces and see the fear in [the bison’s] eyes and the way stockmen interact with them. I want to be able to document that as a reporter.”

Yellowstone officials and cattle industry representatives compromised on a plan this year to cull 900 buffalo, about 1 in 5, through hunts outside the park and a capture-and-slaughter program inside the park. State and federal agencies aim to limit the bison population to 3,000 to 3,500.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association, which for years lambasted the park for not killing more buffalo, said that it does not advocate mistreatment of animals and that this situation is outside its control. “Our main concern is representing the concerns of our ranchers,” said Ryan Goodman, the group’s communications manager.

A big issue, he said, is fear that buffalo outside Yellowstone will eat grass out from under the mouths of domestic cattle, though some studies have argued that is not a problem.

Last month Dustin Ranglack, a research associate at Utah State University, released data based on years of study in Utah’s Henry Mountains on the way domestic cattle interact with the nation’s only other herd of genetically pure, free-range buffalo — transplanted from Yellowstone in the 1940s at the behest of sportsmen. He found hardly any overlap. Buffalo, he learned, graze higher, steeper terrain than cows do and then move on.

“This whole competition between bison and cattle,” he said, “has been overblown.”

‘I want free and unfettered access to the facility so I can watch what’s going on … see the fear in [the bison’s] eyes and the way stockmen interact with them. I want to be able to document that as a reporter.’

Christopher Ketcham

environmental journalist

Some wildlife advocates say that there is a more ethical way to manage Yellowstone buffalo than the park’s industrial-style slaughter: fair-chase hunts. All other animals native to Yellowstone roam free and are managed through fair hunts on the vast expanses of public land outside the park. Such species include elk, deer, antelope, moose, wolves, cougars and bears.

The argument to manage buffalo through hunts is bolstered by economics. Yellowstone officials say they expect to spend about $2 million of taxpayer money on this year’s cull. Tens of millions more were made available in the latest federal Farm Bill to study how to stop buffalo from transmitting the bacterial disease brucellosis to domestic cattle — something that has never occurred but is often used as rationale for the killing of buffalo outside park boundaries.

Meanwhile, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, a state agency funded by revenue from the sale of licenses to hunt and fish, faces a nearly $6 million budget shortfall. The agency received 9,513 license applications this year from sportsmen willing to spend from $125 to $750 on the opportunity to hunt a Yellowstone buffalo in Montana.

But bound by Yellowstone’s compromise with the livestock industry — in which park officials have captured and sent to slaughter about 250 buffalo and may double that by season’s end — the number of licenses Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was able to issue was 72.

“We need to break some paradigms and think outside the box,” said Tom McDonald, a fish and wildlife manager for the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes in Montana, recipients of some of the meat and ceremonial skulls and hides from Yellowstone buffalo. “We’ve been very supportive of expanding buffalo habitat on public lands so we can exercise our treaty rights.”

On Tuesday, Native American tribes gathered outside the Montana Capitol in Helena to protest the buffalo killing. A recent poll of Montanans showed strong support for the restoration of buffalo herds in the state that could be managed with hunts.

Part of shifting the paradigm is showing how animals held in the public trust are disposed of, said Brooks Fahy, executive director of the wildlife advocacy group Predator Defense, which has fought to film government workers poisoning coyotes.

“The American taxpayer is footing the dime on this, and as usual, the livestock industry gets their way,” he said. “Reporters get embedded in wars, but they can’t see this? If the public saw this stuff, they’d vomit, and things would change very quickly.”

Buffalo Field Campaign volunteer Comfrey Jacobs grew so frustrated last year by the lack of access to the corral at Stephens Creek that he chained himself to a gate across the access road. As punishment, he was fined $1,000 and banned from the park for three years, sentenced in the Yellowstone magistrate court that opened in 1894 after public outcry over the well-publicized arrest of the park’s worst buffalo poacher.

“I felt it was important to draw attention to this facility,” he said by phone from Colorado. “It’s a very contradictive part of Yellowstone National Park’s history.”

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