I've just returned to our main camp from a week in Gardiner, on the north side of the park. We don't have a home base there, so we send up a small patrol each week that stays in a rental, and does dawn 'til dusk patrols every day. It's beautiful country, high desert, full of large numbers of amazing animals – mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep. In one day, I saw six or seven bald eagles. On another day, we watched a herd of pronghorn run from a group of coyotes, the coyotes being aided in some way by raven friends who flew low with them as they chased.
It is also a place of unbearable cruelty, with the majority of the bison slaughter and "hunt" happening within miles of the northern border of Yellowstone. The trap is there, currently holding over 400 buffalo – awaiting clearance to ship to the slaughterhouse. This prison, this death camp, is inside the borders of Yellowstone, a national park kowtowing to the livestock industry. It is, in addition, inside a seven mile closure, to hide from the public their terrible deeds. The closure also insulates us, on patrol, from the daily realities of that trap. We count the buffalo awaiting their fate from afar, through a scope, not able to get up close to feel their pain.
Not so with the so-called hunt. I have never witnessed anything in my life as terrible as this. Hunting rigs line up, rifles ready, waiting for family groups to cross invisible lines between safe zone and hunt zone, the lines between life and death. Whole family groups are wiped out in an instant by a firing line of gunmen who only have to move a few steps from their idling trucks. Big mature bulls, matriarch leaders - the wisdom of generations, gone. Last year's calves, gunned down at their mothers' sides, or occasionally left orphaned, too small to satisfy the hunters' greed. Pregnant mothers, their unborn calves left on the landscape.
To try to express some sense of what goes on, I'll tell you of one of my days last week. We went in the night before at dark, with a few groups of buffalo on private property near the hunt zones, so we wanted to get out early to check on them. We were out of the house by 7:15, before sunrise, just getting light. We come across the bridge to the forest service land to see hunt rigs lining the road. For some strange reason, you can start killing buffalo a half hour before sunrise, when it's still too dark to tell the buffalo from rocks. Four are already dead on the ground, we weren't out early enough to bear witness as our friends fell. Men lined up against their trucks continue to fire into the panicked herd and more animals fall. I hold the video camera, shaking with tears, probably making the footage unusable. Sadly, we have hours upon hours of this footage though, this is nothing unique. One small buffalo, a year or two old, is down but still alive when the hunter approaches. Rather than finish the job, he kicks the downed animal to see if they are still alive. They are, feet flailing in the air. He hesitates, seeming unsure of what to do. Kicks the animal again, and again it flails. Down he reaches with his knife, slicing the animal open, presumably slitting the throat. Life leaves as the man kicks the creature again. In those minutes before sunrise, between dark and light, we see 12 animals go down. Another bull is killed down by the river, behind our backs as we watch the scene at the base of the mountain. Thirteen buffalo died in front of me before I had my morning coffee.
Eight ran, making it to private property. One of those was clearly injured, a cow limping to keep up with the herd. We didn't see her again. We leave the killers to their butchery, on to patrol the rest of the area. There are a few other small herds nearing another hunt zone, but as the day wears on, the activity quiets down, and we see very few hunting rigs out. We actually call out to see if it's Superbowl day, thinking the buffalo might get a break for football, worrying, also, that we might be missing a hunt elsewhere. It is not football day, and as it turns out, we get reports the next morning of three killed well to the north, farther than we'd seen buffalo go this year, farther than we even thought the road was plowed. In practical terms, it doesn't usually matter if we are there when the buffalo die, unless we catch something illegal on film, but emotionally, it feels important to be there, to bear witness. Of all the humans surrounding these dying animals, we are the ones who are weeping for their death, who are celebrating their life, who are rooting for them when they make it to safety. To miss it, to hear about it later from the game warden, feels as though we've failed them.
Later in the morning, we watched one more picked out of a herd to the south, just feet within the huntable area. The rest turned and ran, and made it to safety, but only because there was only one hunter present when the buffalo crossed that invisible line – the firing line wasn't in formation in time. In the afternoon, we continued to check on the survivors from the morning. Of the eight that ran from the hunt, the injured one we didn't see when the group came around the rise. The group was down to six a bit later, and of those six, four more were killed in the afternoon, in the same area as their fallen family. Buffalo mourn their relatives, and I suspect they'd gone to visit their remains, crossing again the invisible line between life and death. Those four, too, we came too late to hold vigil for their final moments, only in time to count the bodies on the ground. When the shooting is done, we get out to count gut piles, to confirm the death toll, to document waste – animal pieces and parts, unborn calves, left on the land. The week was long, the days were long, there were no words, anymore, for the many hours spent in the car.
At sunset, we make one last run, preparing ourselves with knowledge of the locations of the herds for the next morning's patrol. We drove in silence through the darkening park, and came to a standstill as we find a large group in the road. Fifty, sixty, eventually seventy-eight buffalo passed us in the darkness. After the first few we put the car in park, opened the windows and turned out the lights. These beautiful animals passed us in darkness, heading north towards the park border. We listened to the crunch of the snow, the soft snorts, and whispered to them to stay safe, told them we loved them. More tears. A drive home in silence. But, like the buffalo, we carry on, preparing to do it all again the following day.