Author Archives: Zaffos

Homecoming

One hundred and forty-one years after a tragic massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians are reconnecting with their heritage and history in Colorado.

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, December 8, 2005 (republished in Indian Education Today, February 2006)

By Joshua Zaffos

Allen Joe Black Wolf and Steve Brady listen to a soundtrack of traditional Indian songs—known as “49s”—as they drive a rental car southbound on Colorado Highway 71 through the heart of their ancestral homeland. Voices cry and sing, and hands slap and beat drums in the car’s speakers, and the Northern Cheyenne men look out at bundles of hay, small herds of cattle and their tribe’s former territory, which appears to extend forever across the plains beneath stretched-out clouds and the setting sun.

Otto Braided Hair steers a rented minivan just ahead on the highway, and fellow Northern Cheyenne LaForce “Lee” Lone Bear and Floyd “Bucky” Glenmore ride along. The remains of a final member of the tribe—one of about 150 victims murdered at the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864—rest in a cedar box in the cargo space of  the van. The Northern Cheyenne are on a journey from their reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, to La Junta, Colorado. In between, they traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect their displaced relative in order to return the remains to the banks of Sand Creek.

Many historians consider the Sand Creek Massacre the most brutal and deliberate attack on an Indian village in American history, and the raid initiated almost three decades of brutal warfare up and down the Great Plains between the United States Army and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The massacre also marked the onset of the tribes’ cultural decline.

“Our people never did recover from that. [The massacre] completely fractured, broke down the traditional government of the Cheyenne tribe,” says Brady, who occasionally chants with the recorded 49s between sentences. “[By 1890,] it was about to the point where our own people were nearly exterminated.”

One hundred and forty-one years after Sand Creek, the northern and southern bands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho are scattered between reservations and other lands in Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma. They are physically and spiritually  separated from the territory and traditions of their relatives, and trying to reconnect with their history and maintain their identity.

The Massacre

In the dawn light of November 29, 1864, 700 Colorado soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho camp along Sand Creek, about twenty miles outside the present-day small town of Eads.

Chivington was a Methodist minister turned Civil War hero, and he had no tolerance for or interest in the tribes. His troops were mostly volunteers who had signed on for 100 days of service specifically to kill Indians. A few weeks earlier, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had followed Chivington’s orders and left the area around a military fort on the Arkansas River, camped along Sand Creek and flew an American flag over their village as a sign of peace.

That November morning, many of the tribe’s warriors were hunting for game — under the instruction of the U.S. military— leaving about 500 mainly Cheyenne women and children in the encampment. As the militia approached, an American flag waved over the lodge of Black Kettle, one of the Cheyenne chiefs.

Black Kettle believed the flag would spare the lives of his people, and he encouraged them to gather around his lodge as he also raised a white banner of truce. The militia fired indiscriminately on the Indians, and the chief and the others fled for their lives along the creek.

“My great-grandparents were still in bed, and they woke up to the sounds of guns and howitzers raining down on them,” says Brady, a former high school teacher on the rez who chairs the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project Committee.

His great-grandfather, Braided Hair, was one of the few warriors in the village, and he lassoed a stampeding horse for his pregnant wife and got her to safety.

The American soldiers slaughtered without mercy. They hacked off limbs with hatchets, and scalped the wounded without killing them. Defenseless groups of women and children who burrowed into pits along the stream banks were raped and shot. One pregnant Indian woman was cut open and her unborn child left lying beside her.

“Squaws’ snatches were cut out for trophies,” wrote Silas Soule, a captain under Chivington who refused to participate in the massacre and positioned his division to prevent more deaths. “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I have told you is the truth.”

About 150 Indians, mostly women and children, died at the Sand Creek Massacre. Black Kettle and his wife, who survived nine bullets, managed to escape up the creek, but many other tribal leaders did not.

White Antelope, another Cheyenne chief, stepped out of his lodge when the soldiers first approached the camp and yelled, “Stop! Stop!” in English. Chivington’s troops shot the unarmed 75-year-old man. One soldier then scalped White Antelope, cut off his nose, ears and genitals, and boasted that he would make a tobacco pouch of the chief’s scrotum—as he still lay dying.

In those final moments of White Antelope’s life, surrounded by the dead and wounded of his band, the old chief repeated the words of a tribal “journey song” over  and over — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever.”

The Repatriation

The soldiers of Chivington’s regiment left Sand Creek with scalps, bones and gruesome tobacco pouches. They paraded through Denver as heroes when they returned. A few days before Christmas 1864, the Rocky Mountain News reported, “Cheyenne scalps are getting thick here as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one, and is anxious to get another to send east.”

Army surgeons returned to Sand Creek in 1867 to gather bones—usually the skulls—for ballistics studies and an “Indian cranial study” in the name of the pseudo-science of phrenology. Those samples ended up in the Smithsonian museum, which eventually housed about 18,500 Native American remains including 4,500 skulls.

This status as souvenirs and specimens has represented a tragic fate for the remains, which the government, museums and tribes have begun to address only in the last fifteen years. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law established a formal process to catalog and return certain cultural items, including human remains, to affiliated tribes and descendants. Museums across the country have since repatriated, or returned, such artifacts to tribes.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes know of seven human remains from Sand Creek held by the federal government and state museums. The Colorado Historical Society repatriated a scalp lock to the tribes in 1997 through NAGPRA. Representatives of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes took custody of the individual this past October. The widow of Major Jacob Downing, who fought under Chivington at Sand Creek, originally donated the long lock of hair to the state in 1911.

On this trip, the Northern Cheyenne have picked up a skull fragment of a Sand Creek victim from the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln. The museum knows the cranium was donated in 1927 but not much else: A staff member accidentally discovered it in a drawer with some old paper money.

“I think it’s certainly one of the most important [repatriations] because of the historical interest” in Sand Creek, says Priscilla Grew, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. “Every time we have one of these repatriations, it brings back a lot of history. It’s a very emotional experience, I think, for everyone involved.”

The Northern Cheyenne have brought the skull fragment to Denver where the Colorado Historical Society has stored it for the night. The next morning, before driving down Highway 71 to La Junta, the Indians meet with historical society officials, who invite the men to a basement vault to view a table of artifacts claimed from Sand Creek. There’s a bow and two arrows, a warrior’s buckskin shirt colored with yellow ochre and decorated with beads and scalp locks like tassels. Two war bonnets, lost in the chaos. A single buckskin moccasin.

The Historic Site

The two vehicles arrive at Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta—a National Park Service historic site where Sand Creek remains are being held. This past August, President Bush signed a law officially creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Previous laws approved a study to confirm the location of the massacre and O.K.’d the acquisition of private lands for the site. To date, the federal government and the tribes have purchased almost 2,400 acres along Sand Creek, which the Park Service will manage once the massacre site is finalized.

Park Service Superintendent Alexa Roberts says Sand Creek will be the first unit in the National Park system recognized as a “massacre” site. The agency and tribes are now considering a visitors center and interpretive trails and the placement of a cemetery for the repatriated remains before opening the area to the public.

Steve Brady says he’d like to see a simple monument inscribed with the message of White Antelope’s journey song. Roberts and the Northern Cheyenne representatives envision very little development, and hope visitors will recognize the site as a place of life and activity, and not just a historic relic.

The day after the Indians arrive in southeastern Colorado, they head out to the massacre site with Roberts and other Park Service staff, and the connection between past and present is evident in the prayers of Lee Lone Bear, a Northern Cheyenne spiritual adviser.

Like the others who have made this journey from Lame Deer, Lone Bear is a direct descendant of Sand Creek victims. His paternal grandfather married a daughter of White Antelope. His great-grandfather was Lone Bear, or One-Eye, a chief who also died at Sand Creek.

On this November afternoon, Lee Lone Bear is leading a prayer on a bluff overlooking the cottonwoods and dry creek bed of the massacre site. He chants in the Cheyenne language, and Allen Joe Black Wolf, who is learning the spiritual ceremonies from Lone Bear, stands at his side.

Lone Bear later explains that his words are part of an ongoing invocation that began before he left Lame Deer.

“I started the prayer at home and told them [the ancestors whose remains will be repatriated] we were coming and asked them for a good trip,” says Lone Bear. “At Lincoln, I prayed and said, ‘I’m taking you to Denver and La Junta, and we’ll bring you to where you’ve fallen.’”

His prayers include words for the young people of the tribe, and those in the Armed Forces fighting in Iraq. “We even pray for our president, President Bush. We pray that he makes the right decisions, even though he’s not well liked anymore,” continues Lone Bear. (“I even asked the Creator to watch over you,” he tells this journalist, “to make a good report and get it right.”)

“And I asked the spirit world for good health for the tribe and families, and to get a cemetery and reparations.”

The Reparations

Thirteen years before Sand Creek, the United States government and the tribes signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, establishing the first reservation for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The territory encompassed 51 million acres across four present-day states, including 27 million acres in Colorado. The Indians retained rights to hunt, fish, travel and live on the land, and the tribes and the U.S. both agreed “to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.”

The peace lasted about seven years until the 1858 Pike’s Peak gold rush, when 140,000 prospectors flooded into Colorado. Conflict erupted, ultimately leading to Chivington’s aggression at Sand Creek in 1864. One year after the massacre, still reeling from the devastation and violence, some Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs signed a new treaty on the Little Arkansas River in Kansas, surrendering claims and rights to Colorado Territory.

But the U.S. government also accepted blame for Sand Creek. Article 6 of the treaty recognized “the gross and wanton outrages perpetrated” that day, and the government agreed to pay reparations in the form of land grants and “securities, animals, goods, provisions, or such other useful articles” to the survivors and victims’ families.

Fast-forward a century when the U.S. Indian Claims Commission negotiated land-claims settlements with Indians whose territory was taken without compensation. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes gave up any outstanding claims in exchange for just $15 million. But Sand Creek descendants still retained the right to unpaid reparations.

For the 5,000 Northern Cheyenne members who live on the reservation in Eastern Montana, per-capita income is less than $5,000 and unemployment hovers around 70 percent. Similar to other reservations, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and other poverty-related problems cast a dark shadow over the tribe’s future.

“This is where we [the Northern Cheyenne] always wanted to live,” says Norma Wolfchief Gourneau, over a cup of coffee at her home on the rez. A huge home theater TV towers over the living room, and a litter of kittens bounce around her back porch amid rows of old cars and trucks.

“But there’s not a lot of opportunities for jobs here,” continues Gourneau, a descendant of chief Black Kettle and a former tribal vice president. She now works for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, an hour’s drive away.

The Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma face similar challenges. The tribes don’t have a reservation; instead, the 11,400 members live within “service areas” in the panhandle, where they’re eligible for government services. Per-capita income is less than $9,000, and the unemployment rate is around 60 percent.

Any compensation or reparations could make a huge difference in the lives of these people, which may be why Steve Hillard, CEO of the Golden-based investment firm Council Tree Communications, approached the tribes in 2003 with a proposition for a casino in Colorado—in the name of retribution.

“It was a departure from what we normally do,” says Hillard, a Colorado State University graduate, whose company has worked mostly with Alaskan tribes on telecommunications deals. “We just did it because we believed it was the right thing to do for the Cheyenne and Arapaho.”

Hillard struck an agreement with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho and then unveiled his proposal to Colorado in December 2003: The Indians wanted to open a casino on 500 acres outside Denver International Airport and, in exchange, would abandon any claims to the 27 million acres of Colorado—40 percent of the state—under the Fort Laramie Treaty.

The supporters of the “Homecoming Project,” as the $150 million casino complex was named, suggested the gaming revenue could serve as reparations. Backers estimated a metro Denver casino would create 10,000 jobs and bring in up to $500 million a year for the tribes, plus $100 million in taxes for Colorado.

Despite the economic potential, Sand Creek descendants among the tribes took offense.

“We don’t care if you build a hundred casinos,” says Gourneau. “But we say, ‘Don’t use Sand Creek to get your casino and don’t use Sand Creek as a hammer [to hold] over the state of Colorado.’”

“When they first came out with the offer, they included Sand Creek as a bargaining chip,” says Joe Big Medicine, a Southern Cheyenne Sand Creek descendant. “When we met with Council Tree, we demanded that Sand Creek be left out.”

Hillard relented on the association, but he still tried to talk about “genocide” when the Homecoming Project got a hearing from the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee in September 2004. But after a chilly reception from Congress and continued opposition from Gov. Bill Owens and the northern tribes, the investors regrouped and targeted the city of Pueblo for the casino site. The project received approval from county commissioners this August before the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal council ultimately rejected the land exchange a month later.

Hillard says the casino is “at best, on hold,” but adds that the swing in support among southern tribe members “reflects honest and very deep divisions.”

Still, Hillard’s venture created confusion—over the creation of a Park Service unit and the tribal casino proposal—and stalled the legislation to designate the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

Hillard “sidetracked us enough as it was. It almost completely derailed us,” says Steve Brady, who adds that Congress, not a casino developer, should move ahead and finally pay reparations for Sand Creek descendants.

The Run

Braided Hair — the great-grandfather of brothers Steve Brady and Otto Braided Hair — was hurt during the Sand Creek massacre but escaped that morning. He found his pregnant wife alive and riding the same horse for warmth a few days later.

“[Braided Hair] was among those delegated to go back and look for survivors and horses,” says Brady, who has kept the Anglicized name Indian Affairs later gave his family while his brother uses his ancestor’s given name. “He went back to the village and…unbelievable carnage, mutilated bodies, the whole village burned. So, they were left totally destitute. My great-grandfather never forgave the white people for that.”

Braided Hair lived to be 102 years old, dying in 1934. By then, most of the old ways of life had disappeared.

In the years following the massacre, bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho alternately pushed for peace and war with the United States, losing either way. By 1890, the government had relegated the northern and southern tribes to scrawny reservations, scraps of their once-expansive dominion.

Members of the tribes needed permission from the government Indian agent to leave a reservation. Elders were discouraged from sharing their heritage, and many chose to suppress stories of the past. Children learned little about their native language, culture and history. Few residents of the Northern Cheyenne reservation have ever journeyed to Sand Creek, and the tribes had even lost track of exactly where their ancestors had camped and been attacked.

“I didn’t learn about Sand Creek in elementary school or high school,” says Otto Braided Hair, coordinator of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project.

“For us, everything is healing. The repatriations. This [the massacre site] becoming a national historic site,” says Braided Hair, as he walks around Sand Creek and speaks of the role of the tribe’s prayers in their accomplishments. “Everything seemed almost impossible [in 1999]. Even the healing run.”

Since 1999, a group of runners, children and adults, commemorate the Sand Creek Massacre every year by jogging from the site to Denver during the week of Thanksgiving—and the anniversary of the attack.

Lee Lone Bear, the spiritual adviser, conceived of the healing run as another way to actively remember and reconnect with the history of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Both northern and southern tribes say the run is a centerpiece for education for their members and the American public, and it’s even helping them to connect with each other.

In the early morning of the run that first year, Lone Bear held a pipe ceremony along the creek with Braided Hair and a private landowner. Lone Bear says the men heard a woman crying, only to realize it was a chorus of coyotes circling them. The landowner later said that deer and elk—long absent from the area—returned after the ceremony.

The Future

A few weeks after the repatriation, both Braided Hair and Lone Bear return to Colorado for the seventh annual healing run.

The night after Thanksgiving and the run at Sand Creek, members of the northern and southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Denver Art Museum. There are about 40 people at “the Wheel,” an outdoor art exhibit of a circle of ten forked “trees” painted red with messages of history and hope for Native Americans.

Lone Bear recounts the story of White Antelope chanting his journey song as he died at Sand Creek, and then begins to sing those words in Cheyenne — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever” — with Braided Hair and others. Braided Hair follows with a long yelp that gives chills even on a 30-degree night.

The massacre site is on the verge of becoming a national historic site run by the federal government. The healing run is bringing attention, and receiving support from the city of Denver. The Colorado Historical Society is planning a major exhibit on the state’s Native American inhabitants. The Cheyenne and Arapaho are learning how to make sure their heritage and their stories live forever with the rocks.

“In our writings, we say it is our tribal history,” Braided Hair tells the group at the vigil, “but it is not. It is the history of the land.”

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Tancredo’s Crash Course

Tom Tancredo

Tom Tancredo

From the Border to the Oval Office

Tom Tancredo drops the bomb—that he’s testing the waters for a run at the White House.

By Joshua Zaffos
Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 28, 2005

Tom Tancredo is running for president.

No, that’s not a promise…it’s a threat.

The four-term Republican congressman from Colorado’s Sixth District is traveling the country talking about locking down our national borders and kicking out the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. And if other would-be 2008 presidential candidates don’t start following his lead, he’s ready to carry the anti-immigration banner on his own run for the White House.

“I want to see what they’ll promise to do to control the border, what they’ll promise to do to enforce the law internally in the United States against [businesses] who are hiring people who are here illegally,” says Tancredo, who lives in Littleton. “My purpose is to instigate that kind of discussion.”

The congressman certainly knows how to instigate. Most recently, his comments on a Florida talk-radio show on July 15 that an “ultimate response” to a terrorist nuclear attack on the United States could include bombing Mecca and other Islamic holy sites invoked worldwide scorn. In Colorado, 150 people gathered at the State Capitol on July 26 to say they’re embarrassed Tancredo represents the state.

He isn’t apologizing. Instead, Tancredo’s unabashedly touring the nation to ensure the “ultimate immigration reform guy”—perhaps himself—gets heard during the next presidential election. His explosive presence will be hard for contenders for the Oval Office to dodge.

In February and June, Tancredo stopped by New Hampshire, which holds the earliest state primary each presidential election. In mid-July, he swung through Iowa, home of the first party caucus, to meet with Christian Coalition members who gave him a rock-star reception. He’s also visited South Carolina, another early primary state, and will return in August.

“I commend him for what he’s doing,” says Fred Elbel, director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform and a Tancredo supporter. “The immigration problem is a symptom that our government is no longer responsible to our people and the rule of law.”

Pundits say there’s a good reason most politicians don’t talk about immigration.

“It’s another one of the hot-button issues that people feel passionately about on both sides,” says John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor.

In other words, most candidates treat immigration, like abortion, as a topic that will cost them votes instead of winning them support. As Tancredo beats the drum for immigration control, Straayer believes he’s effectively pressuring colleagues to talk about the subject and take a stance.

“From a citizen standpoint, it’s never a bad thing to elevate a critical issue,” adds Straayer.

From a party standpoint, it’s another thing. President Bush has introduced a guest-worker plan that would grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants already working in the U.S.— as long as they leave after five years and then reapply for legal entry. Tancredo’s own guest-worker proposal would make every illegal immigrant a felon and boost law enforcement along the borders. He says Bush’s legislation is among the spoils for corporations who contribute big money to the GOP and rely on low-cost immigrant labor.

“When you try to equivocate on [immigration policy] because you think you’ve got big donors who are going to get mad at you,” says Tancredo, “you take a hit, and it’s both a political and moral failing.”

Statements like this win standing ovations and teary hugs from “values” voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina who appreciate his combination of John McCain-style honesty and Pat Buchanan-style conservatism. But those words also bring rebukes from Republican heavyweights at the national level.

In 2002, Bush’s political guru Karl Rove called Tancredo a “traitor” who was “never again to darken the door of the White House.” That ominous caveat came after the congressman told the Washington Times, “Unless we do something significant to control our borders, we’re going to have another event with someone waltzing across the borders. Then the blood of the people killed will be on this administration and this Congress.”

Last year, during the primary season, Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told Tancredo he was “kaput.”

“You cannot think of making a career in this place [Congress],” DeLay warned.

Tancredo earned that scolding after his Team America political action committee—which he co-founded with Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister—gave money to party candidates running against incumbent GOP colleagues with pro-immigration voting records.

Ongoing scandals over the ethics of both Rove and DeLay now make Tancredo look squeaky-clean and righteous in these exchanges, which is why he believes Republicans—and Democrats—won’t be able to duck the issue in 2008.

“I think the smart political money is on the side that takes up this issue, Republican or Democrat,” says Tancredo. “Why do you think you see people like Hillary Clinton addressing it? I mean it isn’t because she believes it. It’s because she figures she’s got to win some of those red-state votes.”

Gabriela Flora agrees with Tom Tancredo that “the immigration system is broken.” But the regional organizer in Colorado for the national social justice group American Friends Service Committee is not convinced that Tancredo’s plan—to line the borders with soldiers and deport every single undocumented worker in the U.S.—is the solution. She says an increase in border troops since the 1990s has led to more deaths among immigrants sneaking into the country but failed to decrease immigration rates.

Tancredo argues that securing the borders isn’t just a matter of restricting the entry of undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America, but also one of homeland security.

“I think that those are both legitimate issues that revolve around the whole immigration debate,” says Tancredo. “Last fiscal year, we interdicted almost 30,000 people from what we call ‘countries of interest.’ So, you say to yourself, ‘Who would be being smuggled in here for somewhere up to $50,000 a head?’ It’s not someone who’s just going to work for 7-Eleven. So, there’s got to be another reason that they’re coming in, and it’s probably not a very good one.”

Responds Flora, “I think the war on terror is a very convenient way to conflate the issue. We need to talk about [immigration], not from a place of fear, but from a place of freedom and liberty.”

Tancredo clearly wants to do both. Even before he began “throwing out some ideas” about bombing Mecca, he warned a crowd in New Hampshire this June that illegal immigrants are  “coming here to kill you and you and me and my grandchildren.”

“If it gets to the point that his commentary is so continuous and explosive,” says Straayer, the political science professor, “his side suffers.”

But as long as immigration is being discussed, Tancredo acts like he’s winning—even if it triggers a political chasm within the Republican Party or a backlash against the U.S.

“I think, frankly, I won’t have to run for president,” says Tancredo.

Politicians are “almost as afraid now of running away [from the immigration issue] as they were in the past of embracing it,” he continues. “So, probably, we’re going to get one or more people fighting to see who can out-Tom-Tancredo each other, and so that would be good.”

If that’s what Americans end up voting on in 2008, will anybody be able to out-Tom-Tancredo the man himself?

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Flare Up

Health problems. Environmental degradation. A billion-dollar business with ties to the White House. Landowners on the West Slope are fighting back against the oil and gas industry.

By Bethany Kohoutek and Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 7, 2005

Laura Amos wakes up in the middle of the night and shuffles from the bedroom of her log home to her computer desk upstairs. She looks in on her 4-year-old daughter, Lauren, as she sleeps, and then sits down at the keyboard to read through technical reports from government commissions and energy corporations. Sitting in front of a glowing computer screen at three in the morning isn’t how Laura expected to spend her nights when she moved to Silt, Colorado, in 1992 to help her husband run his hunting and fishing guide service, Winterhawk Outfitters.

She steps away to her backdoor and stares off at the glowing bulbs of gas wells that surround her and drown out the stars. These aren’t the lights Laura pictured filling the night sky around her 30-acre ranchette. Less than 100 yards away, a compound of six gas wells flares and lets out fumes. She turns to see the 10,000-gallon tank that looks like an industrial dumpster and holds her family’s drinking water. Laura thinks of her sleeping daughter and goes back to the computer.

The water well on the Amos’ property became mysteriously contaminated four years ago, at the same time the gas industry was setting off mini-explosions of pressurized water, sand and toxic chemicals to get at natural gas beneath her neighbor’s land. The process, known as hydraulic fracturing, or frac’ing (pronounced “fracking”), increases the amount of recoverable oil or gas.

While in Kansas visiting Laura’s parents with their new baby, the Amoses got an unexpected call. A metal cap had blown off the water well after it erupted like a geyser. They returned home to find their tap water undrinkable.

“The water bubbled like 7Up, and it was a goopy gray,” remembers Laura, as she sits inside Winterhawk’s office on Grand Avenue in the small town of Silt. “After a few days, it had this much sediment”—she holds her forefinger and thumb an inch apart and refers to a glass of water—“and an oily sheen on top.”

A large banner proclaiming “Support Our Troops” hangs in the office window, and the walls are decorated with photos of clients and their trophy kills. A picture of Laura hugging a cougar she killed with a crossbow greets visitors when they walk through the door.

The fizzy and noxious water flowing from her faucets turned out to be saturated with methane gas. The gas industry denied any connection between Laura’s undrinkable water and the well explosion. And it wasn’t until four years later that the state regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, finally linked frac’ing to the water contamination.

“We felt abandoned by the commission,” says Laura, “and abused by the industry.”

Immediately after the contamination, EnCana, the oil corporation performing the frac’ing, provided fresh drinking water in giant tanks for Laura’s family. But that stopped after a few months, and the Amoses had to seek out potable H20 on their own.

In January, after four years, the company resumed its weekly water deliveries. A few months later, the oil and gas commission finally issued a violation to EnCana. By then, Laura had developed an even more critical problem. Two years after the water well blew its top, Laura became curiously yet critically sick. Her doctor eventually diagnosed her with a rare adrenal tumor, which was removed in July 2003. She’s convinced the illness was linked to the frac’ing chemicals she ingested.

“And what was my daughter exposed to?” Laura asks now. It’s one of those questions that keep her awake at night.

Laura isn’t alone among obsessive insomniac landowners living in Garfield County these days. Landowners around the towns of Silt, Parachute and Rifle all can gaze at well pads and drill rigs from their property. Most locals hold only the deed to the land on top while oil and gas companies own the minerals below. The arrangement gives the energy industry the upper hand to build roads and erect gas wells, visibly—and some say, permanently—altering the West Slope’s landscape and environment.

Laura Amos and her neighbors are finding out it’s not a bargain. Frustrated by a no-holds-barred industry backed by a presidential administration that many locals have supported at the polls, these landowners are rising as a new, unlikely class of environmentalists ready to fight back. And they’re quickly learning what they’re up against. After all, Halliburton Services, where Vice President Dick Cheney was once CEO, pioneered frac’ing, and the Veep’s 2001 energy task force pushed to exempt the process from any governmental regulation.

“Billion-dollar industry,” says Laura of the oil and gas companies. “Million-dollar lobbyists, connections to the White House.”

Garfield County is currently home to 2,500 active gas wells—more than any other county in the state. And with 1,000 new drilling permits expected by year’s end, it seems the region’s energy boom is just beginning.

Oil companies are now extracting more than a billion dollars’ worth of oil and gas from beneath the soil of Garfield County each year. And much of that is tapped from private land, like Laura Amos’.

Because Colorado’s Western Slope, particularly Garfield County, has been handpicked by the Bush administration for rapid oil and gas development, the gate to the county has been thrown wide for the petroleum industry. The sheer density of drilling activity in Garfield County is greater than anywhere else in the world; oil producers are authorized to bore wells twenty acres apart—and they’re pressing for an even-tighter ten-acre density allowance.

Before a company can drill a new well, a qualified geologist must suspect that oil or gas is lurking below the surface, says Ken Wonstolen, general counsel for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, an industry trade group. Once that’s established, industry workers (most of whom are out-of-towners; employees are rarely hired locally) raze a two- to four-acre “pad.” The company then erects a drilling rig that augers deep into the earth—anywhere fron 2,000 to 15,000 feet deep—to reach the prized resource.

The towering rigs, which protrude conspicuously from Garfield County’s rugged landscape, competing with the expansive mountain vistas, are the most visible and ubiquitous reminder of the oil industry’s footprint on the region. Of all the extraction machinery, rigs are the noisiest, and their lights cast an orangish light into the night sky—“like a carnival,” as one local activist put it.

While the rigs are an annoyance to the Amoses and other local landowners, it isn’t the tower itself that makes them lose sleep. It’s the next step in the process.

After the hole is dug, hydraulic fracturing fluids, or “frac’ing fluids”—essentially, water laced with chemicals—are injected into the well to force the earth’s natural faults and creases to expand, making it easier for the gas to flow to the surface. These additives can include, among others, benzene, diesel and 2-BE, the frac’ing chemical that Laura Amos believes caused her tumor.

Wonstolen says frac’ing is “essential” in the West, because of the nonporous nature of the tightly packed, sandy soil. EnCana utilizes the process in 100 percent of its well operations within the county, says Florence Murphy, a company spokeswoman.

And both Wonstolen and Murphy maintain that the practice is perfectly safe. In fact, Wonstolen says allegations of contamination, like the Amoses’, amount to a “phony issue.”

Wonstolen contends that 2-BE is found in Windex and other household cleaners; what’s more, only “tiny, tiny” amounts of such chemicals are pumped into the ground, he adds. Otherwise, frac’ing doesn’t involve anything worse than water, sand and gelling agents like guar gum, which is a natural plant derivative. One industry official likes to point out that guar gum is an ingredient in Snickers bars.

And the Environmental Protection Agency backs him up.

In June 2004, the EPA released a rule stating that frac’ing fluids pose “little or no threat” to drinking water. A provision in President Bush’s energy bill, which is working its way through Congress, would permanently exempt frac’ing from any regulation, including the Safe Drinking Water Act.

This particular exemption is plucked from the wish list of the 2001 energy task force convened by Vice President Cheney, who has collected more than $500,000 in deferred salary from the energy giant Halliburton since taking office. The Supreme Court allowed Cheney to keep the task force’s proceedings secret, but the Los Angeles Times retrieved confidential records that hint otherwise.

Cheney’s office, a resulting Times article shows, pressured the EPA to portray frac’ing as a benign process, and to suppress concerns from EPA scientists over the accuracy of the June 2004 regulations.

When asked whether EnCana would support increased regulation and reporting of the frac’ing process, Murphy says the EPA is a “sound regulator.”

Over the past year, several independent organizations have taken the EPA to task over its rule. The Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project produced its own report. “We found that EPA removed information from earlier drafts that suggested unregulated fracturing poses a threat to human health,” it reads, “and that the Agency did not include information that suggest fracturing fluids may pose a threat to drinking water long after drilling operations are completed.”

Carol Bell is standing in an unfinished room that will one day become her writing studio—she hopes. She and her husband, Orlyn, have lived on this rugged and rural acreage outside of Silt for the past 24 years, raising kids and horses, and farming hay.

The couple planned to construct their dream home on their land and retire here, and the new building is already half-completed. That was before EnCana installed four wells on the Bells’ 110 acres, before they endured three explosions on or near their land—one that coated their field in paraffin wax spiked with hydrocarbons, another that spilled 2,000 gallons of diesel, and another that leaked frac’ing fluids onto the well pad—and before they watched their road morph from a quiet country drive to a heavily traveled EnCana thoroughfare (“We counted 22 trucks in one hour’s time,” Bell says).

Today, Carol Bell throws open the giant picture windows of their new home, affording grand panoramas of the mountain ranges that wrap the horizon. She points to them in succession: “The Bookcliffs—and just beyond that, we can almost see the Roan Plateau—the Hogbacks, the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, White River National Forest.”

The room smells of sawdust and freshly mown hay. But don’t be fooled, she warns.

She takes a few steps out of the building and toward the drilling rig just past her barnyard, and the usual farm aromas turn rancid.

“Methane,” she says. “Can you smell it?”

With two dogs trotting close at her heels, the petite woman with cerulean eyes and suntanned shoulders heads toward the rig. She stops and rubs her forehead. Late last night, she admits, she broke down and cried.

“The last three nights, the odor was terrible. Oryln woke up with a splitting headache. It’s so awful. We can’t sleep. We’ve had it,” she says. “But no one will buy this place. … [Drilling] just takes your property value to zero.

“It’s sad, and I hate to [move], but Orlyn just turned 60 and…” she trails off.

In early 2004, EnCana approached the Bells about drilling on their property. Already,rigs were sprouting up on the land adjacent to their farm, and they’d heard inklings of other families’ struggles with the oil industry. They immediately hired a lawyer.

When Carol and Oryln Bell bought the ranch a quarter-century ago, they purchased only the surface rights, not the claim to the resources underneath; the previous owner refused to sell the mineral rights. At that time, no one knew that this pristine and remote swath of Western land would later become the epicenter for a battle over oil and gas.

Under Colorado’s “split-estate” laws, oil companies are permitted to drill on private land, as long as they give the surface owner a 30-day notice. If the company and the landowner fail to reach an agreement about compensation and well placement, the company can post a one-time bond of $2,000 for dry land, or $5,000 for irrigated land.

Unlike the Bells, some Garfield County residents own both the surface and the mineral rights to their land. While they have an advantage over surface-only owners (mineral deed-holders receive monthly royalty checks from the oil companies), they, too, have little say in where wells and roads are situated, or how they’re cared for.

Often, “They just bond on and bring the bulldozers over,” Carol says.

Some state lawmakers are determined to level the playing field. Rep. Kathleen Curry, a Democrat from Gunnison, attempted to restore balance to the split-estate conundrum when she introduced House Bill 1219 this session.

The measure would have required companies to work with property owners to determine a fair compensation for any damages incurred by drilling.

It also took a harder line on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Many West Slope landowners charge that the commission is tangled in ties to the industry and takes a soft stance on violation enforcement.

“They [the commission] rely too heavily on staff,” says Duke Cox, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, an environmental activist group that has been outspoken in its criticism of the oil industry. “We believe the staff leans almost always toward industry. We are the outsiders in this equation, because we’re rocking the boat.”

But it was the industry that made waves over Curry’s bill, and HB-1219 eventually was defeated in committee.

EnCana opposed the legislation, spokeswoman Murphy says.

“The thinking behind the bill—and we applauded and recognized the need for improvement in the way the industry dealt as a whole with private landowners—was that there already are regulations in place, and we’re not certain that putting another level of regulations in place would be the solution.”

Landowners in other states, however, have been more successful. Wyoming recently passed a tougher split-estate law, and lawmakers in New Mexico and Montana are crafting comparable legislation. And U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Boulder Democrat, has expressed interest in introducing a similar measure at the federal level.

After battling EnCana for nine months over specifics like where to place the wells and pipelines so they wouldn’t interrupt the ditch irrigation system or the horse-grazing pastures, the Bells finally signed “out of duress.” Carol Bell says: “It was hell.”

The couple eventually received a one-time payment that Carol Bell deems “minimal.” She estimates EnCana siphons millions of dollars’ worth of oil from their property alone.

The experience has changed their lives, she says, as well as their political outlook. From the window, she points out at Orlyn, perched atop a tractor, mowing the hay fields. Before their experience with EnCana, he declared himself a staunch Republican. While he hasn’t joined his wife on the roster of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, he’s much warier of the Bush administration and how its energy policies are playing out in his backyard.

And there’s more like him, conservative ranchers, shop owners, outfitters, construction workers who’ve watched their fields, their air quality, their property values—and some believe, their health—sacrificed to a tidal wave of drilling and extraction. In the midst of a red county that selected Bush as its choice for the country’s highest office in 2004, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance’s membership has climbed from 75 two years ago to more than 300 today.

“When an industry takes $1.3 million of value from under our feet, we’re not going to take it,” Cox says. “People here are angry—very angry.”

Carol Bell is well aware of the national imperative to beef up oil and gas reserves. She understands that the issue casts tentacles into domestic security, foreign policy, the Iraq war, and the price she pays at the pump. She just wants some balance—and some assurance that the land she’s tended for 24 years won’t be permanently marred when the oil has dried up and the companies move on.

“[EnCana] has a right to be there, they absolutely have a right,” Bell says. “But I think property rights should be equal to mineral rights. … They don’t have the right to come out here and destroy our clean water and air. They’ve taken everything this property is about, and everything we love about this property.”

“We tried to say, ‘We can live with this. We can handle this,’” she says. “But now, I just don’t know.”

Laura Amos doesn’t know what not to do. One morning, she drives off to Denver to sit in on an industry conference on frac’ing, and then cruises back home to attend an evening meeting of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. A day later, the woman who’s informally been deemed the “Erin Brockovich of the West” spends her morning showing the area to reporters; the following day she meets with Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar’s Western Colorado aide. Every night, insomnia rouses her prematurely, and she works at her computer.

In April, Laura visited Washington, D.C., and spoke with Congressional aides and representatives from across the country, including the offices of Sen. Salazar, Democratic Rep. John Salazar and Rep. Udall, from Colorado. Her trip paid off two weeks later when Sen. Jim Jeffords, an Independent from Vermont, introduced legislation to require the EPA to regulate frac’ing chemicals through the Safe Drinking Water Act. Sen. Salazar is considering signing on.

While Amos’ story clearly had an impact in Washington, she isn’t the only one making sure her voice is heard in the Beltway.

Last October, Weston Wilson, a 30-year-veteran environmental engineer in the EPA’s Denver regional office, raised a series of questions about frac’ing. In an eighteen-page letter to the agency’s Inspector General and members of Congress, Wilson claimed the EPA’s rule failed to consider studies that showed frac’ing fluids could indeed contaminate underground drinking water. He also raised concerns that industry reps, including a technical advisor from Halliburton, dominated the scientific review panel.

The EPA is still looking into Wilson’s charges, but the whistleblower was recently sent from Colorado to Africa, where he was temporarily assigned to work on a project unrelated to the oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, new EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson spoke at the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association in Breckenridge this June and said, “Rather than the EPA being a stumbling block for energy development, I want it to be a catalyst for energy development while protecting the environment.”

Conservation groups concerned that environmental protection has become a secondary priority to energy development for the EPA are finding some new grassroots allies among the landowners of rural Garfield County.

“It’s the rape of our American West by the oil companies, with absolutely no focus on conservation,” says Cox of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. “And the Bush administration’s response to the problem is to drill more wells. We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it.”

Industry analysts recently predicted that Garfield County will be pocked with more than 10,000 wells by the end of the decade. It’s news like this that reinforces a unique bond that has developed between camps more accustomed to being at odds with one another.

“What an alliance this is creating,” marvels Carol Bell. “Environmentalists and ranchers are teaming up together.”

The Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and its members say they’ll continue to fight for regulations on frac’ing, monitoring of groundwater quality and evenhanded contracts between surface-rights and mineral-rights owners. The Bells have decided to dig in their heels and win some concessions from the industry rather than surrender their retirement plans just yet. The Amoses, on the other hand, are ready to get out and relocate—even if it means turning over their property to the mortgage company.

“We have an unusable, unsafe piece of property that is un-sellable,” Laura Amos says. “That’s the situation the state and industry has put us in.”

In October, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will hold a hearing to determine the fine against EnCana for the ongoing contamination of the Amoses’ water.

EnCana’s Murphy says the reason for the hearing is “so that everybody can put their facts on the table.”

But Laura is quick to point out that the commission is not addressing the safety of frac’ing fluids, only the undisputable fact that her well was tainted. And it won’t appease her in her quest to get to the bottom of what happened. She isn’t taking anyone’s word that Windex and Snickers are responsible for her contaminated water and her battle with cancer.

“We probably wouldn’t be so bitter if they just became accountable and said ‘Yeah, we f’d up,’” says Laura. “But all’s they do is lie and deny.”

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Wardrobe Malfunction

Wardrobe Malfunction

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 7, 2005

By Joshua Zaffos

It can hardly be considered a coincidence that West Nile virus swarmed America, and then the insect-repellent garment industry had a breakthrough. Just imagine a group of investors, outdoorsmen, scientists and fashionistas assembled in the late ’90s to outfit the “swat team,” as Colorado health officials have dubbed citizens wary of disease-bearing mosquitoes. In 2001, a limited liability company formed in Greensboro, North Carolina, to manufacture and sell BUZZ OFF Insect Shield apparel.

Asian tiger mosquito, a vector of West Nile virus (photo via US CDC)

Now, L.L. Bean, Orvis and Ex Officio offer shirts, shorts, hats, pants and socks “impregnated” with bug-repelling, patent-pending technology. Fort Collins residents can buy BUZZ OFF clothes at Jax and REI.

This sounds like a godsend for Coloradans and all Americans. West Nile virus landed in the U.S. in 1999 and arrived in Colorado two summers ago. That year, 2,947 people in Colorado reported West Nile symptoms and 63 died. In Larimer and Weld counties, 948 citizens were diagnosed with the virus and fifteen of them died. Last Wednesday, the counties confirmed the first two cases of West Nile for the year statewide.

Mosquitoes spread West Nile by biting infected birds and picking up the disease. Then, one little vampire flies off, sinks her proboscis into a fleshy elbow, penetrates a blood vessel and leaves behind the virus. Symptoms include fever and body aches, but can progress to convulsions, encephalitis or meningitis—which both involve inflammation of parts of the brain—and even death.

The stats and symptoms escalate that buzzing by your ear from annoying to perilous. Sweat, induced by the heat and fear, increases your chance of infection since mosquitoes are attracted by scent. The burning sting on the back of your neck becomes exacerbated by an itchy paranoia over imminent brain swelling.

Why wouldn’t a person run out and buy BUZZ OFF clothing? A wardrobe that wards off mosquitoes bearing West Nile virus and ticks with Lyme Disease could save humanity. “How does it work?” you wonder, as you stand in line at the register of your favorite outdoor clothing store. According to the tags, “BUZZ OFF Insect Shield builds into your clothes a manmade version of a centuries-old insect repellent made from chrysanthemums.”

That kinda sounds like the campy ’70s commercial when the Asian laundry man credits an “ancient Chinese secret” for getting clothes clean, but it turns out to be the detergent additive Calgon.

Chrysanthemums do produce a natural chemical called pyrethrin. You can make it at home by crushing the dried flowers. But BUZZ OFF uses a synthetic pyrethroid called permethrin, which was engineered to be much more toxic than flower power.

Permethrin is a neurotoxin that’s applied as an industrial crop pesticide—and has been sprayed over Fort Collins in previous summers. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the chemical as a possible cancer-causing agent, which is why BUZZ OFF is the first line of clothing ever registered with the government agency. Studies reviewed by the World Health Organization show an increase in lung and liver tumors in mice exposed to permethrin. Further, some experts believe permethrin is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can monkey around with the hormones that cue our growth and development.

An alarming example could be the 30,000 cases of Gulf War Syndrome among soldiers who fought in Iraq the first time around. The illness causes chronic muscle and joint pain, memory loss and general neurological damage. Research from Duke University suggests that Gulf War Syndrome may be linked to the use of permethrin-impregnated clothing in combination with anti-nerve gas drugs and DEET, the most popular toxic bug spray.

“Ancient Chinese secret, huh?”

None of these health risks is on the labels for BUZZ OFF. The tags sewn on the neurotoxin-laden clothing don’t even mention permethrin. The manufacturers do, however, tell consumers to wash BUZZ OFF clothing separate from the rest of the laundry and that its repellent powers wear off after 25 washings. Field data already prove that permethrin from agricultural use builds up in rivers where it’s lethal to the fish and critters that live in the waters.

Government health departments concede that West Nile virus is rare, and most infected people won’t even know they have it. Officials say the peak in transmission occurs the second year after the virus shows up, meaning Colorado and most of the country has already seen the worst of it. Last year, there were fewer than 300 cases and only four deaths in the entire state. Our counties had just 25 cases; everyone survived.

There are plenty of truly natural insect repellents, including citronella, lemongrass and tea tree oil. Public health and consumer groups are pushing for the clothing tags on BUZZ OFF to fully disclose the dangers of permethrin. But as with so many other toxic chemicals, this is probably another experiment where we’ll learn the results the hard way.

And that’s enough to sting us with a really painful dose of paranoia.
Staff reporter Joshua Zaffos uses a combo of lemongrass and B.O. to ward off the skeeters.

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Buffalo Soldiers

buffhazeActivists and government agents battle over where America’s last wild buffalo will roam.

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, April 2005 (Also published via AlterNet, May 2005)
By Joshua Zaffos

It’s early April and I’m bedded down, embedded if you will, along the floodplain of the Madison River in Montana. Crouching next to me in the willows and late spring snow, Justine Sanchez has the volume on her two-way radio turned down low so as not to reveal our whereabouts to the Gallatin County deputy sheriff parked on the shoulder above us.

A distant hootin’ and hollerin’ of men on horseback, the crisp blast of blank rifle rounds, or “crackers,” and the approaching buzz of snowmobiles signal a looming clash. This area comprising and surrounding Yellowstone National Park has been a battleground since white men showed up (how many environmental stories start this way?) and the American buffalo, icon of the West, stands at the center of the conflict.

With her worn wool sweater, hand-knit hat and long dreadlocks, Sanchez is a warrior-activist with the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), “the only group working in the field, every day, to stop the slaughter and harassment of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo.” Most of the year, she lives in the Colorado mountain town of Ward, where she leads yoga classes, works at a spa and raises her 8-year-old son, Japhy, with her husband, Roman, a bilingual elementary education teacher. But each winter since 2000, the Sanchez family has joined hundreds of volunteers protecting the buffalo on the western boundary of Yellowstone.

Some of the bison carry a disease called brucellosis, which they contracted from cattle almost 90 years ago. Brucellosis causes reduced fertility, lesions in females’ reproductive tracts and abortion of the first pregnancy after exposure. Now, Montana and its cattle are certified as brucellosis-free and ranchers fear the buffalo will infect their livestock. Although such a transmission has never occurred, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) persecutes buffalo that leave Yellowstone: Agents round up and force, or haze, roaming herds back to the national park, capturing and testing animals for brucellosis and killing those that are infected. This is the battle that BFC volunteers enlist to fight.

Hazing the Herd

The week before my arrival here, nearly 300 buffalo wandered seven miles outside the national park along the Madison River to Horse Butte, where pregnant females migrate every spring to give birth. Even though no cattle graze the area this time of year and only a few do so in the summer–after risk of infection has virtually disappeared–the DOL captured 24 bison and killed eight that tested positive for brucellosis. State agents hazed the remaining herd back inside Yellowstone, like a postmodern cattle drive with snowmobiles and “crackers.” Bison have already returned to Horse Butte.

A crackle and a voice come over the airwaves of Sanchez’s radio. I barely make out the words although the message is immediately clear. She springs into action and I follow, scampering up the slope from the river to the road, just in time to see about two dozen bison jog in an unnaturally tight formation from the other side of U.S. Highway 191, then hop the guardrail and cross toward us.

A herd this size took refuge in the heart of Yellowstone 120 years ago, following a campaign by American pioneers to vanquish the buffalo and Native American economies centered around the species. That herd spawned the 4,200 or so wild bison that exist in the region today.

“We love you,” Sanchez calls out to the beasts.

On the heels of the animals are six “bubbles,” as the BFC volunteers identify snowmobiles over their radios. The machines skid across the highway asphalt and then onto the dirt of the shoulder as the buffalo exhaustedly trot down to the Madison and across the imaginary line that means they’re back inside the national park.

The county sheriff’s deputy, Rob Burns, drives toward us to reprimand Sanchez for getting so close to the animals. Other BFC volunteers–more than a dozen of them–emerge from other surveillance posts, seemingly materializing from the woods and earth. They converge not 50 feet from the agents, ready to conduct their own haze of sorts, harassing the government employees who are harassing the buffalo they’re here to defend.

“We don’t really get this close to these guys in this capacity,” Sanchez admits to me after the deputy walks off. For a moment, I wonder if she’s talking about the massive buffalo or the government agents, but it’s obvious which ones she thinks are more dangerous.

Psychological Warfare

“Y’all should get a real job,” shouts Stephany Seay, who along with Sanchez is one of two media coordinators for the campaign. She’s wearing a silver buffalo pendant around her neck, a green military jacket and a brown wool skullcap. Her eyes are a fierce blue. Like several other volunteers, she has a camcorder tightly trained on the government officials as she wages psychological warfare on them.

“Where’s all your cows, livestock inspectors?” demands Seay, who then goes into a mocking redneck drawl. “‘Let’s go chase the buffalo, guh.'” Her comrades snicker and keep the cameras rolling.

The officials, who actually represent a variety of government agencies including the DOL; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the U.S. Forest Service; and the National Park Service, don’t respond. They gather with the county deputy and look under the hoods of a few of the snowmobiles, the motors apparently overworked from skidding through the dirt.

Together, these agencies implement the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a cooperative scheme finalized in 2000. The plan upholds the DOL’s right to control and kill wandering buffalo in the name of disease control for cattle, yet also outlines steps for increasing tolerance for bison roaming along rivers outside the park.

Steve Torbit, a Boulder-based senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, calls the plan a “small but significant step” because, without the agreement, any bison that left the park would be killed on sight.

“On the other hand,” says Torbit, “Montana still continues to harass bison on the western side of the park where there are no cattle.”

Five years into the plan, tolerance for the buffalo hasn’t increased much. Animals that leave the park are still hazed, captured and slaughtered. Buffalo calves are sometimes vaccinated for brucellosis and quarantined for up to four years, although the vaccine isn’t entirely successful and the effects of enclosed isolation on the animals’ natural behavior are unclear. The BFC and other critics argue that the engine driving the management plan isn’t working properly either.

Deputy Burns now approaches the BFC volunteers, mostly twenty-something-year-old kids with unruly beards, bandannas tied around their heads and faces, and ragtag clothing. My nose is stuffed, but one of my newspaper colleagues tells me they have “enough hippie B.O. to choke a horse.” Here’s a band of eco-Zapatistas and, as the cop approaches, the mountain air stings even through my clogged nasal passages like a riot might erupt.

Buffalo on the Badge

“Sir, I’m going to need to talk to you about a federal investigation about assaulting an officer,” Deputy Burns says to Roman Sanchez, Justine’s husband. A black fleece ski mask covers most of Roman’s head; wraparound sunglasses hide his eyes.

Burns corrals the defiant Roman a few yards away to question him. The other BFC volunteers keep the camcorders locked in, pushing closer to the officials. Their jeers escalate toward a hostile antagonism, including shouts of “liars” and “racists.” Apparently, one of the agents called Roman a “nigger” yesterday; today, they’re claiming that Roman threw a snowball at one of the federal agents.

“Is this why you joined the Park Service?” Seay snarls at a law enforcement official, sticking her camera in his face. “To harass the last wild buffalo and support racist behavior? Buffalo on the badge and everything.”

He says nothing.

Mike Mease, one of the BFC’s cofounders, later details where this aggression is coming from. “In the last three weeks, we’ve had some of the worst violence aimed at us that I’ve ever seen.”

Last week, a pickup truck fired off paintballs at volunteers stationed along the road. Before that, someone loosened the lugnuts on a BFC car and a tire fell off the vehicle when a volunteer started driving. Combined with the onslaught of this year’s hazing and killing, passions and tempers are running high.

Justine Sanchez stands behind the others, a soothing voice amid the rage. “Montana should be celebrating that the last wild buffalo have chosen to live here,” she keeps repeating.

Eventually, Deputy Burns finishes his talk with Roman. Both sides simmer and disperse. The government agents hop on their snowmobiles and disappear back across the road. The BFC volunteers return to their posts. The buffalo are already out of sight but will inevitably migrate along the Madison to Horse Butte again.

Tom, an older volunteer with Native American ancestry and a long, white beard, leans over to me and speaks with a grin. “Welcome to our world.”

Central Command

The world of the Buffalo Field Campaign physically exists in a setting that most of us only know through postcards and Robert Redford movies. When not spread out in the field along the Madison River and its tributaries, the group shacks up along the shore of Hebgen Lake, ten miles from the national park tourist trap of West Yellowstone, Montana, a town of 1,100 people that caters to summer RVs and winter snowmobiles.

A few days before my arrival, Seay emails directions to the BFC compound: “We are out on [Highway] 287 right by the Square Deal Bar–you’ll see the large cabin and tipis, and you’ll know that’s us.”

The cabin and a few other outbuildings are actually remnants of a previous high-country commune. Not much has changed since the BFC set up shop eight years ago. The log cabin houses anywhere from twenty to 60 volunteers, depending on the week. The rooms and lofts are mostly packed with tight bunks. A side room nicknamed Siberia–in a region where winter temps drop to 60 below zero–is lined with dry goods and activist paraphernalia like banners and papier mâché effigies of Park Service employees. One outbuilding functions as the media center, filled with recording equipment and computers; another serves as Central Command for the wild-haired field crew.

A handful of paid staffers, including Sanchez, Seay and Mease, live in yurts and tipis scattered around the cabins. Mease has a large bison painted on his tipi. Some Native Americans decorated their tipis with animals or other images to invoke their powers, and there was no symbol more potent than the bison.

Mease is the godfatherly bull of this herd of activists. He originally came with a few others to the Yellowstone region in 1990 to videotape the slaughter of the buffalo. The dedicated corps grew each year and drew the attention of allies, including members of the American Indian Movement and other Native American activists.

The catalyzing episode occurred during the severe winter of 1996-1997 when the Department of Livestock killed 1,083 buffalo. Mease videotaped the massacre, and the activists officially formed the Buffalo Field Campaign in the aftermath. By the following winter, they were set up on Hebgen Lake, a worldwide call for volunteers was out, and the BFC was shining a macabre spotlight on the grisly work of the State of Montana.

Field Work

Now, the group’s annual field season runs from November until May or June, coinciding with the buffalo’s migration from their territory inside the national park to the river bottoms beyond where they give birth to their calves in the spring. Volunteers mainly monitor and document the movement of the buffalo and the DOL, often enduring long, cold shifts in the field.

But the group also uses methods similar to those employed by the eco-activists who treesit 150 feet above the ground in California redwoods, in protest of logging. Last spring, a BFC volunteer named Akiva constructed a “mono-pod”–a 30-foot-high platform on a pole–blocking the door to the state’s bison trap. He camped atop the structure for a week, effectively halting the capture and slaughter of buffalo.

“I think it’s good we have a lot of different tactics,” says Justine Sanchez. “Some honey, some vinegar.”

She and Seay send out weekly emails to supporters detailing the DOL’s actions, how many bison are killed each season–98 this year, as of May 19–and post video of hazing and capture operations.

“They’re keeping the issue alive,” says Torbit of the National Wildlife Federation. “We’ve worked with BFC over the years and I have tremendous respect for Mike Mease.”

“They certainly help balance the issue,” says Rick Wallen of the National Park Service, “because the people on the other end of the spectrum”–those with the snowmobiles, the guns and the power–“have their own biases, too.”

The strategy and goals of the field campaign have drawn financial support from media mogul Ted Turner, who has his own reintroduced buffalo herd north of the park; clothing donations from manufacturer Patagonia; and a van from musician Jackson Browne. U.S. Representative and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich visited the group last year and even spoke up in Congress for the BFC and the federal legislation it’s pushing in conjunction with the National Parks Conservation Association, the Humane Society and other environmental and animal-rights organizations.

Known as the Yellowstone Buffalo Preservation Act, the bill would scrap the Interagency Bison Management Plan and allow buffalo to range over Horse Butte and other public lands neighboring the park without threat of slaughter. The act would also shift most decision-making authority from Montana to the Park Service and dismantle a testing and slaughtering pen inside Yellowstone’s northern boundary. More than 100 Congressional representatives, mostly Democrats, cosponsored the legislation during the last session. But it’s still a long way from passing and has yet to be reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this year.

A Political Issue

At the state level, environmental groups are optimistic following last November’s election of Democrat Brian Schweitzer as Montana’s governor. Schweitzer, a cattle rancher, cancelled the first planned buffalo hunt in the state in 15 years this January, a move applauded by the BFC and animal-rights groups. Steve Torbit and the National Wildlife Federation, which supports bison hunting as a long-term management tool, also opposed the hunt because the DOL, not the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, would have had political authority for wildlife management.

“The reality is that this is a political issue,” says Tim Stevens, Yellowstone Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Stevens is encouraged by the governor’s interest but says it’s not entirely clear how things will play out.

Schweitzer has talked about paying Montana ranchers to remove cattle from potential bison range–a tool used by the National Wildlife Federation to buy out most of the cattle grazing on Horse Butte. But the new governor has also suggested rounding up the entire Yellowstone herd to test and vaccinate all 4,200 buffalo.

The BFC says the idea threatens the wild behavior of the bison herd, similar to the current quarantine of some buffalo calves.

Stevens believes the plan is “impractical,” and beside the point. “It’s a false specter of disease transmission.”

Not a Threat

The fact that bison have never infected a single cow with brucellosis, says DOL spokeswoman Karen Cooper, proves the interagency management plan is working. Tests show that 40 to 50 percent of Yellowstone bison carry the disease, enough for Cooper to call them “a chronically infected herd.” She says since the state spent 50 years and $30 million to make sure ranchers’ cattle are brucellosis-free, wandering bison pose an economic threat. Once the herd’s infection rate drops, the animals will be freer to roam outside the park.

Rick Wallen, a wildlife biologist who heads Yellowstone National Park’s bison ecology program, confirms that about half of the herd has been infected with brucellosis. But half of those animals now carry only antibodies to the disease, Wallen explains, meaning they’re “probably not a threat to shedding the bacteria.”

Meanwhile, elk in Yellowstone also carry brucellosis.

“The probability of elk co-mingling with cattle is higher than the probability of bison co-mingling” due to seasonal migration patterns, says Wallen.

But the probability of infection for elk is only 1 to 4 percent, so they aren’t harassed or slaughtered.

“There are some philosophical questions we debate,” Wallen says, “and [Montana] state managers have to account for.”

Wallen is referring to acceptable levels of risk, but there are other questions, too: Should bison be allowed to roam freely like other wildlife, such as elk, and should they be hunted? Should an agency dedicated to a single special interest have a controlling stake in a public resource like wildlife? Should politics trump science in the management of a species once on the brink of extermination?

The BFC thinks the answers to these philosophical queries shouldn’t come from government agents looking out for Montana’s livestock industry.

“Our presence here,” says Darrell Geist, a campaign cofounder and board member, “is a rhetorical question to the American people: What vision do you have for the last wild buffalo?”

Roadside Ruckus

It’s Goth night back at the cabin, meaning loud punk-metal blares from a stereo in the kitchen and the night’s cooks are dressed in black. One volunteer has the pelvis of some animal tied to his face. Dinner is a white bean casserole with a thick crust of nutritional yeast, salad and bread. Darrell Geist, Mike Mease, Roman Sanchez and a few others are talking through their strategy for dealing with the deputy’s allegations of assault by a snowball. They’ve already phoned the group’s attorney and the governor’s office.

The campaign holds a nightly meeting at which the next day’s field shifts and chores are divvied out. Warren, a 23-year old volunteer with a nest of curly hair on his head, is running tonight’s session. He left behind a post as a U.S. Navy nuclear engineer a year ago to hitchhike around the country before landing here for the winter. He opens the meeting by asking if any staff or volunteers have an “agenda.”

Jen refreshes folks on protocol for speaking on the two-way radios, and Drew alerts the others that a pickup truck swerved at him this afternoon. Dan reminds volunteers to go fishing only after their patrol shift ends. Bobcat asks his comrades not to use the back door anymore.

Mike Mease then speaks about today’s roadside ruckus, concluding with a caveat: “Every time you take it out on the DOL, they take it out on the buffalo.”

“Next time, let’s try something different,” offers Tom, the bearded, older volunteer, wearing a green shirt, red suspenders and a long blue stocking cap. “Let’s just be quiet and watch ’em and film ’em. And if that doesn’t work,” he concludes with the joking grin I saw earlier, “we’ll throw rocks.”

Silence and rocks, slurs and snowballs, “crackers” and bullets, honey and vinegar. The Buffalo Field Campaign readies for bed and another long day tomorrow of whatever it takes until America’s wild buffalo can roam freely beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park.

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Sprawl of the Wild

In 2005, I moved to Colorado’s Front Range to work for the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, an independent weekly in Fort Collins.

My first article for the Bullhorn — and one of my favorite pieces that I penned for the newspaper — covered illegal poaching of elk in Estes Park, outside Rocky Mountain National Park, and the proliferation of elk in the region due to a lack of natural controls (read: wolves and predators).

Years later, poaching remains a problem, wolf reintroduction and hunting in the national park remains controversial, and wildlife management remains a general enigma in the Estes Valley.

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Sprawl of the Wild

As their population surges, elk in Estes Park become easy targets for poachers.

By Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, January 27, 2005

If ever an elk was a martyr, his name was Samson. A hulking 1,000-pound, eight-by-nine-point bull, Samson probably could have run for mayor of Estes Park in the mid ’90s he was so popular. Tourists and locals visited him at his hangout at the YMCA of the Rockies, south of town near Mary’s Lake, and just about everyone found joy in snapping his photo and feeding him treats.

“Samson would stop right in the road for you to give him an apple,” recalls Bryan Michener, a long-time resident and a member of the Estes Valley Improvement Association, a nonprofit valley citizens’ group. One time, a couple even tried to saddle their 2-year old on Samson’s shoulders for a Christmas photo.

“Like he was in Santa’s herd,” Michener says, as he sips coffee with some friends at the Notchtop Bakery and Café in Estes Park. Still, Samson was a (relatively) wild animal, and Michener says the handouts and human contact amounted to “a death warrant.”

On the night of November 11, 1995, Randal Francis, a resident of Lakewood, illegally killed Samson on the lawn of the YMCA with a crossbow. During Francis’ trial for the wildlife poaching crime, one YMCA staff worker told the court that the bull elk “was so trusting of people that [Francis] could have walked up to Samson and slit his throat. There was no sport in the killing.”

The incident brought nationwide attention to Estes Park and raised awareness of wildlife poaching to a new level. Continue reading

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