Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Buffalo War

Click here for more info about the film.

THE BUFFALO WAR is a tough film to watch. It is a complicated story that no one wants to exist. 

This is the moving story of Native Americans, ranchers, government officials and environmental activists currently battling over the yearly slaughter of America's last wild bison.

Yellowstone National Park bison that stray from the park in winter are routinely rounded up and sent to slaughter by agents of Montana's Department of Livestock, who fear the migrating animals will transmit the disease brucellosis to cattle, despite the federal Department of Agriculture's urging that this is unlikely.

Featured in this film is a 500-mile march, a spiritual sacrifice to the buffalo, across Montana by Lakota Sioux Indians who object to the slaughter. Led by Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder, who recalls the old prophecy that as long as there are buffalo, the tribes will survive. The marchers express their cultural connection to bison and display the power of tradition and sacrifice.

They call it spiritual activism, but sometimes it calls for more than token sacrifice.

“The only true offering we can give to the buffalo or to mother earth is our own flesh,” Rosalie Little Thunder says as an introduction to a piercing ceremony, one of pain and self-mutilation that most of us cannot comprehend.

“The buffalo are important to us,” she explains. “This is what we can do. This is how deeply we care."
Woven into the film is the civil disobedience and video activism of volunteers with the Buffalo Field Campaign as they use their own bodies to shield the process of the buffalo slaughter, and express their grief as they, too often, fail. Also shown are the concerns of a ranching family caught in the crossfire and the portent of future problems as the area is increasingly developed.

In the winter when this film was made, 142 buffalo were captured, 90 were sent to slaughter and six died as a result of injuries from the trapping.

Culture tests later showed that 80 percent of the buffalo slaughtered between 1996 and 1999 were not infected with brucellosis.

Thousands of wild bison make their home in Yellowstone National Park, a haven for wildlife. Unless it leaves the boundaries of the park. Bison don’t read signs and the harsh winters of the park often lead them to migrate to the lower elevations of Montana, mostly public lands often leased to ranchers, as well as some private ranches.

It’s there in those unprotected ranges that one part of a bison's trouble begins. For this peaceful animal, recently declared our national mammal, there are two enemies: brucellosis and the bison's own success at surviving tough times.

Brucellosis is a disease that causes abortions, infertility, and lowered milk production in cattle as well as bison and is transmissible to humans as undulant fever. The disease is responsible for devastating losses to ranchers and has been a major target of disease eradication efforts. Officially, 48 states have now been declared brucellosis-free.

However, blood testing shows that about fifty percent of the Yellowstone bison herd tests positive for the disease.  The assumption is that they are infected with brucellosis but that can’t actually be determined without culture testing which can only be done if the animal is killed. It is possible, although not probable, that the disease could be transmitted to domestic cattle if the bison are actually infected. Since brucellosis is transmitted primarily through birthing material, many researchers believe transmission would be unlikely since cattle generally do not come into contact with bison birthing material.

Additionally, it is currently illegal, according to state and federal laws, to move wild bison anywhere except to a meat processing facility. In other words: slaughter.

The slaughter isn’t limited to the "trespassing" bison, though. Even the ones that stay within the seemingly safe boundaries of the park are at risk. Because ranchers feared brucellosis-infected bison coming into contact with their domestic cattle, the state of Montana sued the National Park Service in an effort to prevent bison from leaving the park.

The court-ordered settlement resulted in an Interagency Bison Management Plan to be implemented by the park and seven partners. This plan established a target bison population for the park of 3000. In good years, the herd population swells beyond the planned target and the Park Service is required to cull the herd. Since 2000, the herd has averaged 4000, requiring an annual population reduction, achieved by hunting outside the park and slaughter, with the meat and hides being distributed to local Native American tribes.

The film shows activists bicycle-locking themselves to cattle guards and transport trucks and building road blocking structures, forcing the Montana Department of Livestock personnel to have police escorts during their roundups and trapping.

However, Native Americans and activists aren’t the only people protesting the slaughter. Former Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, Michael Finley asks why we’re killing bison when they are migrating out of the park during the winter months, a time when cattle are no longer on those lands. 

Jeanne-Marie Souvigney, Conservationist, Greater Yellowstone Coalition states, "Bison and cattle can use the public lands at different times of the year, bison in the winter and cattle in the summer and there should be no conflict.” She explains that this sharing of lands is typical in the Tetons area of Wyoming and wonders why Montana is so bent on slaughtering the animals.

Not all the animals rounded up are slaughtered. Routine blood tests result in animals that test negative being returned to the herd.

More Information:

Yellowstone National Park Bison Management Overview


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