The Buffalo War
the war

presented by ITVS

The War

buffalo in the snow
Since the shooting of more than 1,000 Yellowstone National Park bison in the winter of 1996-97, the park's border has become the focal point of clashes between cultures vying to define their place in the modern West.

Three factions are passionately involved in the buffalo war: environmental activists, Native Americans and cattle ranchers. They have unique perspectives on the bison slaughter and use vastly different tactics to make themselves heard.

Who: Environmental Activists

activists videotaping, setting up roadblock and being arrested
top: Activists filming buffalo captures
middle: Setting up "tripod" roadblock
bottom: Arrested at cattle crossing

Activists Michael Mease and Rosalie Little Thunder formed Buffalo Nations in 1997, which coordinated a campaign of public education and civil disobedience to draw attention to the slaughter. Mease and Little Thunder later agreed to split the group because of their different approaches to activism. Mease renamed his organization Buffalo Field Campaign.

Why: To get ranchers off public land permanently, stripping the Department Of Livestock (DOL) of its reason to kill bison at Horse Butte, public land just outside of Yellowstone Park.

How: A passionate group of volunteers, the Field Campaign activists patrol the Yellowstone boundary 24 hours a day in harsh winter conditions, monitoring buffalo and DOL agents with video cameras.

Using skis, snowshoes and winter survival techniques, the activists relentlessly pursue the DOL, videotaping their every move, then releasing the footage to the media. They build elaborate road blockades to stop the construction of new bison traps, then sit dangling in the tall structures for weeks, despite frequent nights with temperatures of 40 below zero.

When the DOL dismantles the blockade and begins trapping bison, many of the activists are arrested.

After the harsh winter of 1996-'97, when more than 1,000 buffalo were slaughtered, only 11 were killed the following year. In 1998-'99, 96 buffalo were sent to slaughter, and 22 Buffalo Field Campaign activists were arrested in efforts to protect them. During the winter of 1999-2000, no buffalo were killed. But in 2001, armed with the new mandate, the DOL and cooperating agencies have been out in record numbers. Twenty-one activists from the Buffalo Field Campaign have been arrested.

For the rest of the year, the Campaign pursues a combination of direct action, publicity and research based out of their rustic West Yellowstone home and offices.

Who: Native Americans

Rosalie Little Thunder and Lakota walk to Yellowstone
left: Rosalie Little Thunder
right: Native Americans en route to Yellowstone

Why: Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder's struggle and the story of the walk are about more than a political statement. They are about a culture attempting to reclaim its identity, an identity centered on buffalo. As Little Thunder explains, the Lakota and buffalo are "synonymous." The Lakota's creation story tells of humans being direct descendants of buffalo. Historically, the destruction of America's great buffalo herds in the 19th century is inextricably tied to the genocide against the Plains Indians.

How: In February 1999, a band of 30 Indians from different tribes walked 500 miles from Rapid City, South Dakota to Yellowstone's north entrance as a spiritual response to the annual killing of the bison. Little Thunder was arrested in 1997 for trespassing on private land when she attempted to pray for the slain buffalo. Little Thunder now eschews that kind of civil disobedience. She dubs her new approach "spiritual activism."

The walkers battled harsh weather, racism, illness and interpersonal struggles on the road. Along the way, the walkers reconnected with their nomadic past and demonstrated how ancient tradition can be incorporated into modern life.

At the end of the march, the tribes practiced a sacred ritual, the Sun Dance ceremony, which was dramatized in the film. The traditional Sun Dance, a sacred ritual that has been practiced for hundreds of years, goes on for four days and includes fasting, dancing and singing. This act of sacrifice is dedicated to The Creator and is done for the good of the nation. An effigy of the buffalo is central to the ritual, which is also performed for the well-being of the animal. Today, the Sun Dance is practiced by many Native Americans as a way of demonstrating spiritual devotion and sacrifice, and as a purifying ritual.

Who: Montana Cattle Ranchers

rancher herding cattle and ranchers at the ranch
top: Rancher herding cattle
bottom: Munns' ranch, Montana

Why: Cattle ranching/agriculture is a two billion dollar per year industry in Montana. With 2.6 million head of cattle and about 20,000 dairy cows, Montana ranks sixth in beef production in the United States.

Since the 1940s, the Munns family has grazed cattle along the Yellowstone border, precisely where the buffalo migrate for food. They pay the U.S. Forest Service a small per-animal fee each summer to graze their cattle on and around Horse Butte, which is under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service. Many in the nation's livestock industry view Yellowstone Park as one of the country's last reservoirs of brucellosis and a threat to the quality and quantity of Montana's beef.

Like most ranchers, Munns has had his own brushes with brucellosis. Ten years ago he helped liquidate his brother's cattle herd when several cows tested positive. The incident nearly put his brother out of business.

How: Keith Munns supports the work of the Montana Department of Livestock. He and many cattlemen believe that Yellowstone Park should manage its bison the way a rancher manages cows - with a set number of head and an immutable area of confinement. He vaccinates his calves, but the brucellosis vaccine is only 75 percent effective, not enough to satisfy the state of Montana.

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