Wednesday, December 18, 2013


When it comes to me writing about Daniel Brister’s book, “In the Presence of the Buffalo: Working to Stop the Yellowstone Slaughter,” I have to be very careful not to sound patronizing, so I’ll put the info for how to help this movement right at the beginning.  There is a PayPal donate button on the website and things to buy.  Your contributions of songs, poems, etc. are invited. 

Dan, as of October, 2013, was fund-raising on the east coast.  Like so many spontaneous little groups fired by idealism, this is now a formal organization that requires maintenance in order to keep paying salaries for Brister and others.

Media & Outreach
Buffalo Field Campaign
P.O. Box 957
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
As Doug Peacock notes in his foreword, charismatic megamammals have inspired humans since the first auroch was sketched on a cave wall.  Of course, Peacock has become a bit of a megamammal himself.  His participation is a major endorsement.
Daniel Brister

Brister came to Montana right out of high school and was drawn into the Yellowstone Buffalo issue right away -- and in the most dramatic way, as a physical intervener trying to prevent the killing of buffs who leave the park in winter because there is not enough grazing inside it.  When they emerge, they come onto cattle grazing lands where they threaten to spread brucellosis and eat valuable grass that ranchers expected to use.  The fifteen-year-long pitched battle between authorities wanting to cull the herd and the youngsters wanting to save every animal produces this little book, written in the chiaroscuro of righteousness.  
The book is in five chapters that take on five points of view, none of them flattering to the authorities or offering a viable solution to the problem of limited range.  The present standing  bison-management agreement in force is due to expire in 2015, so it’s time to start thinking and campaigning.   
The first chapter explains how Brister got involved, since he is from back east, and sets up his poetic metaphor of collecting buffalo fur from barbed wire snags in order to make a hat from it.  This is associated with a vision involving his mother.  The second explains how in 1997 he came to be in the field, actually chasing the buffs through the snow, though much of his work has been in an office, doing publicity and so on.  The third relates buffalo mysticism to Sioux Indian beliefs and the fourth sketches the wickedness of the open range years of the American plains.  The fifth goes back to the personal intervention of people emotionally dedicated to this big iconic beast.
Brister doesn’t tell lies -- he just leaves a lot out.  In 92 pages one could hardly begin to address the complexity and ambiguity of this situation.  One of the problems is pinning down brucellosis, also known as “undulant fever,” which is quite real and not trivial.  At an early ASLE conference Barney Nelson, an expert on the matter, brought along a Crow Indian rancher named Small (who was not small in any sense!) to describe what it was like for a human to catch the disease from skinning a donated shot animal.  He spent the whole winter flattened on his sofa, fighting fever, fatigue, aching, etc.  Yet the more romantic at the meeting insisted that brucellosis was an invented disease, made up as an excuse to kill the bison.
Another issue that is slippery, because it is “science” and yet political, is the objection to cow genes being in buffalo, since they will mate with domestic bovines, which has been happening since early days.  The government maintains herds of buffalo that have been culled for animals with cow genes, but so far as I know none of the tribal herds have been tested this way.   Maybe it’s not surprising, considering what would happen if every Blackfeet were tested for Euro-genes and killed if they were found.  I often pass the Blackfeet herd which is kept along the highway on the approach to East Glacier.
When a rancher near here raised a sizable herd of buffs for sale to restaurants where people surrender their admiration for bison in order to eat buffalo burgers, no one went over to insist they be tested for purity nor did anyone risk serious injury to protect them.  To be fair, no one did that on behalf of the cows either.  These issues are compartmented, but they just about have to be in order to think about them.  In the end the rancher went back to cows because there was more money in them.
This book is considered here because the Valier librarian asked me to take a look.  A person named K.H. Brandt in Florida with the nicely oxymoronic email monicker of “Turtle on the Wing” was enough in sympathy with the issue to send copies to the Montana public libraries.  He won’t find as many romantics in Valier as in Missoula, but that’s natural.  Even ecological.
This bull was VERY angry: pissing, drooling, bellowing, compressed into a spring.
That's me just above his hump.  He did NOT smell like anyone's mother.

My relationship with buffalos goes back to when I was 21, new on the Blackfeet Reservation.  Since I was working with Bob Scriver in his Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, an offshoot of his shop and studio, I put my hands on a bull buffalo every day -- he was standing in the museum, a casualty of a duel to the death with another bull.  We rode in the Moiese buffalo roundup for several years and at one point I even tried to turn  back a whole herd of buffs -- or rather my horse did.  I just went along for the ride, a kind of shrieker, futilely waving my hat.  The animals were not rounded up to be killed, necessarily, but to be counted, branded, given shots, live-sold to ranchers.  We didn’t cull for purity in 1962.  We just tried not to be killed ourselves.  
This is me feeding apples to the two orphaned pets of the Moiese range.  You had to watch out for the little buff because she would sneak up behind you and butt you in the butt so you went flat on your face.

Daniel presses his buffalo hair collection to his nose, inhaling what he fancies to be the scent of his mother.  That wouldn’t work for me nor would I worry about much flesh being torn out of a buffalo by the little prongs on barbed wire.  But what I know is from direct observation.  
Many years later I went to a writing seminar led by Peter Matthiessen.  I talked about buffalo being narrow from side-to-side, which impressed me when I watched from a catwalk above the animals in chutes.  One of the young men outright accused me of lying -- he seemed to think it was a criticism, a diminishment.  In fact, it’s what makes them so able to pivot on the attack.  Also, their front legs are balanced on a fulcrum almost halfway between their nose and tail so that when they go on the jump, gravity gives them an advantage.  The young man didn’t like THAT either.  How could a forty-year-old female school teacher know ANYTHING about a charismatic megamammal full of macho?  Matthiessen quietly assured him I was right but the guy could hardly look at me after that.
So what I’m saying is that this little book is an effective representation of that point of view, but it’s not much more than that, except for being a good fundraiser.
"The Buffalo Runner" by Bob Scriver

1 comment:

Cowtown Pattie said...

But, Mary, you gotta give a tip o'tha stetson for youthful exuberance and an attempt to save something. I am still very guilty of falling prey to my inner romanticist, LOL>