She was an elder matriarch, with short, blunt, smooth horns, struggling and failing to bring one last life into this world. A survivor, leader, mother of many, she allowed us to be intimately with her in her last hours.
It felt natural... like the right thing to do for her, with her and with my sisters and fellow volunteers. All the signs in Nature pointed us in the right direction; to be by her side, touching her, singing to her, burning sage for her, letting her know how much she is loved!
An early morning phone call came, one I would typically never answer. But, for some reason, that morning, I did. She said, "There’s a mama buffalo, stuck in the fence, or trying to give birth." Patrols alerted. What can we do? Bring tools to cut the fence. I wasn’t even supposed to be here today, but a journey was cancelled. We get there, our other patrol already there with the Sheriff and the local Montana Department of Livestock agent. The fence she was under has been cut, but she’s still struggling. She wasn’t stuck. She is dying. A year ago, the authorities would have already shot her and drug her unceremoniously to the dump, no mercy, no compassion. Not today. Mama buffalo still there, on the ground, struggling and thrashing, trying to bring forth a new life that will not come.
Elder buffalo, pregnant buffalo, breech baby not coming. She is dying. The sheriff and DOL agent standing there, not making a move, allowing us to come to her. I go to the fence, just feet away from her, feeling her struggle and her pain, wanting to comfort her. My sister Justine arrives just then, she comes to me, embraces me, crouching with this buffalo. I have a burning desire to lay my hands on her. I want to go to her and say so to Justine. “Okay, let’s go,” she says. We walk over to her, away from her kicking hooves, to her grand, enormous head. I reach out, not yet knowing how she will respond. I lay my hands on her head. Justine reaches out, too. We were told that she grew calmer when we did this, that before she was much more uneasy and afraid. We stroke her woolly fur, speaking softly to her, letting her know she can do it if she wants to, or she is free to let go. We are here, we will be here to help take care of her family. She is ancient. Her horns so smooth and blunt, like petrified wood. The curve worn down and gone from them.
We realize in the moment we have known this mama since she was just a wee calf herself, and now, we keep vigil with her, now in her old age, trying to bring one last life into this world. It’s not going to happen. We all know this. She knows this, too, but she never stops trying. Speaking so softly to her, loving her, trying to ease her struggle. I bring some sage and we burn it for her. The smoke goes into her nostrils as she draws deep breath after breath. Our hands on her fine, huge head; a head full of the wisdom of the ancients. This buffalo — from the Central herd — she has survived so much! So much! Years and years of relentless hazing; she has avoided capture in both the Hebgen and Gardiner Basins; she has survived the hunter’s rifle. She has brought her family, given birth to many calves, to their traditional calving grounds on Horse Butte — now a place where she can be at peace. No hazing. No slaughter. Raise your children in peace. This last child will not come, though, and she will go with her.
We sing her songs of thanks and praise. Breathe with her, just be with her in death as we were with her in all her years of life. With the sheriff and DOL agent allowing this. Never before would this ever happen. They not only allow it, they, too stand in reverence. Something is shifting. Attitudes are adjusting. The buffalo have been talking and people are starting to listen and hear. The sheriff gently alerts us that there are buffalo coming in behind us. We look, and there’s a family group approaching. The dying mama continues thrashing, trying to bring forth this life that will not come. We stand back to allow the buffalo to come to her. Still close, still with her.
The yearlings and other youngsters are concerned with her thrashing and flee. Their mom comes in, not too close, but close enough to know and pay her respects. Another group comes. Same thing, but this mom approaches a little closer still, reverential communication. The thrashing gets weaker. Another family comes, this lead mom comes in and she does not walk away. She beds down near her.
Justine has to leave. Others ask if we are leaving, too, and I say “no, I’m not leaving her.” The feeling of needing to be with her is so strong, so powerful and sacred. A few feet away now, space for her buffalo relative bedded down close by. Cindy comes to my side. She, too, has known this mama since she was a wee calf, and she has recently lost her own mother, kept vigil as she was dying. This day is holy and profound and we feel we have walked between the worlds. We sit together and hear the buffalo’s breath change. A death rattle grunt. We know it’s not long now. The thrashing loses energy, and with one final long stretch, she lets go. We see her life go out, into the Universe. We go back to her once more in prayer and thanks.
She continues to give herself. Her body went to feed grizzly bears, wolves, and raptors, and her seat of wisdom, her massive, gracious head, has a place of honor with us, holding sacred space, watching to the west, to where her family in generations to come will venture forth and refill the Madison Valley and beyond, with the rumble of the sacred herds.
We got the call early, 6am. There was a mama buffalo stuck under a fence in the village. Word went to the early patrol – and they went out to investigate. She was good and stuck – an older pregnant mama – not doing well. We were going to need a chainsaw. Tools thrown into the back of the car, saws, pry bars, anything that might help – and a crew of three of us raced out to the scene. When we arrived, the tools weren’t needed – a county sheriff had already cut the fence – willing to take the fallout from the landowner. It was the first indication that we are in a different world out here than just a few years ago, when the only response from the law would have been a bullet. Instead, the sheriff and even the local Department of Livestock agent cut the fence and stood back – hoping to give her the space and time to recover, to rise again.
But rise she didn’t. She struggled on the ground – legs thrashing, horn digging into the dirt. She was skinny, her neck and haunches so thin they almost lay flat against the ground – the only substance to her was her spirit and the nearly full grown calf still inside her womb. Her struggles grew less forceful and farther between. We approached. Buffalo women approaching an old mama who we had probably known since her birth. She probably grew up being hazed off these lands – this Horse Butte Peninsula that is now year-round buffalo habitat. She probably raised calves on these lands, running from agents of the same DOL that now stood by and let her be in peace. She struggled, trying so hard to do one last job – to bring one more calf into the world, knowing, trusting, that her buffalo family would raise that calf if she could only bring her forth.
But it was not to be, she hadn’t the strength. Perhaps the calf inside her had already gone. Her time, too, had come.
So we approached. She allowed us close, even relaxed in our presence. We touched her beautiful head, stroked her thick hair, spoke to her, told her how much we loved her, how much we admired her strength. Told her it was okay to go. Burned sage to send her to the next world. Shed tears into her fur.
Soon the herd came to say their goodbyes as well, and we backed off to give them room. The youngsters were afraid of her end-of-life thrashings. The other mamas, three of them, approached to say their goodbyes, with one bedding down nearby to wait, with us, and see her through to the end.
Did we do the right thing? Would a bullet from an officer been a kinder death? I don’t think so, but I don’t pretend to know the wishes of a dying buffalo. I don’t pretend to know the wishes of a dying human, either.
And this death, this graceful, natural, death – it was so much like our own. So much like a human death. And I know. Just a month before I sat with my own mother while she died. First the struggle, the thrashing. Then the calming. The last conversations. The change in the sound of breathing – when it came for the buffalo I recognized it – could say, with knowing, “it won’t be long now”. The last convulsion for the buffalo, more of a stretch, and then a release, and it was over. We returned to her then, said our last farewells. Laid our faces against her fur, felt her belly, now still. The tears I shed that day, they were for that buffalo mother, but they were for my own mother as well. So like us, these buffalo are, in life, and in death. Roam free, beautiful mama – both of you.
“Stupid animal”, the human pronounced as he rolled his eyes in our direction. He was referring to the mama buffalo I watched pass into the afterlife last week. She had become ill and weak with pregnancy complications and fallen below a small wooden fence, unable to get up. This was my first week with the BFC (Buffalo Field Campaign) and the first animal I ever watched die. As a lover of animals, naturally I was upset. I watched this beautiful creature lose more and more of her strength, and in return I lost mine. To my dismay, quickly after we arrived at the scene something amazing happened.
In the next hour I would watch a community of people who have in the past quarreled, yelled and even hated each other, all come together to mourn this sacred mama. We the activists, were first to arrive. As we planned our next move, the county Sheriff drove up and joined us. A little on edge, I watched him immediately go to the back of his truck and pull out a hand saw, cutting mama bison free from the fences grip. During this removal we were joined by a notably problematic DOL (department of livestock) agent. With us, he encouraged the Sheriff to cut the fence (which mind you, was on private property without the permission of the owner).
Shortly after, a few of our most eminent BFC pioneers joined us to say goodbye to mama buffalo, as well as many folks from the neighborhood, including the property owners who were completely understanding. There was sage being burned, sacred songs being sung and love, gratitude and sadness radiating out of us all. About an hour later our mama buffalo passed. I reflect on this experience with such fondness for the community I shared it with. Our common love for animals and the ability to empathize with all mammals and living things is a quality I wished everyone could grasp. I reflect on this human who came to us asking about the “stupid animal” that got herself stuck under a fence and died. If he only knew the whole story. If only he knew how many hearts that one amazing creature had touched that afternoon, I think he would have a more serene understanding of life. All I can say to him is …”Stupid human”
The Most Perfect Day
by Mark Wolf
To me perfection is when the sun is shining, shining so clear and bright that everything is illuminated. The vivid greens and intense blues lift my spirit to greet the sun. Today was a day like this, and I sat with you. So close and gentle you were, I felt your breath warm and heavy, i stroked your hair, thick and brown. Spending these moments with you will be a time not forgotten, because the day you died, I started living.
A Gift from the Enemy; Revisited
by Roman Sanchez
A quiet day in the Hebgen Basin - bird song continues to fill the air.
I sit and stare at Coffin ridge - the lake is still.
Morning patrol out - Buffalo Roam!
Each day passes and more calves fill the landscape.
I can feel the greening, have been watching it over this last week.
Just yesterday, aspens on our land budded tiny green leaves, willows along the Madison as well.
This past season over a thousand bison were slaughtered.
The Bison Management Plan still maintains its policy of Brutality.
I continue to stare out at the landscape - OPEN! Abundant! Fecund! Diverse!
Over a decade ago I wrote, A Gift from the Enemy. Back then, in the thick of capture and slaughter, weekly hazing-ATV’s, snowmobiles, and helicopters completely disrupting the landscape - it felt like a war to me.
A war on the sacred.
I felt as if each day we rose, we were going out to face an enemy - Agents of Oppression.
Some 14 years later, a lot more grays on my head, I’m not so sure “enemy” is the right word. I struggle looking for the right one. My outrage at the slaughter still resides, my anger is different, more subdued... mature, maybe.
The Buffalo continue to teach.
As our co-founder, Rosalie, once said, the majority of our struggles will be human centered, not buffalo related.
And so I continue to
Wanting to believe
That in every man
There lies a heart
That is beating itself
toward the light!
If I see “them” as the enemy, there can be no resolution. We are in this together.
This week, an old cow bison died on the Horse Butte Peninsula.
She died where thousands of her sisters
- her Mother, her Grandmother -
have come to bring New Life to the Wild.
We can feel certain in the knowing that we have been with her since her beginning - through the years of management plans-she has been a survivor, she has brought forth new life - she has nurtured; has walked this land.
She passed this week with life inside her - with our female warriors around her.
Singing songs, burning sage
stroking her graceful head -
Her herd and all the New Life
She passed this week with the agents who manage the wild standing by. Allowing for the sacred to pass into the next realm.
No, it was not us vs. them
It was human - ESS... together bearing witness to the cycle of life.
Her head again offered - her body will not be thrown in the dump, but given to wild in captivity-Baby Steps!
We have been here before -
We take the head of this once
We honor her - her flesh
will go to the scavengers
Will be returned to the Earth
flies, ants, beetles, and birds
will clean her skull
she rests now with the circle of life -
offerings below her -
gazing south westwardly
Blood red skull shining with light
Starry dynamo in the