A few horses shift restlessly in eight stock trailers parked along the driveway and in the nearby grass. The others wait patiently even though nothing has moved for close to an hour. Law enforcement vehicles of one kind or another choke the makeshift parking lot closer to the house. A small blue helicopter is perched motionless on a snow-patched hill nearby. Gray clouds lurk ominously in the pre-dawn sky. The scene could be the staging ground for a manhunt. Instead, it is the site of a pre-roundup conference for moving several hundred buffalo that have strayed out of Yellowstone Park.
The buffalo (more properly, American bison) have come out of the Park to forage during the winter and to calve on the open slopes of Horse Butte. The land they graze this morning is a mixture of Forest Service and private property. Prior to this year, the private land has been used for grazing cattle in the summer. The property was sold and the cattle removed to make room for a “buffalo preserve” and a subdivision. Cattle will still summer nearby, just beyond the narrow arms of the lake. Because these buffalo carry a high rate of brucellosis—a disease that is highly regulated because it can infect people and has historically been a major disease of cattle—they are not permitted to mix with cattle or inhabit land where cattle will be later in the year. The detritus of calving in the springtime and abortions during the winter is considered to be the primary way to spread the disease. The timing of the roundup is to move the buffalo back into the park a month before cattle come to the ranges.
While the horses wait outside, Rob Tierney outlines the day’s plan for the cowboys and law enforcement officials with a little more attention to detail than the average ranch roundup foreman. Tierney, head of bison operations for the Montana Department of Livestock, has been involved in these buffalo drives since their beginning in the spring of 1996. He is a rancher and native Montanan. The complexities of gathering the buffalo, driving them through thick pine forest, across a river, over a main highway and through other public areas while keeping both the buffalo and public safe presents problems not normally encountered in a traditional roundup. Additionally, a local buffalo advocacy group opposes hazing the buffalo back into the Park. In the past, its members have sometimes attempted to disrupt the drives. The possibility that they might cause problems increases the tension among both the cowboys and the lawmen.
Tierney outlines a two-pronged approach to the roundup. Ernie McCaffrey and about half the cowboys will clear buffalo from an area crossed by US Highway 191 only a few miles north of West Yellowstone, Montana. Shane Grube will bring a separate herd from Horse Butte several miles to the west. Tierney will spend the day in the helicopter coordinating both drives.
The first group of buffalo near the highway are scattered in small groups through a large area of pine forest—mostly west of the road. Among the trees, long mounds of dirty snow lay in drifts, often two to three feet deep with only narrow strips of bare ground. The snow is soft, enabling the horses and bison to walk through without too much difficulty but it is a complicating factor.
Several riders in McCaffrey’s group unload their horses at the Baker’s Hole Campground. Although it is early in the season, there are a number of overnight campers. A few buffalo linger in the campground as well. Others graze in the nearby trees. Because the woods shorten the riders’ field of vision the helicopter is critical to this part of the drive. McCaffrey and his horseback crew communicate with each other and the helicopter above by two-way radio.
Meanwhile, Grube and half-dozen cowboys trailer along narrow forest roads to Horse Butte. They park near a small set of corrals that had been used as a buffalo trap during the winter. Skirting the dark-green firs on the side of the hill, they ride up and around to the grassy north slope of the Butte. Grube and his team looked much like the crew of any large, Montana mountain ranch. They wear chinks and ride an assortment of horses—one gray, a paint, a palomino, a roan and several sorrels and bays. Although the thin overcast lets much light through, the clouds hang low so that the mountains of the nearby Madison and Gallatin Ranges look hazy and cold. The ridge of Horse Butte inclines down forming a triangular peninsula between the arms of the lake. Two hundred fifty dark bison graze along the peninsula in clusters of twenty to fifty head.
From the top of the Butte, the glassy-blue waters of Hebgen Lake are less than a mile away both north and south. In mid-May at this latitude and elevation—6,550 feet at the lake and 6,950 at the peak of the Butte—there is barely a hint of green to the grass and smaller drifts of tired-looking snow linger in the shade.
It is nothing short of amazing that these buffalo roundups take place at all is. It requires cooperation between two federal agencies, the National Park Service from the Department of Interior and the National Forest Service from the Agricultural Department, two state agencies, the Montana Department of Livestock and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s department.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) a different agency within the Department of Agriculture does not participate directly in the roundup but is instrumental in formulating the rules that control the process. This is the federal agency that regulates diseases, including brucellosis. Typically, when a commentary mentions brucellosis, the explanation of its importance is that it causes abortion in cattle. It does─but so do several other diseases all of which, including brucellosis, are controlled through vaccination. The economic impact on ranchers from brucellosis comes primarily from the federal government’s regulation of the disease. APHIS regulates the disease because people can contract it from livestock—much as tuberculosis in livestock is regulated. Over the past seventy-four years, at a huge cost, brucellosis has been virtually eliminated from domestic cattle. Buffalo and elk in Yellowstone Park and the area that surrounds it are the primary reservoir of the disease in the United States.
From the air, Tierney keeps track of pedestrians and traffic on the highway as well as the buffalo and riders. “There is a bunch (of buffalo) north of the river (Madison),” he reports. And minutes later, “There are about thirty-five head south of the river plus a few calves.” Later, he advises the riders to avoid the bridge. “We’ll try to cross them here where there is a good bank for the calves to come out on.”
Some of the pedestrians are early season campers in the Baker’s Hole campground. Others appear to be members of the advocacy group, walking in pairs as near to the buffalo as the officers would allow. Everyone involved in the drive remains on high alert for the protesters who sometimes appear without warning at the most inopportune times.
As the small bunches of buffalo begin to coalesce and approach the highway, Tierney directs the law enforcement officers to stop traffic so that the buffalo can cross. Beyond the highway, he counsels the riders close to the river to take the buffalo up the rim where it is easier going rather than try to traverse a low, swampy area. Probably twenty or thirty head cross through Baker’s Hole campground, among the campers. Somehow, the cowboys together with law enforcement personnel from the Forest Service and Gallatin County manage to keep everyone safe.
Much of the time, the helicopter lingers well above the treetops, occasionally rising up and wheeling away for a different view. Interestingly enough, when Tierney and his pilot want to direct the movement of a small group of buffalo, instead of swooping down toward the animals, they just drop slightly closer to the treetops and hover. As the buffalo below them begin to move, the helicopter often turns in the opposite direction and drifts along backwards with the animals. Although the buffalo move away from the helicopter, they show little fear and generally travel at a leisurely pace. The pilot avoids dropping directly over the riders, and the horses seem to accept the beating noise of the chopper blades, at least as long as it remains a few hundred feet away.
McCaffrey’s voice comes over the radio. “I’ve had some bison turn back and I can’t get ahead of them.” In the thickly timbered area, the buffalo have a speed advantage over a horse and rider. From his vantage point above, Tierney sees the position of all the riders and their groups of buffalo. He notes that McCaffrey’s progress is better than the cowboy can see from the ground, answers, “Believe it or not, you’re all headed in the right direction.”
Ahead lies an area burned out by an old forest fire. “You’re four or five hundred yards from the open now,” Tierney announces. “We’ll try to put all these bunches together.”
When McCaffrey’s crew get the buffalo gathered into one herd, the adults number in the neighborhood of 100 head. In earlier years, the drive would have stopped just across the Park boundary and within hours, the buffalo would have been back outside. This year Park officials are allowing the move to continue to Cougar Meadows, in about ten miles.
By the time McCaffrey’s herd is moving together inside the Park, Grube’s crew has begun circling a group of slightly more than fifty buffalo cows and their calves on the Horse Butte peninsula. These buffalo tend to run in loosely cohesive, family groups. Over the years, Grube and Tierney have learned that the buffalo move better and are more likely to stay where they are put when their social group is not disrupted. Now instead of trying to move all the buffalo from the peninsula in one day and stirring everything together, they make several smaller moves.
The cowboys bring the herd around the south side of the Butte through the trees and past the trap where the country is mostly open. Tierney flies over a time or two but does not stay. In addition to a two-way radio, Grube carries a cell phone and occasionally pauses for a call.
Although the cows looked thin, reflecting a tough winter, the curly-haired, buff-colored calves look strong and healthy. The moving herd is all cows and calves. During most of the year, including May, the bulls run in small males-only groups or alone. At times any of the buffalo can be difficult to handle. They are quick tempered and can run faster than a horse. If they choose, any of them can gore a horse to death. The bulls can be much more difficult and nearly every summer, tourists are injured or killed when they attempt to approach them.
Despite their sometimes-unpredictable nature, the cows walk along at a steady pace much like you might expect beef cows to act. Near the lake, they trot briefly down into and across a broad gully then return to a walk. They stay bunched fairly well with the calves in the middle. In early years of this hazing, the buffalo were wilder and sometimes galloped all the way back to the park. Most of these cows have been in these drives since they were calves, and it appears to be in the ordinary course of business.
As the herd proceeds along a low bench above the lake, the pine trees become thicker. A couple of cowboys detour to a nearby open park and pick up an additional twenty head that have been grazing there. Past the end of the lake, the herd drops off the bench and chooses a path nearer the Madison River. The few other buffalo that that have been grazing in the more timbered area closer to the river join the herd as it passes. When the cowboys and buffalo near the highway, Tierney returns in the helicopter to monitor the traffic. Apparently of their own volition, the buffalo increase their speed as they cross the open area around the highway. The sudden appearance of eighty buffalo out of the timber beside the highway and their rapid streaming across it is a stirring sight. At this point, Grube and his crew lag behind a little, giving the buffalo time to settle back to a walk.
Several vehicles with known members of the advocacy group buzz around the area where the buffalo cross the highway and along a side road into the forest. Some of the vehicles stop, and protesters get out. The cowboys grow visibly uneasy but keep directing the herd toward the Park boundary. No one causes any trouble.
The drive continues beyond the highway in the direction that McCaffrey’s herd traversed earlier. As they progress into the Park, the calves begin to tire. Grube finds a place along the Madison River inside the area that had burned out in an old forest fire with adequate feed. The cowboys drop the herd there for the night. (The next day they found the buffalo in that same general area and drove them on to Cougar Meadows.)
These cowboys combine the traditional with the more modern—horses with cell phones, two-way radios and a helicopter. Even with all the kinds of modern equipment available—four-wheelers, snowmobiles, airplanes and helicopters—horses still work best for moving these wild buffalo. Horses disturb the buffalo less than any other conveyance. They’re quiet and naturally move at about the same pace as the buffalo. Also, at least in the spring after the snow is no longer a four-foot thick blanket, their ability to handle the terrain remains unequalled. Whether it is a narrow gap between trees where a vehicle wouldn’t fit, a snow drift or a swamp, horses can do the job.