What it was like to volunteer with Buffalo Field Campaign
A small group of us with Buffalo Allies of Bozeman went down to volunteer with Buffalo Field Campaign on Saturday. I'm going to share a little here so that you know how easy it is to do and how much fun besides.
Buffalo Field Campaign lives west of the park near Hebgen Lake and is mostly comprised of volunteers, a number of whom spend November through May looking out for the bison populations roaming out of Yellowstone. Because buffalo that leave Yellowstone are not generally tolerated by the state of Montana and have been subject to killing and hazing (or forced movement) in large numbers, Buffalo Field Campaign was founded to stand up for the wild buffalo of Yellowstone. Their primary focus is media and outreach, documenting what happens to the buffalo and educating the public at large in the hopes that the slaughter stops and that buffalo are respected and treated as wildlife, i.e., without being forced to stop at the arbitrary boundary of Yellowstone National Park. Buffalo Field Campaign was founded in the winter of 1996-1997, during one of the worst buffalo slaughters on record.
Our group, Buffalo Allies of Bozeman, was founded by a small group of us in Spring 2008 during the worst slaughter of wild buffalo since the 19th century, and we were founded in large part to serve as a locally-based support group for other activists, including and especially Buffalo Field Campaign, working on the buffalo issue. We are in part here to help with the needs of other groups working on the buffalo issue.
One goal that I have always had is to empower local people to take action on behalf of the buffalo. From my years in the anti-war movement, I became convinced that local movements have the greatest power to bring about change and are the most sustainable. Whereas national organizing can bring an issue to large numbers of people, often the participation is passive. People think that action amounts to signing petitions and giving money, but no one is expected to put their heart and soul into it. So, when I lived in Washington, DC, I did not know how you could be an anti-war activist and not take action with the oppressed communities in your locality. We spent a lot of time in our activism not simply marching but also serving the homeless community; we spent time trying to understand how militarism affected our neighborhoods. Being in Gallatin County, Montana, we are drawn necessarily to our environment, to what lives in our environment, and one crucial part of that is the buffalo.
The point I am trying to make is that Buffalo Field Campaign has often depended on volunteers from across the country and across the world, sometimes from across Montana, but the Gallatin Valley has not always been a ready participant in buffalo activism. Bozeman has the reputation of a sleepy town of recreational enthusiasts and college students but certainly not social and environmental activists. However, if I am right about the ultimate need for local empowerment to local causes, then the success of the movement for wild buffalo will depend a lot on our success in Bozeman, the largest population center close to the wild buffalo migrating from Yellowstone National Park.
That's why we organized a number of us to go down to Buffalo Field Campaign to ski and look for buffalo.
This winter, only two buffalo have been killed. One was a buffalo in Idaho back in the fall; the other was killed on the first day of Montana's bison hunt in November. Outside of that, bison have simply not left the park and have not really come close. Two hypotheses have been offered: 1) Last year's record kill have left fewer bison to leave the park; 2) The mild winter has left grass plentiful and easily accessible within the park.
Nevertheless, we felt it important to go down to Buffalo Field Campaign anyhow because we want to build a base of people who can be volunteers that can be called on when necessary. We also want this base of volunteers to be able to educate the general public here in Bozeman about what it's like in the field with buffalo and how people can take action on their behalf. Before this fall, none of us who went down on Saturday could have told you much of anything about what it was like or how to take action. Now, we feel we understand enough that we could hold our own workshops to let people know what it is like. In fact, on December 6, we did just that, after Mark from our group (whose picture you see) took the first steps for us.
Volunteering with Buffalo Field Campaign is a lot of fun. At the very least, it's a ski trip into the Yellowstone borderlands in the world's most beautiful place. Saturday was quite sunny, and the snow was pristine, fields of white going on forever.
When you volunteer with Buffalo Field Campaign, they like to know when you are coming to give them a heads up of what to expect. When you arrive, one of the volunteers will give you a tour of their grounds and how they operate, and you are bound to meet several people. There are usually somewhere between 10 and 30 volunteers living there from anywhere ranging from days to months. It's quite an operation and worth seeing. A lot of camp life obviously involves keeping the camp going. Every day, meals have to be prepared, grounds have to be cleaned, there are maintenance chores. If you come to Buffalo Field Campaign and have a particular skill - like say, fixing cars - you will find something to do that does not involve going out into the field with buffalo. Whatever skill you have - whether you think it's relevant or not - Buffalo Field Campaign can probably find a use for it.
However, a great many people coming down want to go into the field. Before that happens, you have to understand what the campaign does and what its tactics are. As I mentioned, Buffalo Field Campaign is primarily a media campaign. When crews go out into the field, they take with them video cameras and radios in order to record and report what is happening. The campaign is nonviolent and nonconfrontational; they are there to document. If people want to take other kinds of actions - like for instance, setting up a blockade to stop a Montana Department of Livestock agent from reaching a buffalo - that is something you will do on your own. Actually, Buffalo Allies of Bozeman would support you - talk with us! - but is not what the campaign does when they are in the field.
When you are ready to go into the field, and assuming there is snow on the ground like we had, Buffalo Field Campaign has you covered. I had my own set of boots and skis and was ready to go, but some in our group needed boots and skis. They'll do their best to set you up, though the truth is that they could use more bindings, boots, and even skis. One of our group repeatedly had an issue with his boots coming out of the bindings. One thing we can do in Bozeman is to provide ski equipment to BFC. However, if you don't have skis, that should not stop you. And, if you have never skied, that shouldn't stop you, either! One person in our group had only skied once while another hadn't skied since childhood, and yet within no time they were on their skis moving forward. There are patrols to flat areas, as well as very hilly areas, and what's more, you will always be paired with an experienced Buffalo Field Campaign volunteer.
If the snow isn't good, people snowshoe. If there's no snow, they hike. Patrols on the west side of the park go along the Madison River at the park boundary, to lowlands near the Department of Livestock's Duck Creek trap, as well as to high overlooks like Sandy Butte. In our case, we went to the top of Sandy Butte, from which you can see the entire Madison valley inside the park. Sandy Butte is quite high, and though none of us were especially experienced skiers, most of us made it up. There we saw about four (perhaps, as many as six) buffalo, all of them small dots on the landscape, the largest small dot below us on Duck Creek, still about two miles from the park boundary. Apparently, buffalo have made it repeatedly to that spot without daring to venture closer to the park boundary. Though the buffalo weren't near, we were encouraged by seeing any at all, especially from such a stunning point.
In the nearby distance, we heard the roar of snowmobiles, sounding like the Daytona 500 or a plague of locusts. It was quite a contrast in worlds and cultures, separated by the well marked park boundary.
In any event, we had a blast on skis and returned to camp. When you return, you will be encouraged to stay for dinner, which they will provide. Dinners generally consist of vegan, vegetarian, and wild game alternatives. There's always plenty to eat. Before or just after dinner, every night, the group has a meeting, where they share their patrols and make sure that volunteers cover the tasks for the next day. People will be encouraged to share their experiences on the patrols and be part of whatever decisions need to be made at the meeting.
Obviously, Buffalo Field Campaign would like people to stay the night and continue to volunteer. But, just as obvious, people in Bozeman much more often than not will need to return to their homes. However, each time you return, each time the people and places become more familiar to you, the more useful you will become as a volunteer. At this point, we in Buffalo Allies are mostly just tourists on skis, but we are getting information and experience that will continue to help us help Buffalo Field Campaign and the buffalo.
I can say very sincerely that this is a very delightful experience that people should be encouraged to have. If someone wants to go up next week, we might be willing to go with you. And, if by chance we can't, we could tell you everything and set you up with the volunteer coordinators.
In the spring, the buffalo will come out of the park to calve. They are likely to face troubles then, especially if they are in no hurry to return to the park. We can do something about this and be a positive force for the buffalo and a steady source of solidarity for Buffalo Field Campaign. Please consider joining us as we work to make that happen.