Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Opening in Williams, Oregon on September 12, 2015, the Buffalo Field Campaign Road Show is scheduled to present 24 concerts up and down the west coast through October 10, then swing inland to perform in the Rocky Mountain region until November, when Yellowstone bison begin wandering north into Montana.
From then until the Yellowstone tourist season resumes in April, Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers will be busy day and night trying to keep bison from crossing out of the park into areas where they will be hunted––if shooting an animal who does not run or fight back can be called hunting––or be culled by being trucked to slaughter.
Soldiered on when others quit
More than 5,000 volunteers have helped the Buffalo Field Campaign since it debuted as Buffalo Nation in 1997, taking up where more than 15 years of sporadic similar efforts by members of Earth First!, the Fund for Animals, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Humane Society of the U.S. had ended.
Each organization tried to stop the bison killing, with lawsuits and bison-herding teams on skis and snowshoes, usually backed by enormous national publicity and direct mail fundraising campaigns, but all except Buffalo Field Campaign eventually retreated. The intransigence of the Montana livestock industry was and remains a major source of frustration.
Pols kow-tow to the cattle industry
Even more frustrating was and remains the tendency of the Montana and federal governments to kow-tow to the relative handful of mostly wealthy ranchers who do not want bison to knock down their fences, graze heavily in winter where cattle will graze throughout the summer, and––perhaps––transmit brucella bacteria to domestic cattle through dung and afterbirths.
Brucella transmission from bison to domestic cattle has actually happened only in laboratory experiments, and in view that bison and domestic cattle rarely occupy the same habitat within months of the same time is highly unlikely to occur, but––contrary to the Buffalo Field Campaign position––is a legitimate concern.
Original live music
Each Buffalo Field Campaign Road Show stop features a performance by multi-talented native American musician Goodshield Aguilar, who sings original compositions while simultaneously picking guitar with his hands and drumming with his feet; accompaniment by Philippine Indio flutist Mignon Geli; and a relatively brief talk about the work of the Buffalo Field Campaign by surviving cofounder Michael Mease.
The Buffalo Field Campaign Road Show core team is often joined by other musicians of note when their paths cross, and by representatives of host environmental and animal advocacy organizations. ANIMALS 24-7 caught the third Buffalo Field Campaign Road Show performance of 2015 in Freeland, Washington, co-hosted by the Orca Network, of Langley, Washington, and two local organizations whose focus is land and habitat preservation.
No “Cows With Guns”
Opening the Freeland show was singer/songwriter Dana Lyons, of Bellingham, Washington, a frequent performer at gatherings on behalf of animals, the environment, and other progressive causes for more than 30 years. Best known for his 2006 hit “Cows With Guns,” the refrain to which mentions cattle escaping from slaughter to “run with the buffalo,” Lyons offered three of his more recent ballads instead, before turning the microphone over to Aguilar.
Aguilar, after six songs, passed the mike to Mike Meese, who opened his talk by rallying the audience of about 50 people in a wolf howl, like those that have for nearly 35 years now opened most Earth First! gatherings and assemblies of old Earth First!ers––as both Meese and Lyons are.
Tactics & strategy
From a tactical and strategic perspective, Buffalo Field Campaign can be praised for maintaining strong dedication against powerful adversaries, winning more political concessions for bison than all the other Yellowstone bison defenders combined, and for maintaining an all-inclusive approach to activism that welcomes both vegans and anti-buffalo-killing hunters, Meese among them.
The single-focus yet all-embracing Buffalo Field Campaign approach stands in contrast with the often scattered and ineffective modus operandi of campaign organizations that address a range of issues, like Earth First! in its heyday, yet––like some other Earth First! branches and spin-offs––maintain “political correctness” at expense of accomplishing much on any issue.
Sacrificing reality to philosophical appeal
But Buffalo Field Campaign can also be criticized for at times sacrificing reality to uphold positions that philosophically appeal to some supporters whether they make sense or not. The two examples most evident in Freeland were cavalier dismissal of ranchers’ fear of brucellosis and vehement antipathy toward bison who may have domestic cattle among their ancestors.
The brucellosis situation is much more complex than either Buffalo Field Campaign or any other organization advocating for the Yellowstone bison has ever acknowledged. Meese appears to be correct in asserting that the Montana livestock industry is using the longshot risk that bison may transmit brucellosis to cattle as a smokescreen for strictly pecuniary concerns, and in pointing out that ranchers who make a lot of money leasing elk hunting rights seldom say much of anything about the facts that far more elk carry brucella than bison (even though about half of the Yellowstone bison herd are infected), while sharing pastures with cattle all summer long.
Realities of brucellosis
Nonetheless, that Montana ranchers and their political allies misrepresent the brucellosis threat does not mean it is not a threat. Brucellosis, called undulant fever in humans, causes considerable animal and human suffering, still occurs frequently in the parts of the world where there are no vigorous control programs, can even kill people, and could and should be eradicated from the Yellowstone region bison and elk herds through aggressive vaccination.
The USDA initiated brucellosis eradication in 1934. Most of the U.S. has now been free from brucellosis in domestic animals for several decades. The Yellowstone region, where brucellosis long ago crossed from livestock to wildlife, is the major reservoir of brucella left in the U.S.
Unfortunately, brucellosis eradication has mostly been done through the obsolescent practice of culling all animals in infected herds. Because it is difficult to distinguish animals who have produced antibodies to brucella in response to vaccination from those who have produced antibodies in response to the actual disease, and even more difficult to vaccinate wildlife in absence of the development of a safe, effective oral vaccine, trying to vaccine brucellosis out of existence was long not a popular option with either ranchers or the USDA.
Vaccination by bullet
More recently, the Montana Department of Livestock in 2013 endorsed a $9 million scheme to try to vaccinate bison with vaccine-filled bio-degradable bullets. There were many reasons for skepticism that the scheme would work, for which reason the Yellowstone park management opposed it. There was also humane opposition, since shooting bison with anything carries the risk of doing them unintended serious injury.
The vaccination-by-shooting scheme, like all other proposals to vaccinate bison against brucellosis to date, also met opposition from the several Native American tribes that hold the right to “hunt” bison who leave Yellowstone.
“The tribes opposed the vaccination plan,” explained Laura Lundquist of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “because the timing of vaccine use could limit the hunt, since the meat shouldn’t be eaten within a certain period after vaccination.”
Buffalo Field Campaign also opposes vaccination
Buffalo Field Campaign might be expected to favor vaccinating the Yellowstone bison, if a method could be devised to accomplish it effectively and humanely. Instead, Buffalo Field Campaign alleges, “Unless every single elk and every single bison are vaccinated against brucellosis with an effective vaccine––something that is not possible––vaccination is futile.”
In actuality, a vaccination rate of about 70% is sufficient to contain and eventually eliminate almost any infectious disease. A vaccination rate of even 50% can be quite effective when the exposure risk is low to begin with. For example, the U.S. eliminated canine rabies with a vaccination rate among domestic dogs of about 55%.
The truth of the matter may be ideological. The Industrial Revolution begat increasing concern among northern European intellectuals, who were mainly from the landed gentry, about the destruction of the woodlands, fields, and rivers where they and their ancestors had for centuries practiced recreational hunting and fishing while the peasants toiled.
This concern begat the branch of philosophy now called Teutonic Naturism, which by the mid-19th century begat the expansion of private hunting estates into tax-funded national parks, forests, and wildlife preserves, under the banner of conservation.
In the mid-20th century, as the tax-paying public came to use national parks, forests, and wildlife preserves ever more heavily, jeopardizing the retreats of intellectuals who had become ever more alienated from industrialized civilization, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1973 recycled many of the much older tenets of Teutonic Naturism into the theories now known as “deep ecology.”
Central to the notion of “deep ecology” is that the human population of the earth should be drastically reduced, from about 7.3 billion at present to as few as 100 million worldwide, and that nature should function free of human intervention, including for disease control, since disease is a natural population leveler.
Hence “deep ecologists,” including many of the Earth First!ers who gave “deep ecology” theories a political voice, tend to oppose vaccination of any species by anyone for any reason, themselves and their immediate families possibly (but not always) excepted.
Teutonic Naturism from the beginning embraced the ideas of ecological nativism and racial purity which about 150 years later evolved into the notion of cleansing humanity of “inferior” members through eugenics, and around 50 years after that, emerged in extreme form as Nazism.
Eugenics and Nazism as applied to people were eventually rejected by most of civilized humanity, after considerable bloodshed. Yet many of the same ideas, voiced by some of the same people, within the same time frame became the dominant paradigm in wildlife management, including conservation of threatened and endangered species.
Bovine racial differences
As bison and domestic cattle readily interbreed, their visual disparity, commonly misassumed to represent a division of species, are in truth only racial differences: the outcome of family differences compounded by long isolation.
“Beefalo,” though derided by Buffalo Field Campaign, range in appearance from animals recognizable as variants of domestic cattle to animals visually almost identical to bison, many of whom are inherently healthier than bison produced through generations of extreme inbreeding. (For starters, “beefalo” don’t carry brucellosis.)
The notion that bison and domestic cattle are distinctive species, widely believed for more than 300 years, stands enshrined in law and cultural tradition, yet is as illusory as would be a belief that Hereford and Holstein cattle are different species, simply because they are of different size and coloration.
Equal in capacity to suffer
Domestic cattle and the “pure” bison favored by Buffalo Field Campaign are equal in their capacity to suffer, hence are moral equals in any application of animal rights or animal welfare philosophy.
But, to Buffalo Field Campaign, bison crossed with domestic cattle at any time in the past, no matter how long ago, are “beefalo,” a hybrid product of miscegenation, not the expansion of the gene pool that may have been needed to rebuild the North American bison population from a mere 23 individuals circa 1900 to nearly half a million today.
The Yellowstone population directly descended from the last “pure” bison has ranged as high as about 4,600, and might have grown to half a million if left to migrate, breed, and re-adapt to highly varied habitat unrestrained––or might have suffered from excessive inbreeding.
This we will never know.
“True” bison & “true believers”
Meanwhile, Buffalo Field Campaign is sustained to some extent by the belief it cultivates among donors that the Yellowstone bison are the only “true” bison, whether or not the bison themselves perceive any difference at all between themselves and “beefalo.”
Since Buffalo Field Campaign is as unlikely to achieve everything it aspires to do as Yellowstone bison are to infect Montana cattle with brucellosis, the possible ecological and humane consequences of extreme applications of Buffalo Field Campaign philosophy are––like brucellosis––something to beware of, but not to fear in the here-and-now.
In the here-and-now, the Buffalo Field Campaign people are hard-working, honest, accountable, deeply dedicated, and accomplished at opening habitat to bison while reducing the numbers who are killed each winter.
Rosalie Little Thunder
For many Buffalo Field Campaign Road Show attendees, the highlight of the evening will be not the music, nor the speeches, but rather a 12-minute video assembled by Mike Meese and friends documenting some of the work of the other cofounder, longtime Lakota activist Rosalie Little Thunder.
Rosalie Little Thunder died on August 9, 2014, a month short of her 65th birthday.
“Traditional people must guide our tribal leadership in a manner that reflects the integrity of our historical and cultural relationship with our relative, the buffalo,” Little Thunder said in April 2014, summarizing her approach to politics and her personal motivation.
“Montana politics,” Little Thunder alleged, “have made a mockery of a keystone species.”
“Guardian of the Lakota language & culture”
Wrote Buffalo Field Campaign director Daniel Brister at her death, “While we knew her as a visionary activist, artist, and organizer who dedicated a great part of her life to protecting wild buffalo, Rosalie was so much more. She was a counselor, a professor, a guardian of the Lakota language and culture, and a well-respected elder who fought tirelessly for the rights of Native (and all) people. As a mother and grandmother she was devoted to her extended family and their well-being.”
Added Vi Waln, in her blog Sicangu Scribe, “I was very privileged to have worked with Rosalie on several projects. Her determination to help the Lakota people evolve out of the colonized mindset many have succumbed to was inspirational. A Lakota woman of Rosalie’s caliber is hard to find in today’s modern, assimilated society.”
“One of our libraries”
Somewhere Waln also called Little Thunder “one of our libraries,” which was perhaps the tribute she would most have appreciated.
Agreed longtime Buffalo Field Campaign volunteer Corey Sundog Mascio in a Facebook posting, “Her legacy is our current history. She was taken [as a child] to boarding schools,” where she was expected to lose her Lakota identity, but instead “she survived and became a life long peace activist and teacher. She is a descendant of great Lakota chiefs,” Mascio recalled, “and in her own right was one of our foremost peace chiefs of modern times.”
Little Thunder formed Buffalo Field Campaign after the Montana Department of Livestock during the winter of 1996-97 killed nearly 1,100 Yellowstone bison as they crossed out of the park, seeking grass beneath a heavy snowpack.
Praying for the bison
Little Thunder began by praying for the release of the spirits of newly shot bison.
“Things didn’t go so well,” remembered Billings Gazette staff writer Brett French in April 2008. “Bison were shot nearby, and when Little Thunder went to investigate, the Lakota Sioux woman from South Dakota was arrested for trespassing.”
“I’m kind of foolish sometimes, so I poked my nose over there,” Little Thunder recalled. “Some people said what I did was courageous, but it wasn’t. I just misunderstood things.”
With all of the national organizations that had previously advocated for Yellowstone bison either missing in action or absent without leave, Little Thunder decided to create her own organization. Previously involved with the Native American environmental advocacy organization Seventh Generation Fund, and also long associated with the South Dakota Peace & Justice Center, Little Thunder enlisted help in assembling Buffalo Nations from videographer Meese, who had earlier founded the environmental coalition Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers.
Walked 507 miles
Having no start-up budget to speak of, Little Thunder in the winter of 1999 embarked upon one of the most successful low-cost campaigns in environmental and animal advocacy ever: she walked 507 miles, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by other Native Americans and activists, from South Dakota to Yellowstone.
At first relatively few people, and fewer media, paid attention to the trek. But as Little Thunder walked on through the bitter cold and the blizzards, carrying a medicine bundle representing bison spirits, she won notice, sympathy, and widespread admiration.
Little Thunder remained involved with Buffalo Field Campaign to the end of her life, but went on to do much more for animals on many other fronts.
Animal cruelty & domestic violence
Recalled Spay First! founder Ruth Steinberger to ANIMALS 24-7, who knew Little Thunder through reservation-based spay/neuter programs, “She was one of the first people to highlight the connection between animal cruelty and domestic violence; she brought this up long before that connection was widely recognized. She was a vocal opponent of a hog farm of unprecedented size that threatened water and natural resources on the Rosebud reservation, a battle that started in 2002. The farm eventually closed and Rosalie Little Thunder was a part of the activism that halted it.”
Wrote Tracy Basile for the New York City activist magazine Satya in May 2002, “These days, Little Thunder has pigs on her mind—859,000 pigs to be exact. That’s the number that pork producer Bell Farms of Wahpeton, North Dakota intends to raise annually on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, where Little Thunder grew up and many of her relatives still live. When completed, the facility would be the third largest of its kind in the world and would produce more hogs than there are people in that state.”
Why bison are “keystone species”
Explained Little Thunder to Basile, “Buffalo traveled in a very large circular migration route across the plains. They kept moving and didn’t stay long enough in one place to cause damage to the land or the water supply. When we co-existed with the buffalo for centuries, we could see its role in the ecosystem, in the natural world, and we adopted its ways. We followed its path and didn’t stay in one area long enough to damage it. We didn’t question this way of life. We just moved on because it was the healthy way to live. Everything was biodegradable and we didn’t exhaust the resources of one area.
“Buffalo are recognized by modern science as a keystone species because they create habitat for other species,” Little Thunder continued. “Our prophecy says that as long as there are buffalo, we will survive, and I don’t think that prophecy was intended only for Lakota. I believe it was intended for all the ‘two-legged’ and all the rest of the natural world as well. This land has been in a long, steady decline since the slaughter of 50 to 60 million buffalo in the 1800s. The buffalo broke up the soil so grasses would grow. They fertilized the land. They carried seeds in their coats. They contributed to plant diversity. Then, over a 30-year period, they were wiped out. How many of us think of this as a possible cause of the dust bowl? Now the hog factory poses another kind of threat—to the environment, our health and our culture.”
Humane Farming Association
Bell Farms “didn’t come out of the goodness of their hearts,” Little Thunder warned, “and it’s not about helping the Indian people. I believe they came,” Little Thunder charged, “because they see a labor pool and a haven from environmental regulations. There are resources here that they can take advantage of.”
The Humane Farming Association backed Little Thunder with litigation, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On February 24, 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an April 2002 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals verdict that Bell Farms and Sun Prairie Inc. had no legal standing to seek a 1999 injunction that allowed them to build and run the first two of 13 planned pig facilities.
“Only” 96,000 pigs
But that landmark victory did not end the matter. Sun Prairie kept fighting. In early 2005 the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the U.S. Department of Interior agreed to allow the two 24-barn farms that were already operating to continue for 20 years, producing a combined total of 96,000 pigs per year.
Eventually Sun Prairie fell into arrears in making lease payments for both the use of the land and water. All pigs were removed from the barns in 2014, but in August 2015 the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council, Sun Prairie, U.S. Bank, and a company called Ag Systems Management reached an agreement that allows Ag Systems Management to restock the barns and continue raising pigs there for another 15 years.
Little Thunder’s leadership in opposition to factory pig farms was mentioned only once, in passing, at the Buffalo Field Campaign Road Show performance that ANIMALS 24-7 attended––understandably, because bison are the Buffalo Field Campaign focus. But to Little Thunder the struggle against intensive confinement pig farming and on behalf of free-roaming bison appear to have been both part of a much larger campaign to change the entire basis of how humans relate to animals, whether wild or domestic.
We wonder if Little Thunder would have dismissed brucellosis as a serious concern, or would have excluded “beefalo” from her sympathies. Meese and the other Buffalo Field Campaign Road Show participants certainly knew her better, but from our second row seats ANIMALS 24-7 suspects she might have asked Lyons to sing that line from “Cows with Guns” about cattle, or “beefalo,” wanting to “run free with the buffalo,” and would have welcomed that development, had she lived to see it.