Category: Wildlife

Stories about wildlife

People Keep Shooting Long-Billed Curlews in Southwest Idaho

People Keep Shooting Long-Billed Curlews in Southwest Idaho

A female Long-billed Curlew found shot on Idaho’s Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in June 2018. (Photo: Stephanie Coates)

Long-Billed Curlews aren’t shy about taking wing to fend off threats to their nests in the rangelands of Idaho. “They will get up and above a raptor and steeply dive, and their flight can be almost falcon-like,” says Jay Carlisle, research director of the Intermountain Bird Observatory. “It’s awe-inspiring.”

But the curlews’ spectacular aerial “mobbing” displays are growing rarer in southwest Idaho, once the densest nesting ground for the birds in the United States. Surveys suggest their overall numbers have dropped by 92 percent in the region over the last 40 years. And based on available data, the biggest threat is poaching: recreational shooters who are illegally killing the birds at an alarming rate, particularly around Boise and the surrounding Treasure Valley region.

“People Keep Shooting Long-Billed Curlews in Southwest Idaho”

Audubon, June 28, 2018

House Republicans want to ‘repeal and replace’ the ESA

House Republicans want to ‘repeal and replace’ the ESA

The Gunnison sage grouse is a threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act (Photo via U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Utah Congressman Rob Bishop is leading a charge to completely repeal the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Since 1973, the ESA has enabled the federal government to recognize species as “threatened” or “endangered,” and to set rules and restrictions on human activity to protect and recover at-risk wildlife, fish, insects and plants. The act is considered a global beacon for preventing extinction, and environmentalists insist that the ESA rarely blocks development.

But Bishop and other Republicans instead see a law that creates expensive and time-consuming regulations for landowners and industries, with few success stories. For years, they have tried to modify and weaken the law. But Bishop has even said the ESA is so dysfunctional that lawmakers may “simply have to start over again,” and “repeal it and replace it.” That might mean giving state wildlife management agencies primary responsibility for species conservation. Protections could vary widely, and since states get their funds from hunting licenses and fees, they might be tempted to prioritize game management over at-risk species.

ESA proponents have so far largely succeeded in fending off the attacks. But with Donald Trump on his way to the White House, a conservative Republican Congress, and a soon-to-be conservative-leaning Supreme Court, environmentalists and legal scholars are taking Bishop’s threat seriously.

“Any Congressional action that would weaken the Endangered Species Act at all would be pretty dramatic,” says Dan Rohlf, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland. “What Rep. Bishop is talking about would be a major decision in the environmental history of this country.”

“House Republicans want to ‘repeal and replace’ the ESA”

High Country News, December 28, 2016

Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects

Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects

Cars drive on County Road 43, in Larimer County, Colorado, past a road reconstruction project after the 2013 floods. Some bridge-building may have contributed to a fish die-off (Photo via Larimer Country Road 43 Public Infrastructure Project)

In March 2016, a resident of the small Colorado towns of Drake and Glen Haven — situated within northern Colorado’s Big Thompson River Canyon — reported noticing funky gray water in a side creek of the river and a murder of crows picking at a few dead fish. A few days later, March 7, a large plume of more cloudy water ran down the Big Thompson, leaving behind a massive fish kill. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials now confirm that more than 5,600 fish, mostly rainbow and brown trout, died in the Big Thompson and its North Fork, and are blaming concrete from a bridge reconstruction project, part of the state’s massive recovery and reconstruction effort following the devastating September 2013 floods.

The die-off is alarming news for the Big Thompson, a popular fly fishing river among tourists and locals, which formerly generated an annual $4.3 million for the region. Larry Rogstad, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Manager, says the “iconic” fishery is also important as one of the only rivers in Colorado with wild rainbow trout free of whirling disease. The 2013 floods had already knocked back the river’s fish populations, and Rogstad estimates the recent incident killed more than half of the estimated fish within an eight-mile-long downstream stretch of river.

Jeff Crane, a consulting river hydrologist and restoration expert, says he’s surprised at the magnitude of the fish kill. But he adds that it’s also important to recognize the complexity and ambition behind recovery projects aiming to improve rivers’ natural functions and flood resiliency.

For instance, the previously straightened river now bends and courses through the middle of the canyon, while several new bridges are replacing buried culverts that typically get blocked or exceed capacity during flooding. “We’re actually ‘building’ a whole new river,” says Crane, a proponent of “natural channel design” that mimics natural landforms and uses less grouted rock, or riprap, than conventional flood-protection measures. Despite the fish kill, the local restoration should improve fish and aquatic habitat and reduce flooding damage in the long run, Crane says.

“Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects”

High Country News, April 26, 2016

In bison recovery, scientists start small

In bison recovery, scientists start small

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, at the City of Fort Collins’ Soapstone Prairie Natural Area (Photo: City of Fort Collins Natural Areas)

Up to 60 million bison once wandered the plains. The largest land mammal in North America, the bison is now recognized as a keystone species that helps maintain the ecology of grasslands. Their grazing habits influence the diversity of forbs and grasses, and their hooves help aerate the soil. Even their dirt wallows create seasonal habitat for birds and affect how fire moves through grasslands.

Today, there are an estimated 500,000 scattered across the plains but nearly all are managed as livestock, destined to become buffalo burger. Fewer than 21,000 are part of 62 “conservation herds” that are managed for environmental purposes with limited human intervention, and many of those have cattle genes. Even fewer genetically pure animals are considered truly free-roaming and “wild.” Many scientists consider the species to be ecologically extinct, meaning that its functional role in the landscape has been eliminated.

So while the reintroduction of 10 bison in Colorado’s Laramie Foothills may not sound like that big a deal, genetically pure conservation herds like this one are a crucial step toward restoring wild bison to the Western landscape. They could help calm ranchers’ longstanding worries about disease, and over time new herds have the potential to become self-sustaining populations that more closely resemble historic herds — if, that is, state and local managers are willing to give them room to grow.

“In bison recovery, scientists start small”

High Country News, April 6, 2016

In the Sagebrush Marketplace, A New Way to Protect Species

In the Sagebrush Marketplace, A New Way to Protect Species

Rancher T. Wright Dickinson surveys sage grouse habitat on his cattle’s summer range. (JZ)
Rancher T. Wright Dickinson surveys sage grouse habitat on his cattle’s summer range. (JZ)

Cows aren’t the only animals on the move this time of year. Greater sage grouse gather in open patches of sagebrush, known as leks, where the male birds perform their noisy strutting display to attract female mates. Afterward, the birds disperse into nearby wetter meadows to nest and hatch their chicks. In winter, the birds find sheltered draws where they survive eating sagebrush leaves.

Greater sage grouse follow that annual routine in 11 Western states on more than 78 million acres. But the species has declined by 45 to 80 percent in recent decades due to sagebrush loss and fragmentation caused by overgrazing, subdivision and sprawl, booming energy development, and other factors, such as predation and disease. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering the grouse to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Such a move could hinder ranching, oil and gas drilling, and wind and solar energy across the American West, potentially costing up to $5.6 billion in annual economic activity and up to $262 million in annual state and local revenue.

Rancher T. Wright Dickinson isn’t interested in federal mandates. Instead, he is backing a novel approach to conservation through a so-called “sagebrush marketplace.” The Colorado Habitat Exchange aims to help sage grouse by allowing energy companies and developers that unavoidably fragment or degrade grouse habitat to purchase “credits” from landowners, such as Dickinson, to mitigate, or offset, their impacts. In return, the landowners agree to protect and restore critical wintering, breeding, and nesting grounds for the bird.

Dickinson and other rural landowners have their own hopes: that the exchange, by putting a price tag on sagebrush habitat, can help keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list, while providing ranchers with supplemental income for good land stewardship. “The exchange is creating a unit of measure for sage grouse, no different than my carrying capacity for cows,” Dickinson says. “Contracts are a methodology that landowners and industry understand.”

“In the Sagebrush Marketplace, A New Way to Protect Species”

Yale Environment 360, April 2, 2015

Species Road to Recovery

Species Road to Recovery

Gunnison sage grouse (via Western State College of Colorado)

Thousands of birds, wildlife, fish and plant species — including the Gunnison sage grouse and dunes sagebrush lizard — will be considered for protection through the Endangered Species Act over the next few years, but energy companies, and developers are hoping to avoid federal restrictions through voluntary plans. I cover the efforts and battles over species recovery for High Country News in its May 28, 2012 issue.

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Gaggle from Lowry, Denver, Colorado (photo by cooper gary"/   GT Cooper Photography
Gaggle from Lowry, Denver, Colorado (photo by cooper gary”/

Northern Colorado scientists have developed birth control for geese, but hunters have another idea for thinning the flocks

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, May 10, 2007

by Joshua Zaffos

Jim Gammonley walks through goose turds at Warren Park in south Fort Collins, approaching an unflappable gaggle of birds that includes a brood of fuzzy goslings. The bird-research program manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife tags geese in Warren Park and other sites annually to track their whereabouts.

The city parks and public and private golf courses of the northern Front Range are prime real estate for Canada geese. For centuries, the geese migrated up and down the continent, summering in the Great North and retreating south to the warm weather for the winter. Resident populations were generally uncommon.

But those patterns began to change 
in the early 20th century. Overzealous, unregulated hunters and habitat destruction nearly exterminated the geese. Wildlife biologists responded by reintroducing captive birds to maintain their stocks. The scientists became so good at the practice that states without resident goose populations soon had them.

Colorado began releasing Canada geese in 1957 at College Lake, which butts against the foothills outside Fort Collins. The plaque at the lake commemorates the practice and honors G.I. “Father Goose” Crawford, the Division of Wildlife official credited with restoring Canada geese to Northern Colorado.

This is where Colorado’s – and, to some extent, the country’s – goose problem started. Millions of geese sit around, root through and poop all over America’s golf courses, city parks, town squares and any other suburban refuge of lawn and water. College Lake isn’t even preferred territory anymore.

“By the 1970s, we had been successful enough with our efforts that we began gathering up our goslings for other states,” Gammonley says. But as other states established their own resident goose populations, Colorado ran out of places to export the birds and their annual hatchlings, many of which remained in the mild and maintained environs of suburbia.

On the other side of the lake, at
the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC), scientists may have developed a solution to thin out the masses of resident geese that don’t know, or want, to migrate each year.

The federal researchers
of the NWRC, along with a private entrepreneur from California, have developed birth control for geese. OvoControl-G prevents goose eggs from hatching. It looks kind of like Corn Pops.

“OvoControl is the first wildlife contraceptive ever, so there’s no roadmap out there,” says Erick Wolf of Innolytics, Inc., which partnered with the NWRC to research and develop the bait/ birth control.

The contraceptive could change the way wildlife managers control pesky suburban bird populations, like flocks of pigeons and geese. Its acceptance could also lead to similar control for herds of deer and other animals that are running amok in comfy, suburban and exurban spaces,once their natural habitat. But some hunters and outfitters fear birdie birth control will lead to less birds to shoot, and state wildlife agencies, dependent on hunting license revenues, will have to weigh in on the matter, and possibly figure out how to control that other form of not-so-wild
life: humans.

Planned parenthood

The Front Range’s human population began exploding around the same
time as the goose population. New neighborhoods — and parks, open spaces and golf courses — make cozy goose habitat. Children and seniors feed birds. Today, about 15,000 Canada geese reside year-round along the Front Range between Fort Collins and Pueblo.

Nationally, the numbers are even more staggering: Five million geese call the U.S. home, but only 2 million migrate across the continent.

Another astounding number: A goose excretes 1.5 pounds of feces a day, increasing human health risks of E. coli and Listeria.

Colorado has long since stopped reintroducing Canada geese. As in most states, goose management is now a combination of hunting and harassment, with the latter being preferred in and around cities for safety and humanitarian reasons.

During the spring breeding season, biologists will addle, or shake, eggs to detach the yolk from the membrane wall and keep them from hatching. Some wildlife managers will also puncture shells. In Colorado, the weapon of choice is a corn- oil spray that suffocates the shell pores
and, again, prevents hatching. (Breaking or crushing eggs isn’t all that practical because geese will simply lay a new batch.) But none of these measures really do anything to alter goose behavior.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates all management activities because Canada geese are classified as migratory birds, regardless of whether a population actually flies south for the winter. The Colorado Division of Wildlife holds a special permit from the federal agency to oil eggs. The state then registers and trains homeowners associations, golf course superintendents and parks staff.

Since the state received its permit in 2001, 44 separate entities, mostly around metro Denver, have registered to “treat” eggs or destroy nests. Last year, three permittees signed up in Larimer County and, according to Division of Wildlife stats, destroyed 27 nests and 77 eggs. Across Colorado, trained managers destroyed 442 nests and 2,555 eggs.

Dozens of other hazing measures do not require a permit. They recall a string of plot devices from Road Runner cartoons and are seemingly as successful.

“We have a guy that goes out every morning and chases away the geese
that have flown in overnight,” says Scott Robbins, superintendent for Ptarmigan Golf Course, located between Fort Collins and Windsor off Highway 392. The course has received a state permit to oil eggs, but the greens crew uses hazing tactics more frequently.

Robbins bought a remote-control boat to chase off geese on the course’s lake. His staff uses flash tape that reflects into the sky to discourage birds from landing, as well as scare balloons, inflated balls with bull’s eyes that are supposed to look like a predator’s steely pupils. “It kind of works on the migratory geese, but the resident ones, they’ve seen everything,” Robbins says. “The geese will not even generally move for a golf cart.”

At Fort Collins’ city 
golf courses, manager 
Jerry P. Brown has tried
 scaring off resident birds
 using everything from 
inflatable alligators to
 goose carcasses. Dogs, 
which will chase geese
 but won’t kill them, are
 his “best weapon of 
harassment,” and the city courses also have state permits to oil eggs. (Depending on a city’s laws, some parks or golf courses fire blank cracker shells to frighten the geese into moving elsewhere.)

“We do it simply because geese are
a big nuisance to our customers and to us,” Brown says, “and they’re a nuisance because of the pooping. A golf course is a smorgasbord to a goose.”

The kibble contraceptive

Neither Robbins nor Brown keep track 
of how much time and labor are spent fighting back the geese that stick around all year, but both say that if the gaggles grow, birth control is worth consideration.

“You’re basically swapping technology for labor,” says Wolf, of his product’s benefits.

Unlike Bill Murray’s gopher-hating character in Caddyshack, all a golf-course superintendent would need to take care of his winged annoyances
is a pan of OvoControl,
served every morning
over the two-month
breeding season.

“After about two
days, the geese are
standing in the parking
space,” waiting for
the bait, Wolf says. “It
looks like dog-food
kibbles and it tastes
like bread.” He speaks
from firsthand experience, having sampled the semi-soft morsels himself during the testing phases.

OvoControl doesn’t prevent birds from laying eggs, but it greatly reduces egg hatchability by breaking down the wall between the membrane and the yolk. The active ingredient is nicarbazin, a compound developed by Merck & Co. about 50 years ago to stave off a parasite disease in chickens.

“This is one of the compounds that provided the poultry industry the means to grow chicken at a large scale,” Wolf says.

Roughly a decade ago, Wolf was working for a company that was manufacturing for Merck when he realized nicarbazin prevented some chicken eggs from hatching. His boss saw the realization as an opportunity, and Wolf began studying how the compound could be used to produce the same result with resident geese. Soon his quest led him to contact the staff at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins.

Bait and glitch

The NWRC serves as the research arm for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Wildlife Services branch (formerly known as Animal Damage Control).

For many decades, the department dealt with varmints and problem animals by killing them as efficiently as possible. But as environmental values have changed, so has the mindset of wildlife managers. Today, NWRC scientists spend lots of time working on humane control solutions for prairie dogs, wolves and coyotes, as well as aggressive strategies for knocking back exotic species, like feral pigs, Gambian rats, nutria and brown tree snakes, which prey upon or displace native animals.

The center was experimenting
with its own contraceptive when Wolf approached them, says NWRC Product Development Research Manager Kathleen Fagerstone.

As many as 15 NWRC biologists, chemists and other researchers teamed with Wolf starting in 1998. A first round of tests on Japanese quail showed the contraceptive was working.

In 2000, Congress allocated $2 million over four years for the NWRC to continue its experiments. NWRC scientists knew how nicarbazin worked, so the major challenge was tinkering for the proper dosage, then making the bait palatable.

“We went through several years of just trying to get the geese to eat it,” Fagerstone says.

The center kept geese in feeding pens on its campus, and the scientists finally mixed a wheat-based recipe that the birds wanted to gobble. Next, they had to figure out if the dosage was right, since geese won’t lay eggs in captivity.

After years of research, OvoControl was ready for a battery of tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The bureau studied the bait’s toxicity, how it breaks down in the environment and its potential consequences on other birds and wildlife, before approving it
in late 2005. (OvoControl could affect other birds’ hatchability, although songbirds don’t breed at the same time as geese.)

“This is the first contraceptive that EPA has registered — for anything,” Fagerstone says. “It has been a learning experience for researchers and regulators, and now it will be one for the managers.”

Hunters fire back

The Humane Society and PETA have praised the animal-friendly breakthrough of OvoControl. The product also has
a thumbs-up from the American Bird Conservancy, a national nonprofit group that advocates to protect threatened
and endangered bird species. Michael Fry, the group’s pesticides and birds director, says he had some initial concerns
over potential birth deformities from OvoControl to those goslings that do hatch, but he is satisfied with the testing.

Despite the endorsements, only eleven sites in three states — Oregon, Rhode Island and California — are trailblazing into the realm of birth control for geese. They include a U.S. Navy military installation, several golf courses, and private homeowners associations and municipal lands.

Because OvoControl is the first product of its kind, the federal government is overseeing its use in the same way
as lethal measures. States are patching together rules to allow — or reject — its application.

City parks districts and a condo development in Illinois also approached Wolf to set up treatment sites, but he says those got tossed after the state Department of Natural Resources ruled that use of OvoControl, as a chemical, is illegal. The contraceptive was classified with poisons and explosives. The motivation wasn’t scientific, Wolf claims, but the result of pressure from hunting groups, which contribute a big chunk to the Department of Natural Resources’ budget through the purchase of hunting licenses.

“The way they view this thing is, if you contracept a goose, that’s one less goose to kill,” Wolf says. “Our take is that resident geese are rarely shot.”

Wolf says he’s encountered resistance from fish and game agencies and hunters in other states, too. Since no one has formally applied to use OvoControl in Colorado, Wolf isn’t sure how the state and local hunters will respond. Boulder County Parks and LongmontParks both made initial inquiries about using the contraceptive, but Wolf says they started looking too late in the season to receive treatments. Brown, the Fort Collins Manager of Golf, says he would “absolutely” try out OvoControl, but isn’t familiar with the product.

“There’s no reason for us not to permit it,” says Gammonley of the state’s wildlife division. “If we’re going to start using OvoControl, in some ways, it’s probably less controversial.”

The birth control is undoubtedly less controversial to city- park birdwatchers and animal-rights types, who are against destroying eggs and nests and harassing geese. But the hunting community’s reaction isn’t clear, and bird hunters in Colorado have clout with the Division of Wildlife.

Based on division estimates, Colorado has sold an annual average of 15,843 licenses to goose hunters since 1999. Goose hunters spend about $1 million a year in license fees that go directly to the state Division of Wildlife. That doesn’t include guide services, gun and ammo purchases, hotels, food and orange vests.

“Goose hunting is really good in Colorado,” Gammonley says. “This is
an important resource for the state. And, believe it or not, a good number of these [resident] geese do wander to ag fields and get shot.”

Through his banding efforts along
the Front Range, Gammonley can track when a hunter kills a resident goose on the Eastern Plains. Along the northern Front Range, of every five Canada geese chomping and honking and pooping along a Loveland golf course or a Fort Collins bike trail, one is eventually pumped full of buckshot.

Most of those birds are shot during a short, early hunting season, which usually lasts one to two weeks in October.

Jim Roth, co-owner of Greeley-
based Waterfowl Haven Outfitters, isn’t familiar with OvoControl, but he worries that it could hurt his business, which serves about 900 hunters a year — many from out of state — at $200 a pop.

“I don’t think you have any idea
of what would happen” to population numbers, he says. “I’d be against it. All they have to do is lengthen the season if they wanted to get [kill] more birds.”

Tad Stout is a goose-hunting guide in Severance, and he calls the early season “an integral part of our business.” But he isn’t worried about OvoControl ruining his livelihood.

“It’s not a concern at all,” says Stout, who graduated from Colorado State University with a fisheries and biology degree and first started guiding with his father, known as “Mister Goose” (notto be confused with “Father Goose” Crawford at College Lake).

“My skepticism is [over] the effectiveness,” Stout adds. “It would take a pretty aggressive, pretty extensive program to put a dent in Canada geese, and we’ve created pretty good habitat for them.”

Habitat for humanity

Wolf is now waiting for EPA registration of a new form of OvoControl aimed at pigeons. With no hunting constituency for the urban pests, he expects less opposition and hopes that acceptance of pigeon contraceptives could wear down resistance to the goose control.

In the meantime, Northern Coloradans continue to create “pretty good habitat” for resident geese. With thousands
of new homes to be constructed and dozens of new golf courses and malls
to follow, developers typically won’t
pay much attention to how their water features or landscaping might attract birds, Gammonley says. But they want a quick fix when goose poop is littering the fairway on the fourteenth hole.

Gammonley and other wildlife managers know there is no silver bullet or bait or radio-controlled boat that will override or eliminate the habits of resident geese. The same axiom holds for educating people and informing our land use as we convert farms, wetlands and rural stopovers for migratory
geese into subdivisions, office parks and suburban sanctuaries for resident geese. Which ever-growing group of residents will be easier to train to take the bait?

“That’s kind of the problem,” Gammonley says. “People and geese like the same things.”


Buffalo Soldiers

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.

Sprawl of the Wild

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.


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.

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