Interview of Stephany Seay ― Resistance Radio

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(Sound of buffalo stampede)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Stephany Seay. She is the media coordinator with the Montana-based Buffalo Field Campaign, the only group working in the field, in the courts, and in the policy arena in defense of the country’s last wild migratory buffalo, the Yellowstone population. Stephany has been on the front lines with BFC for fifteen years and from the direct interactions and experiences with these gentle giants, she and her comrades have come to the understanding that while we may be trying (very, very hard) to save the buffalo, the buffalo are desperately trying to teach us to save us from ourselves.  

So first, as always, thank you for your wonderful work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

SS: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be here with you again.

DJ: Thank you. So why don’t we start with an introduction to buffalo, and prairies, and migration? And then move to the Buffalo Field Campaign after that. So tell us about buffalo, prairies and migration.

SS: Buffalo are native to North America, to Turtle Island. They are the largest land mammal on this continent. They once existed in the tens of millions, upwards of seventy million, roaming from northern Canada down to Mexico, all the way east to Appalachia and almost to California. So they covered the continent, and they essentially created the continent. They are a migratory species, which means they move with the change of the seasons and the availability of food, and in doing so they helped create the prairies and the grassland ecosystems. They’re really woolly. Their fur is really woolly and so they would help to carry seeds around in their fur, and their hooves are two-toed, they’re ungulates, so their hooves gently till the soil and help the seeds get planted and help the soil germinate. And wallowing is something that buffalo do. They roll around on the ground and in doing that they create these divots in the earth that, during the spring rains – I mean imagine millions of these wallows all over the prairies, and the rains come and they fill up with water and create temporary habitat for birds and aquatic animals and others. They are a keystone species. They have a strong symbiotic relationship with prairie dogs. Prairie dogs tend to like the way that buffalo graze and keep the grasses short enough that the prairie dogs can see. They’re super beneficial. Obviously the earth chose them. And once upon a time there were tens of millions, and now the last wild buffalo population has been driven down to about 3600 individuals.

DJ: So before we move on, I’ve got a few specific questions. One of them is; I don’t remember whether I’ve ever asked you this before, but when we say migrate, did an individual bison, in a herd, move all the way down from Yellowstone to Texas? Would a buffalo who summered up in Montana maybe move down to Wyoming and one who summered in Wyoming move to Colorado? Did they move a little bit or did they move the whole way down?

SS: You know, we don’t know, because as soon as the colonizers got here they started killing them off. From our observations, I would say probably not. There were probably just different family groups in different herds that used different areas at different times of the year. I don’t think one particular herd would travel from Virginia all the way to Montana, for example. So that’s the best that I can answer that question.

DJ: And then the other one is that we did this math before, but let’s do it again. How long would an average buffalo live in the wild back then, do you think? What were the individual lifespans?

SS: Back then, probably upwards of maybe 20 years, 15-20 years.

DJ: Okay, so if we have 70 million buffalo and they live 20 years, that means that there’s what, three and a half million dead buffalo per year? And then if each buffalo weighs, what, 2000 pounds? How much do they weigh?

SS: Mature bulls weigh 2000 pounds.

DJ: Okay, so to make the math easy, we have three and a half million dead at 2000 pounds each, is my math right that that’s seven billion pounds of meat?

SS: Maybe, because you’re asking the wrong person. I really suck in math.

DJ: Three and a half million dead, and so if they weigh ten pounds each that’s 35 million, if they weigh 100 pounds each that’s 350 million, that’s – my point is that I’ve read accounts, and this just breaks my heart, I’ve read accounts of packs of wolves in Texas when the Europeans first arrived, and there would be hundreds and hundreds of wolves in one large pack. And the only way they could be in such numbers, of course, is if they have a lot of food.

So this is just a tremendous – as well as all this planting they’re doing, they’re also feeding everybody. You know, we talk a lot, I talk a lot about how salmon feed forests. So we could say the same thing here, that the buffalo are not only tilling the prairie, they’re not only helping the prairie to germinate, but they’re also feeding everybody and their cousin.

SS: Exactly. That’s a massive amount of biomass, those bodies on the ground. And grizzly bears and buffalo evolved together. In a way they’re dependent on each other. Grizzly bears right now are having to turn more and more to buffalo. They’ve always eaten buffalo, but now they’re having to turn more and more to them because their other food sources; army cutworm moths, little Yellowstone lake trout; are disappearing because of climate chaos. And so with, and we’ll talk about this later, but with the buffalo slaughter that’s taking place, and grizzly bears being of an endangered status, even though they lost protections, that biomass is being removed from the landscape, and that’s further harming grizzly bears and it’s further harming wolves. And today wolf packs aren’t quite large enough – it takes a lot for a wolf pack to take down a buffalo. Sometimes they’re successful. A lot of times they’re not. But once upon a time the buffalo fed everybody, including the Earth herself.

DJ: And honestly – yeah, they could take down a buffalo. A hundred wolves could take down a lot of things, but there’d be more meat too, because if you have that many buffalo, you’re going to have them dying of old age, just dropping off. I’ve read accounts of herds of buffalo that would take literally days to pass.

Okay, I’m going to back up a second. I was a beekeeper when I was in my 20’s and there might be 100,000 bees in the summer, in a colony. And I got really freaked out my first year that I was doing bees because I saw all these dead bees all over the place, until I did the math. Bees in the summer live about a month. So if you have 100,000 bees and they live a month, you’re going to have 3000 dead bees a day.

SS: Right.

DJ: So it’s the same with this. If you have 70 million buffalo, a lot of them are not going to be dying by overt predation. They’re just going to be, you know, having a heart attack, or just dying of old age. They’ll be falling asleep and not waking up and the herd moves on, and everybody gets a treat.

SS: Exactly. What a gift.

DJ: Yeah, what a gift!

So let’s talk about, just for a few minutes, about the collapse of buffalo populations, or I should say the extermination, not the collapse. And then move to focus on Yellowstone.

SS: I think a lot of people are familiar with the shameful history of the settlers’ colonization of this continent. When the U.S. army was at war with the indigenous people here, the buffalo cultures in particular, they targeted the buffalo because they wanted to ensure that they killed their food source – not even just food source, the buffalo was everything – then they could more easily subjugate and harm the people and control them. And so, through an act of genocide, millions and millions of buffalo were killed within almost, in less than ten years. I mean, they were killed over the course of a longer period than that. But when the buffalo wars really first started happening in the mid-1800’s it didn’t take long for these buffalo hunters and the army to nearly wipe them out. And they almost succeeded. And luckily, there were 23 individual buffalo – 23 – who sought shelter in what is now Yellowstone National Park’s Pelican Valley, and the irony is that they were later discovered by the U.S. Calvary, who came in then to protect them because they realized the big mistake that they had made in their wiping out these buffalo. So in part Yellowstone National Park was created to protect these last remaining wild buffalo.

And there were a couple of remnant small family groups, one in Montana and then one down in Texas, that were protected by a few different people who actually saw what was taking place. They saw the buffalo disappearing and so they protected these little groups. And they ended up bringing them to Yellowstone. And so the 23 individuals who saved themselves are what has become the central buffalo population, the central herd, and then you have the northern herd, which was supplemented by these others who were brought in. And today the central herd is in extreme peril. We don’t even know how many there are. Last year going into the season, before Yellowstone started killing, there were about 847 buffalo left in the central herd. And 1200 buffalo were killed this year. The central herd is unique because they migrate both west into the Hebgen Basin in Montana, and also north into the Gardiner Basin in Montana, and so as that happens they are doubly impacted by the management actions that are taking place on the edge of Yellowstone National Park.

DJ: So let’s talk about the migration and the modern killings. Actually before we do that, let’s talk about what was the history between the formation of Yellowstone Park and let’s say the founding of Buffalo Field Campaign. What happened, what was going on with the buffalo in, say, the 1940’s?

SS: That’s a good question. I don’t know, actually.

DJ: Okay. Well, I’ll have to have you back for another interview where we talk about that.

SS: Okay.

DJ: To bring us up to the present, then. So the herd was protected, the two herds were protected a hundred-some years ago, and then Buffalo Field Campaign comes into the picture why?

SS: Well, because as buffalo, as the population started to grow… Let’s just back up a little bit. Yellowstone National Park is located on a really high elevation plateau. Some of the land in there is at 8000 feet. And even the lower elevation in Yellowstone is about 6000 feet. So the winters are pretty intense and the snow gets very, very deep. And while buffalo are well equipped to handle winters like that; and they can also, it’s called “cratering” where they use their huge heads that are supported by their humps to move the snow aside to get to the grass below; sometimes it gets far too deep for them and they have to leave, just like everybody else who eats grass. They have to leave and seek lower elevation habitat. So their migration routes take them west into the Hebgen Basin, into Montana, and north into the Gardiner Basin, into Montana. And Montana currently is politically a very powerful cattle state. The livestock industry pretty much runs the show throughout the state. They’re kind of a vocal minority. They act like they’re the majority, but they have a lot of control over everything. And because buffalo are the native bovine, the cattlemen don’t want to share the grass. They don’t want to see the restoration of the buffalo. They don’t want them coming into Montana and so they have waged a war against them. It’s a war that’s continued. It’s never really stopped, but now the wild buffalo are trying to make a comeback and Montana’s responding with killing, with the intense aid of Yellowstone National Park.

So in 1996-97 there was a pretty intense winter. The snows got very, very deep, and then there was a warming period, and then it got cold again. What happens to the snow then is that it can turn to concrete. You can literally sometimes see buffalo walking on top of snow when conditions are like that, and there is no way that they can crater through that, so they have to go to other places. And so a lot of buffalo migrated into Montana that particular winter, particularly in the Gardiner Basin, and over 1084 buffalo were killed by Montana and Yellowstone National Park because of that migration. A thousand more or so died from being winter killed, because the winter was so difficult. And Mike Meese, who you know; he’s an activist and videographer and he was working for an organization called Cold Mountain Cold Rivers, and he was aware of what was going on, and had gone over to Gardiner and gone over to Yellowstone and was documenting what was happening, and was very concerned and freaking out and knowing that something had to be done. So he sent the footage that he was getting to various tribal leaders, and Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder responded, and she ended up coming out, and together they decided that there needed to be a presence on the ground to bear witness and to stand in defense of the buffalo and to let people know what was taking place there. And that’s essentially why Buffalo Field Campaign formed, and by April 1997 we had found a place just outside of West Yellowstone, Montana, and that’s where we’ve been based ever since. Our job is to run daily field patrols monitoring the buffalo’s migration and documenting all actions that are made against them, advocating for them in the courts, in the policy arena, in the field, and using all the tools in the toolbox.

So we are on the ground with the buffalo every day that they are migrating into Montana, and that typically, with the weather, tends to be from around November to May and June, and then by June typically the buffalo, now that we have gained some year-round habitat and hazing has really diminished, we see that they naturally migrate back towards their summer habitat in Yellowstone after their calves are strong and the rut season begins, when they have their big family reunions.

DJ: So before we talk about what’s been going on in the last year, there’s another question I want to ask, which is sometimes they migrate – when they’re migrating, sometimes it’s through wild lands, and don’t they also sometimes migrate through areas with human populations? You know me and you know that I see bears essentially every day, and I love seeing bears, and I just have to say that if buffalo were native to this area, I would be overjoyed to look out my window and see some buffalo walking past.

SS: Yeah.

DJ: And if we ignore the ranchers and just talk about normal human beings, just regular people, do most people when they see a buffalo walk past their house, are they happy or do they hate them?

SS: Most people are stoked. They are super stoked and it’s why they ended up choosing to live where they do. And we have one incredible example out on a peninsula called Horse Butte. Part of it’s Gallatin National Forest, public land, and part of it’s private land, where there’s a subdivision with little acre lots and houses. And this also happens to be part of the buffalo’s winter range and calving grounds. And so either in the winter or in the spring you can tend to have hundreds of buffalo out there, and this subdivision; Hebgen Lake Estates, Yellowstone Village; is the perfect living example, perfect classroom of coexistence. People love the buffalo. They get so excited. They’ll have buffalo bedded down in their yards, buffalo walking through the neighborhood. You’ll see kids playing while there’s buffalo grazing 15 feet away. People out walking their dogs. Buffalo bedded down and grazing around yards. It’s just amazing. And people love it. They get excited all the time when the buffalo arrive and they get sad when they go.

So that’s the real world. Then you get all these crazy people out there who’ve never been around a buffalo. They think they know everything and talk about how dangerous they are and how you can’t live with them and they’re not like other animals. Well, no, they’re not like others. They’re buffalo. And so you learn how to live with them as who they are. And even in this neighborhood, if there are issues, and there has never been any kind of dangerous issue, but buffalo get really itchy in the springtime because they have all that thick wool and it’s starting to get hot and they shed. Then they like to rub on trees or rocks or anything that they can find, and some people don’t want buffalo rubbing on their trees. So what do they do? They put a fence around their tree. Problem solved. Now the buffalo can rub on the fence, and the tree’s good and everyone’s happy.

So it’s like when will the humans understand that just because there’s a large bovine who’s walking through your front yard, it doesn’t mean it’s a problem. It means that you have an opportunity to learn how to live with this other being who was here long before you. It’s for the human to change, and yet the humans are always trying to make everybody else change to suit them. But anyway, Horse Butte has an incredible example of buffalo-friendly habitat in a place that is pretty well populated by humans.

And the same – in the Gardiner Basin it’s not quite as pro-buffalo, but there are definitely lots of friends of buffalo and it’s getting stronger over there. They don’t have the same year-round habitat over there as they do in the Hebgen Basin but we’re working on that. And then one thing, though, that did happen in the Hebgen Basin: there had been a large tract of private land owned by the Galanis family. It was close to about 700 or so acres and buffalo friendly. Lots of grass, huge rolling hills of grass and the buffalo love it. That land just got sold and the Buffalo Safe sign that was there has been taken down. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know who these owners are or how they are going to treat the buffalo or how things are going to change. But hopefully they will have a clue that their surrounding community are staunch supporters of buffalo and if things go badly for the buffalo, the new owners aren’t going to be very popular. But it was a big blow to lose that land and see those signs come down. We don’t know what’s going to happen.

DJ: So I want to talk about what has happened in the past year or so since we did an interview, but there was a question I was going to ask earlier and I forgot. So I’m going to jump out of order here. And I don’t know that you’ll know the answer to this, but you talked about buffalo cropping the grasses down such that the prairie dogs like that they eat them short?

SS: Because they can see better.

DJ: Yeah. The question I have is: so what is the relationship between buffalo and tall grass prairie where there were grasses that were like seven feet tall? Is that because the buffalo might only migrate through like once every five years or something? How do we have them eating it down to a couple inches and then also the existence of grasses that are seven feet tall?

SS: That’s another really good question, and I don’t know the answer to it. So there’s a little bit more research to be done. I don’t want to speculate or make things up but maybe the tall grass prairie – I don’t know. I’m not even going to go there. I don’t know enough to answer that question.

DJ: Well I’m a guy, so that means I get to just make shit up.

SS: (laughing) Okay, go ahead.

DJ: So what I’m going to say, and once again this is pure – I’m completely talking out of my behind. But I think it’s because the buffalo would alter their migration path every year such that – and when they have the whole prairie to work with – such that they might only go through an area once every five or ten years. But again, I’m making that up.

SS: That’s possible. Maybe somebody knows. But how could we possibly know what they really did, because that memory is lost because they were killed as soon as contact was made. And the people who knew them, who lived with them, who were their relatives – those memories are lost.

DJ: Well this makes me think of two things. One is I interviewed Vine Deloria back in the late 90’s and one of the things he said to me – he was a Dakota man – one of things he said to me was that it was at that time a very critical time for the Dakota people, because the last people were now old, who had ever spoken with the last of the Dakota people who were born free, and were dying.

SS: Right.

DJ: So basically people who were alive in 1870 were dying in 1935, and they had a little bit of an overlap with the people who were dying in 2000, so it’s the last people who had direct contact with those who were never conquered. And that’s one thing I want to mention. The other thing that I want to mention is that my mother is 86 and she often tells me stories about her grandmother, who grew up on the prairie in Nebraska. And I don’t know whether I ever told you the story, that when my mother’s grandmother was a little girl, she would get scared every time there was a lightning storm because there were so many buffalo around that she was afraid that the buffalo would stampede and run over their sod house.

SS: Yeah, I remember you telling that.

DJ: How beautiful is it that you have a little girl – and it never happened, of course – but there were enough buffalo to worry about that?

SS: I know.

DJ: That just brings tears to my eyes. My mother’s 86, she spoke with her grandmother, and she is the last person of that generation who spoke with her grandmother, who knew, the same as with Vine Deloria; who knew free bison.

SS: Right.

DJ: Buffalo who’d never been conquered.

SS: Amazing.

DJ: So now let’s go back to the present where we don’t have so many buffalo, or there aren’t so many buffalo, and before we talk about what’s happened in the past year, can you talk a little bit about the so-called hunt?

SS: Well yeah. It’s more than that, what’s going on. So I spoke a little bit about Montana’s intolerance, the cattle industry’s intolerance. Let me just put it this way. The Montanans at large, the general population, around 80% support wild migratory buffalo. I just want to put that out there. It’s the livestock industry in Montana that’s driving all of this madness. So when that migration happened and all those buffalo were killed, Montana had also sued Yellowstone for allowing, if you can believe that, for allowing wild buffalo to migrate into Montana, and throughout the court process they ended up having to come up with a compromise, a plan, which became the Inner Agency Bison Management Plan, which was crafted largely by cattle interests. It serves no beneficial purpose for wild buffalo whatsoever. It’s a state, federal and tribal plan. And so under that plan, buffalo may be captured for slaughter and shipped to slaughter. Buffalo may be shot when they leave Yellowstone’s boundaries, today, by hunters. It used to be by the Department of Livestock. They may be rounded up and captured for quarantine, which is a domestication process that basically turns the buffalo into livestock. So, yeah. There’s a lot going on. And the trap that exists today, that is in use today, is in the Gardiner Basin inside Yellowstone National Park and run by Yellowstone National Park. It’s the Stephens Creek buffalo trap. And while there is excessive hunting that takes place on Yellowstone’s north and west boundaries, especially the north boundary, the trap has killed more buffalo than any hunting that has taken place. And Yellowstone has more buffalo blood on their hands than any agency now. Any. Even the Montana Department of Livestock. The Montana Department of Livestock doesn’t even really participate much anymore, because they’ve got Yellowstone doing all of their dirty work, and Yellowstone going about it like it’s business as usual, while they wear buffalo on their badges.

DJ: The point of a park, by the way – let’s just be explicit – one of the points of a park is the preservation of wildlife. Supposedly.

SS: One of the mission statements is to preserve – and I hate to use this word – resources. To preserve unimpaired. So that’s not working. Yellowstone’s not doing that. They are systematically destroying these last wild buffalo. And I’m not going to speak to it because you had such an awesome interview with BFC’s habitat coordinator Darrell Geist, about the central herd. But the central herd, just briefly, is in such dire straits that going into this winter, and I mentioned that the central herd migrates both north and west; Yellowstone National Park said that they recommended there be no hunting on the west side because it’s exclusively the central herd members who migrate in that direction. Yet, they went ahead and captured for slaughter hundreds of buffalo, not even knowing which herd they came from, when they migrated into the Gardiner Basin. So Yellowstone is saying “Hey, this population is in big trouble. Why don’t you hunters take the conservation burden, and meanwhile we’ll just round ‘em up and kill them like it’s business as usual, no big deal.” And so now we don’t even know how many buffalo remain in the central herd, because we do know hundreds were killed on the west side, and those were all from the central herd, and then hundreds and hundreds more were killed on the north side, and many of those were also from the central herd.

DJ: So tell me more about what has happened – bring people up to date since our last interview on some of the things that have happened, newsworthy things that have happened regarding the Yellowstone buffalo in the past year.

SS: Okay. Can I start with one piece of good news?

DJ: Please.

SS: Okay. We are petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Yellowstone population as threatened or endangered under the endangered species act. We filed that petition in 2014. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended up issuing a negative finding, meaning saying that they didn’t warrant protection. However, in that finding, they didn’t use all the best available science, as they are required to do, and so we sued them because of that decision. And in January we had our day in court. A Washington DC federal judge ruled in our favor, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service picked and chose the science they wanted to use, and that’s not how this works. There’s plenty of evidence here that suggests that they do warrant protection. And so he ruled that that finding would not stand. And then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatened to appeal that finding, and they withdrew that appeal just recently. So now they have to go back to the drawing board. They have 90 days to issue another finding. So we won round one of this very long battle for Endangered Species Act protection for the last wild buffalo.

DJ: What is the Fish and Wildlife argument, primarily?

SS: They think that there are enough buffalo. And they think that because there are so many buffalo on other public lands throughout the country. They’re all, for the most part, managed as livestock. They think everything’s fine. This country, their so-called greatest conservation success story is turning buffalo into livestock. That’s what they think has been so successful. “Oh, we saved the species. We turned them into livestock.” There’s a terrible mindset in relation to buffalo. The Fish and Wildlife Service is looking at all the other populations that aren’t wild, that aren’t even genetically pure, and counting them among the last wild ones, the last ones to migrate, the last ones to live without fences, and almost the last ones not to be contaminated with cattle genes.

So there’s a lot of science that challenges that, and that’s the science that they look at, so now they have to go back and look at that.

DJ: So when you say that the buffalo in other parks are treated as livestock, are there any other – I’m hemming and hawing around because even the buffalo in Yellowstone are not “allowed” to migrate at will. So are there any other herds of buffalo, anywhere in the country, who are even remotely allowed to migrate or are they all fenced in? I don’t know the answer to this at all.

SS: Well, most of them are fenced in. I’m not sure about the buffalo who were reintroduced up in Alaska. I’m not sure about those guys. There is the Henry Mountains herd down in Utah and I don’t know enough about them, and they don’t have physical fences around them, but they are kind of geographically isolated. They’re kind of in a place where they can’t really migrate. They were put there. They came from Yellowstone and were put there. But for the most part, half a million so-called “beefalo” in the country live behind fences. They’re raised as livestock. They’re privately owned. Or the public herds who are managed, they’re culled every year. I mean, so are the Yellowstone buffalo, but this is like more serious livestock management paradigms where they don’t have as much land, they don’t have the opportunity to migrate. It’s ranching-style operations for the most part.

DJ: I know back in the 80’s and 90’s the buffalo commons notion was really floated. Has that gained any traction whatsoever?

SS: No, it hasn’t. There’s another effort that’s going on. People are still talking about it but nothing’s really happened there.

DJ: I just threw that term out and listeners may not know it. Can you explain the buffalo commons in like four sentences?

SS: Yeah, it was basically all these ranches and farms that were being abandoned and turning the land back over to the buffalo. Huge chunks of land, like millions of acres. It would have been great. But nothing much has happened.

But now there is another effort in northern Montana, the American Prairie Reserve. They are buying up big ranches. It’s all willing stuff but all these ranchers are having a fit over it. And they’re taking down the fences and turning the land back over to buffalo. The buffalo are still fenced in, but as they acquire land they’re taking down the fences in between. Unfortunately, the buffalo that they have there are managed as “alternative livestock” with the Department of Livestock having authority over them, as with the Yellowstone buffalo. But the best news is that they’re being really successful and their vision is to create these massive tracts, these corridors that lead south down towards the Gardiner Basin, and then west from the Hebgen Basin up north towards Glacier and then back east. We love that part. That part’s really great, because we need that to happen for the Yellowstone population. That’s the only other thing like that, that I know of, that’s currently taking place.

DJ: I know there were some discussions a long time ago, like decades ago, about tribes taking the lead on some of this. Are the indigenous nations working with those people that you just mentioned?

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