Winterkill: Wolves and Buffalo Share Common Ground in Yellowstone National Park

Winter 2015 - Spring 2016

an interview with Mike Meese

Mike Meese, co-founder and current campaign coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, has a singular focus: protection of the world’s largest wild buffalo herd, roaming throughout Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Buffalo enjoy protection while in the park itself, but as they migrate outside the park during the winter months, the buffalo are either slaughtered or hazed back into the park, for fear that the wild buffalo will transfer the brucellosis virus to Montana livestock, though, according to the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), no single such transfer has ever been documented.

Approximately 4,200 wild buffalo are currently inside Yellowstone Park. Historically, tens of millions of wild buffalo once ran throughout North America.

The BFC was founded in winter 1996-97, when 1,100 wild buffalo were slaughtered, and is a coalition of Native American groups and non-native conservationists. The group enjoys grassroots backing as well as celebrity support from the rock bank Pearl Jam and the progressive-minded company Patagonia.

Bear Deluxe editor Tom Webb caught up with Mike Meese in Newport, Oregon, during the HFC’s fall 2015 road show throughout Oregon, Washington and California. Meese speaks to the wild Yellowstone Buffalo and the interaction of wolves and buffalo across the rural landscape.

TBD: What are the top three things on your mind as campaign coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign?

Meese: Well, definitely, the excessive killing of the Yellowstone buffalo. Every time they step out of the park, they’re met with a gun or hazed back into a capture facility, and this year (2015) over 700 have been killed.

TBD: How does that compare to the last few years?

Meese: It’s definitely an increase. But a misguided management plan calls for a population cap of 3,000 animals in Yellowstone, and until they kill down to that number, they will never be satisfied. Of course, this is not a scientifically derived number. It’s a number dictated by the Montana Livestock Board.

TBD: Organizationally speaking, what’s the greatest challenge during the winter?

Meese: Just bearing witness during the winter is very challenging. Just to watch it. The inhumane ways of how we cram them into cattle trucks, these buffalo, and ship them to slaughter houses hundreds of miles away. Living in this state with so much land, and yet, there’s this fear that governs everyone, that we can’t have this species as a wildlife species.

TBD: What’s going on with the wolves of the Nine Mile in Montana?

Meese: I’m not sure what’s up with them specifically. Unfortunately, with this new state-governed hunt, it puts all of our wolves in jeopardy. Every single Montana hunter can buy a wolf tag for $5 and shoot one if they come across one.

TBD: Tell me about the wolves in Yellowstone interact with the buffalo.

Meese: A few of them will take down a buffalo, but that’s few and far between. Most of the relationship between buffalo and wolves in Yellowstone is winterkill. Right now is when animals start dying from winterkill, and those provide quite a feast for the wolf pack. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a wolf feeding on an animal that’s just passed away. It shows the circle of life that occurs out on Yellowstone on a daily basis. The wolves take out the sick, the dead and the dying. They clean up your herds. Those become gourmet treats for our wolves.

Inside the Yellowstone Park, the wolves are safe, but a lot like the bison, when they dare to take a step out, that’s when the sights are aimed upon them.

TBD: How does the Buffalo Field Campaign balance looking on the buffalo versus looking at the entire ecoregion?

Meese: The niche that wasn’t being covered was the buffalo. There are plenty of groups that cover the entire ecoregion, but no group was focused solely on one species, the buffalo. We refer to Yellowstone as the “buffalo reservation.”

Then you have what the buffalo mean to all the First Nations, all the plains tribes in this country, and what an insult it is for us to oppress them. The buffalo’s gift is to feed the people.

TBD: What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen out there in the deep back country? And what’s the most spiritually uplifting thing that keeps you going?

Meese: I’ve seen buffalo go do some crazy stuff. I’ve watched 2,000 pound buffalos jump a six-foot high fence at a standstill. They walked up, put their beard at the fence and just jolted over the fence, not even touching it.

My backyard is 100,000 acres of wilderness. Any time when I get frustrated or burned out, I just take a walk up there. And I have a little friend up there that’s a black bear. Often I’ll see him before he sees me, and I get to watch him walking on the blown-down trees, how playful he is. And then he’ll see me first and run away. You know, as long as you’re fighting for it, and you’re living in it, that always gives you power. I may not always think that these woods, or these forests, or these ecosystems will be the same but I get to live in it and share that beauty.

Note: This interview is reprinted from issue #37 of The Bear Deluxe Magazine.