The hillside weeps bones

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park

I took photos of every piece of bone I saw.  I knew from the ranger that burrowing animals would push them to the surface, but they lay everywhere.  Water dug bone from the hillside and pooled shards in drying streams of dirt.  What looked like rocks sticking out of the soil turned out to be bone. Below the cliff where the buffalo fell, the hillside weeps bone fragments.

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The ranger at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park confirmed my observation.

“That’s where blood kettles would have been,” she said.  “The Indians would line a pit with hide, add blood from the animals, and break bones to get marrow for blood pudding.”

I looked at the hillside, struggling to put myself in that scene. What was it like to process hundreds of bison for every ounce of nutrition and material possible?

Many Americans who eat meat know little about hunting or raising livestock. As travelers, we are sometimes disgusted by people’s diets- even in first world countries.

At First Peoples Buffalo Jump, gaze at the hillside weeping bone shards and reflect. What if we were Great Plains Indians reliant upon our skills and efforts to harvest our own meals?

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Our two sentence education on buffalo jumps

My school education about buffalo jumps included the usual two-sentence sense of their nature and purpose.

“Indians chased buffalo off cliffs for food, clothing and shelter. They processed what they could use and left behind the rest.” That gets filtered into “they were lazy and wasteful” in modern conversation.

My first visit to a jump at American Prairie Reserve stirred my curiosity. I added a side trip to Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, where great interpretive signage told me more. I purchased books and perused Web pages. My itinerary this spring included First Peoples Buffalo Jump in Ulm, Montana.

My inner scientist started questioning those two sentences after that first trip.  I know that bison are dangerous, so any mechanical means of harvest reduces risk to people.

I knew the rifle reduced wildlife populations faster than bows or buffalo jumps. Despite communal hunting, 30-60 million bison still roamed the plains we began decimating the herds.

And I figured any leftovers from a kill would not go to waste. A broad range of wildlife and insects would appreciate the remains in spare sage country. The rest would nourish the soils for plants and other animals.

What I see now is how complex hunting rituals were, how great the need for these periodic harvests, and how diverse the range of uses for bison parts.

A perspective on waste

Living on the Great Plains before guns and combines, you would never take food for granted.  Communal hunting and fishing would keep people fed and reduce danger. An infographic in this blog article says that one hunt at a buffalo jump could feed 400 people for over 3 months.

Plains Indians developed many uses for buffalo parts and pieces. They used everything from brain to sinew for shelter, tools, containers and clothing. You can experience this and even touch items at the superb First Peoples Interpretive Center.

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And don’t call out food waste before reviewing your behavior. Nowadays, we are the pot calling any kettle black on food waste. We won’t buy “ugly food”. We toss 30% of the food we buy.

Food waste is a longstanding problem. A ranger at First Peoples said that white Americans considered buffalo tongue a delicacy. They would fell a one-ton animal for the tongue only- just like sharks today die for fin soup. We blew away bison from train windows for sport, then harvested dried bones when we needed fertilizer.

Eating off the land requires skill and community

We are losing the ability to feed ourselves. Like many, I am adapted to read at close range and to see by electric light. My eyes are becoming hard with age like everyone who lives longer than nature intended. Based on eyesight alone, I would be reliant on community for food.

I know I don’t have the right muscles or coordination for hunt or harvest. I spent hours as a child picking berries and processing smelt. I have grown vegetables and helped process deer and chickens. I eat meat, but my modern sense of smell means the odor of burnt feathers and raw blood turns my stomach for days.

I know that without the modern food industry, I would not be here. But even the most fit and keen-eyed among us would have a hard time gathering and processing all our food. In a post-apocalyptic world where rats, pigeons, and cockroaches still roam, it won’t be easy.

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Could I build a teepee to withstand prairie storms?

It was about culture, too

The Plains Indians recognized the blessing of animals and plants. Like the Inuit, they developed rituals that included a conversation with a food animal.  The book title, “I Will Be Meat for My Salish” describes that conversation.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, “Because the bison provided many gifts—from tipis and clothing made from hides to soap from fat and tools made from bones—they were honored as relatives and paid tribute to through songs, dance and prayers.”

Now, my neighbors say a blessing for each meal, whether it is home cooked or take out.  They are rare.  Most folks in the U.S. take our food for granted.  We assume it will always be there.  Eating is either perfunctory, or a fitness-enhancing project.

To be fair, it’s hard to connect processed, shrink-wrapped food to the earth.  Eating over work at a computer, as I and others often do, means you’re absent-mindedly putting calories in your mouth. A foil-wrapped energy bar or vitamin drink seems more appropriate for the lab than the land.

We don’t have rituals to recognize the blessedness of food in our lives. We don’t create a structure where our food can agree to be part of us;  we presuppose it.

Learning from nature

The Smithsonian Web describes a more complex benefit Plains Indians gained from bison.

“In addition to the use of their physical body, American Indians modeled social behavior from observing bison, such as how to live in a healthy and productive manner. Some of the important lessons were breastfeeding offspring, valuing both young and old, being physically active, respecting both the female and the male, healthy eating and using resources wisely.”

In this country, we grow increasingly weighty. We revere celebrity on dubious merits. We fear marginalization and even abandonment as we age.  Enough said. Maybe we need a few chats with those bison.

Moving past those two sentences

Our old school books were likely colored by hypocrisy, historical guilt, a tinge of racism, and almost complete separation from nature.

It is well worth a visit to a buffalo jump to challenge that education. Stand there and imagine what it is like to rely on yourself, your community, and the land for sustenance.

If you spend time at a buffalo jump, you begin to see the landscape differently. You find yourself gazing over the plains at hillsides. You think “Hey, couldn’t you chase a bunch of buffalo over that cliff, too?” You begin to recognize grazing and driving areas, and good features for a jump- flat space below, and water.

You see beyond those two sentences you learned in elementary school. Now you understand why some hillsides weep bones.

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Fergus Golden Eagles getting a better education than I did about buffalo jumps

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The National Bison Range

Visiting a bison refugee camp

BisonRangeSignThe 350 or so bison at this US Fish and Wildlife Service-managed site must feel like refugees with no real country. When the great herds were gone in America, people brought a few animals here to thrive in the rich Mission Valley. Homesteading displaced the bison a quarter century later. They were sold to Canada because Congress was too cheap to save them. The U.S. reacted to publicity around the sale by creating the National Bison Range and herds.  The bison is now our National Mammal,  its place in the Mission Valley isn’t guaranteed.

Native Americans lobbied to take over management of the Range and the herd. They said the government acquired the land unfairly. Their culture and lives were once shaped like skin around bison herds.

The Secretary of the Interior halted that transfer. Now, the federal government retains control but underfunds the Bison Range. Its future seems uncertain.

The history of bison in the U.S. turned tragic in the 1860’s. In about 20 years hunters and the U.S Army reduced wild herds from more than 30 million to 100 animals. This iconic animal, a foundation for Plains Indian cultures and lives, would go exctinct without rapid action.

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This excellent display in the Bison Range Visitor Center gives the scale of destruction that occurred.

In Montana’s Mission Valley and a few other areas, people saved small groups of animals that became the core of today’s herds. Saving the bison from extinction later became a badge of honor. Storytellers lined up with their heroic tales of sheltering the last few animals. Researchers spent decades unraveling the truth, which may never be fully known.

Conservation happened as much by happenstance than vision. In one case, the romantic woes of a Flathead Indian spurred him to gather four bison calves as penance. These calves expanded into a small herd of 13 animals that partners Michel Pablo and Charles Allard purchased. Depending on the story, Pablo was either a visionary committed to bison conservation, or an exotic animal collector.

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Shed antlers attest to the abundance of herbivores in this rich habitat.

The Pablo-Allard herd wandered the lush Mission Valley. They grew to 700-800 animals before the U.S. government decided to sell out the land to homesteaders in 1910. After Allard died, Pablo tried to sell his part of the herd to the government. President Teddy Roosevelt expressed enthusiastic support, but Congress wouldn’t appropriate funds for the purchase. Pablo sold them to Canada. After a two year, dangerous roundup to shove them in rail cars, most lived in Canada and founded today’s herds in that country.

Media covered the spectacular roundup. Our government was embarrased into bison conservation by the coverage. Roosevelt signed legislation in 1908 for the National Bison Range. The American Bison Society raised money for 34 bison acquired from a private herd. Private owners donated six other animals.

According to the USFWS, “It was the first time that Congress appropriated tax dollars to buy land specifically to conserve wildlife.”

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Managing the Bison Range requires money and labor. The US FWS partnered with the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes to support this effort. Then, a court overturned the partnership. Tribal rangers were stripped of their gear and sent away.

The National Bison Range was my first stop on a bison-focused road trip to Montana. I support the Range and the desperate efforts for 130 years to conserve our National Mammal. I would visit again. But this site was a painful illustration of the challenges to bison conservation.

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A driving route lets you see bison near the road- and the fences that help to keep habitat healthy. 

The National Bison Range’s lush grasslands, trees and hollows are critical for the animals’ health, but it is a landlocked site. Rotational grazing in fenced areas is necessary to keep forage healthy. There isn’t enough land for the bison to keep reproducing, so there is an annual roundup and herd reduction. No longer does the Pablo-Allard herd roam free on the Flathead Reservation.

BisonRangeValleyThe Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes sought control of the National Bison Range. While controversial, people and groups supported the transfer with conditions around access. Then, the current Secretary of the Interior halted the transfer in April 2017. The U.S. wants to keep the land, but is cutting funding to all public parks and refuges.

All public lands seem to be up for sale for resource extraction right now. The bison on this range must hear the winds of change once more. They can only hope that dedicated people will work to preserve their small population into the future, whether here or elsewhere.

Animal and human refugees are fundamentally different. Animals can thrive in an appropriate environment, without concern for loss of culture, language, and place of origin. Bison need food, water, shelter, and space to roam and raise offspring.

The confines of a zoo are not the best home for a large, migratory herbivore. If we can preserve enough good land for bison, they will flourish- along with the many other plants and animals that once flourished alongside them.

 

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This non-venomous bull snake was trying to warm up by the Visitors Center on a cool, sometimes stormy day.

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Road tripping

Road trips are my salvation.

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May 2017- The road trip is my salvation.  I live a typical West Coast life, with long work days peppered by emails or filled with meetings.  Every day I commute for a long time on a slow train, having long ago tuned out the automatic announcements about feet on the seats and unattended packages.  There is always something undone at work or at home.

Driving a big, lonely interstate across three states means a chance to unwind in the continuim of big scenery winding by. I can mull over my life, let the daily chores go, shed the herky jerky of everyday life.

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We need more of these:  Animals’ Bridge on the Flathead Reservation, protecting wildlife from our speeding cars.

Of course it would be quicker to fly, and maybe more sustainable, in the parlance of green guilt. But the airport experience would mirror my everyday life and I would arrive too quickly, as preoccupied as when I left home.

And if I flew, I would miss humanity’s roadside expressions. Displays catch the eyes of passing travelers, whether to declare a position, share history, prompt a laugh, send a greeting, or mourn a tragically departed loved one. You may be just a make, model, color, and license plate passing by, but everyone knows that for the near future, there is still a human being in that vehicle.

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So I drive for two days each way to visit Montana and Wyoming.  For some distance, I take Interstate 90 to cruise through spacious, sunny Eastern Washington, unraveling.  By the time I hit Idaho, I’m gone. I’m just an anonymous person with no real concerns except good tires, a reasonably full tank, and a place to sleep that night. I have food and camping gear if the last part of the equation falls apart.

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Because we have dinosaurs here.

On the first day of my May road trip, hardware worked into one of my dealer tires on their last jaunt before an upgrade to better tread.  I ended up at an Osburn, Idaho gas station on a Saturday evening by the air hose,  listening to a faint hiss. A nice gentleman in a worn truck, worn coveralls, and beatup work boots kindly offered to show me how my can of fix-a-flat worked.  He said he would drive on the stuff for weeks and I believed him.

Within 1/3 mile rolling forward, the gel expanded, the low tire light turned off, and I was back on my way 100 miles at 70 mph to Missoula.  At Walmart on Mothers’ Day, I cooled my heels over an atrociously salty and fatty breakfast while the tire shop repaired the breach.  I wondered which rocket scientist though biscuit gravy went well with eggs, brilliant orange cheese, and tater tots.  I wondered why I ordered it.ServiceManager

The repair cost me $10,  I never got to meet the tire center manager- apparently Johnny Depp.

Real life intruded once more on a remote gravel road in Montana.  My cell phone started ringing, a surprise considering my location; apparently cell phone towers really are everywhere. I answered it because the area code was home, hoping my horse was not in trouble. Instead, I found myself on the side of the road talking to my county’s prosecuting attorneys office about the upcoming trial for the young woman who, inebriated and traveling at high speed, clipped the plastic bumper cover off my car.  The accident was a lucky miss- if she tried to navigate the corner I would likely be dead, not parked among curious cows in open range country discussing trials and restitution.

I finally got back on my way to daydream and to get used to being a human being again. I had two weeks to be that way before the long drive home, and re-entry to the universe.

When I re-enter, I am not the same person who rocketed away.  The road trip shapes and shifts me a little bit each time, and I come back subtly transformed. One day, maybe, that transformation will be a complete shift into another universe.  Forever on the road, thoughtful and watching humanity reach out from the roadside.

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Except the author is Sam Walter Ross, not Holmes.  Ross was described as writing “poetry for the common man.” So be it.
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Honey, it’s open range country and I can roam where ever I want, and you have to stop for me.  Get it?

The little things on the prairie

APRTemporaryHomeSeptember 2016- People would feel foolish standing on the deck of a boat looking out over the ocean and declaring that nothing could be living underneath the water simply because they couldn’t see it.  Yet the same people drive past expansive grasslands and open country saying that “nothing’s out there” because they can’t see it.

Grasslands are like the ocean, with a sea of life swimming past.  The land undulates like waves, hiding animals from view. The frothy grass heads washed windward mask a multitude of little things.  You just have to wade through the grass and find these things.

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The easiest to find are the birds because they will rise above the waves of grass.  Harriers swoop low over the land, trying to scare up rodents. Falcons, hawks and owls perch on fenceposts and  in trees by creeks to scan for meals.  Even doves and meadowlarks use whatever they can find as a singing platform.

Then there are the mammals that can move through the grass, but use it for shade and cover.  Deer, pronghorns, bison all eat the grass, bed down in it, move through it.  Deer have a way of appearing suddenly out of grasslands, invisible until you get a white flag flipped in your face and see slender legs bounding away from you.

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Prairie dogs live under the sea bottom, and coyotes hunt at the bottom.  Black footed ferrets, rabbits and badgers keep the dogs company, while the real canids sniff around looking for a rodent, berry, or insect meal.

And then there are the really little things- bugs and bones, plants and fungi, rocks and flowers.  Even geologic monuments installed long, long ago. Finding all the interesting living and non-living things in a grassland sea even a mile square can take you hours, from dawn to dusk to catch them all.

 

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Walking the Jumps

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September 2016- On my first day at American Prairie Reserve, I decided to walk the road to the Buffalo Jump by Jones and Telegraph Creeks.  I loaded up a pack with water, lunch, snacks, clothes, and binoculars, brought two cameras, and set off on foot, using the same mode of transportation as the Plains Indians to approach the site hundreds of years ago.

Why walk?  It’s a decent gravel road. Trucks haul trailers on this road. People drive and mountain bike it. Walking the road is unusual enough that a USFWS ranger stopped to ask if I needed help.

I could have gotten there in my car and then added on a whole lot more to my day, but there are many reasons to walk. First, because I can.  As a young-in-life owner of a fake hip joint, I know what it feels like to hobble in agony 1/3 mile down a flat road to the mailbox.  I know how small the world becomes when everything is about managing pain, how you lose peripheral vision and fight discouragement. Walking for me – and many people- is a restored blessing, and I don’t take it for granted.

I wanted to take it slow, look at the landscape, find the little things.  I couldn’t do that from a car or bike.  And finally, I’m so sick of sitting in a cubicle, a car, a train, a bus that I could run screaming. I wanted outside, sun and wind on my face.

After a mile or so past camp, I passed the Enrico Science Center, a remodeled ranch home. The vans you see parked there were assisting the 2016 Transect, an 11-day trek across North Central Montana hosted by APR.  I ran into the group and APR staff at the Buffalo Jump and was instantly converted by their sunny friendliness (shocking, as I live in the land of the notoriously unfriendly “Seattle Freeze”). dsc_0681_edited-1

browneyedsusanOn my trek to the jump,  I found butterflies, prairie dogs, and of course, bison.  I flushed upland birds (probably grouse), took pictures of tracks and scat, and put one foot in front of the other,  mile after mile.

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Prairie dog- notice the ear bling indicating tagging and perhaps vaccination.

The road traverses into Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and eventually crosses a bridge over what I believe is Jones Creek.  By that time I’d met the ranger, who sympathetically gave me his NWR map, saying I would need it, and recommending a trip to the elk viewing area on the auto tour road (later post on that).

The road wound upward to the top of a hill blanketed with clumps of yellow-flowered brush perhaps marking where long-ago tipis would have stood as the First Peoples prepared to herd bison to their death below.aprflowersbelowjump

Buffalo jumps may seem gruesome to us today because we don’t see our food die. Unless we’re farmers or hunters, harvest occurs in slaughterhouses far away from our tables. For all we know, steaks are made in a factory and shrink-wrapped in plastic and styrofoam.

First Peoples used suitable natural cliff formations in an organized effort to harvest an animal that at the time, was far more dangerous to hunt on foot.  Buffalo jumps are full of secrets from long ago:  no one seems to have a good handle on the dates they were used, and conventional wisdom about their use falls all the time. The only thing that seems sure is that Plains Indians stopped using the jumps when horses became available.

Like me, the Plains Indians would have reached the jump on foot.  Unlike me, they were supremely fit, trained, acculturated, and prepared for a dangerous effort critical to their survival.Experience and ritual guided a highly coordinated effort.

Buffalo jumps are sacred to Native Americans even though all known jumps have been excavated, sometimes for bones to be used as fertilizer and other times to either steal or preserve the past. Out of respect, I ate my lunch across the road from the jump, where I met the friendly people on the APR Transect.

I didn’t really know what to look for at these sites until I later visitied the Madison Buffalo Jump. There, I was enlightened by excellent, informative signage, and could imagine the drive up a ramp behind the jump, and the massive processing occuring near a creek below the jump.  I’m glad there isn’t signage at APR- it would have stood out by a mile in the landscape- but I will go there again with wiser eyes after having done some reading.

On the return trip, I passed two little snakes in the road, enjoying the heat of day.  One was a Western rattlesnake, the other I can’t tell (looks like a prairie hognose, but doesn’t have the upturned nose- so much for pictures on the Web).

I thought about all the perils the Plains Indians faced just trying to survive.  Weather, starvation, predators, snakes, childbirth, and on and on. If I had lived then, I would have been among the women processing bison for hide, meat, brain, sinew, bladder.  One of the women working for the survival of my people. And yet, the only thing I have in common with those brave, strong women was that I came to the site on foot.

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The unwitting subject on top of the jump gives a sense of scale.

Yellowstone, I love you but you drive me crazy

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I have returned to Yellowstone National Park a half dozen times.  I’ve backpacked, hiked, taken classes and certification training at the park.  I’m a member of Yellowstone Association and a monthly donor to the Yellowstone Park Foundation.  But after my trip to the solitude and freedom of American Prairie Reserve, my visit to Yellowstone made me feel like the child of an unpredictable and inconsistent parent.

Yellowstone is having a rough year during the centennial celebration of the National Parks. Record numbers of visitors arrived at the park. One hundred years after the military got poaching and illegal mining and logging under control, the 22nd death in a hot spring occurred. Some decided to ignore the many signs around hot springs:  six people caught on video off trail, four Canadians strolling on Grand Prismatic Spring, and tourists who bundled up a baby bison in the back of their car to bring it to warmth, leading to its being put down.

And YNP has a controversial image as wildlife stewards. The park was under fire again  after they announced a huge cull of bison under a controversial agreement with Montana to ostensibly reduce potential of brucellosis transmission to cattle (which has never happened, and oh yeah, elk carry brucellosis too, but let’s not talk about that). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, likely under pressure to show success of the Endangered Species act, and coincident to applications for trophy hunts by Wyoming and Montana. YNP had to tiptoe around that during public comment periods in 2016.

So you can hardly blame YNP rangers and the Park for being worn thin. When I drove into the park, a grizzly kill site at Dunraven Pass had created an obstinate parking lot of vehicles on the road with people running toward the site saying, “It’s just like you see on TV!” The crowd was blocking a fuel tanker truck trying to mount the hill and pass.

But after politely stopping for a bison herd that stepped into the road (one hoof was on the yellow line, but no bison in my lane), I found a ranger screaming up the hill, honking his horn furiously to send a young calf out of his way and waving at me to continue.  It was complete ranger road rage, and this after we passed several temporary flags warning us to be patient with extensive delays for wildlife on the roadways.

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YNP, try to understand the natural temptation to reach out and touch nature.

Yellowstone is sending mixed and soft messages that don’t speak clearly or directly to tourists.  “Wildlife are dangerous and unpredictable” blames wildlife for being- well, wild.  How about, “You can get yourself killed by wildlife”? That puts blame where blame belongs. How about being specific about how to drive around a bison herd?  I wasn’t sure whether moving on would send the animal into the car it was passing or start a stampede.

And the YNP ommunications folks want your pictures for social media, which encourages you to take more interesting and unique pictures, that just get you into trouble. This effort to get people to avoid taking selfies with wildlife is- well, just dumb.  Do you think people really will skip the picture with the live bison to get a selfie with a giant stuffed toy?  And why give it a name that flies in the face of trying to convince people wildlife are wild?billythebison

Even the tour operators aren’t following rules.  I saw a Yellowstone yellow bus tour stop and let people out to chase this grizzly for a picture. (Note to Ranger: I snapped his photo with my Canon HS60-XS superzoom from a pullout down the road and decided to change my hiking destination from a nearby nature trail).

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I sat at the Canyon Village Fountain Grill counter eating a salad and listening to four women talk about how that ranger shouldn’t have been yelling at one of them.  “I was sensible,” she said. “I knew what I was doing.” A few minutes later I realized that her tour bus had stopped to watch a grizzly sow and cubs, and she had separated from the line of people out of their cars on the road to come up behind them for pictures, effectively hemming them in. No, not sensible, but remember, she was on a tour. Tour operators may have to sacrifice a tip to keep their customers in line- I saw it happen in Costa Rica, so it can happen here.

Yellowstone, you need to be a better, more consistent parent with clear rules, and stop blaming the “kids” for- well, being kids.  Understand the temptation to reach a hand out of a car and feel a bison passing by with your fingertips- no, not smart, but these magnetic creatures suddenly feel within reach and touch.

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Don’t worry, Ranger- this picture was taken from the safety of a car in a pullout at a great distance with a small superzoom camera.

And you need to be willing to call out deliberately ugly or dangerous behavior.  There are great photographers, but legions of amateur long-lens photographers who bait and harrass animals for photos. There are people who throw food and objects at animals and feel entitled to camp anywhere they want.  The Park Service might want to consider some good old-fashioned shaming for punishment, not just standing nobly silent or saying obliquely that rules don’t allow you to step off the boardwalk onto the thin crust of a boiling hot spring.

And prioritize safety, not natural wonder.  Your Web is organized to require someone bedazzled by images of thermal features and wildlife to click on a section called “Safety”. Do you really expect people to do this?  Maybe recharacterize the whole park as the Serengeti of the U.S. with boiling acidic cauldrons waiting to eat you alive. Yes, there will be people who step into the cauldron or reach out to pet the wild animal, but it won’t be the majority who are now encouraged to “Marvel. Explore. Discover”.ynpweb

I know we visitor people make honest but dumb mistakes or can be stupid (okay, the baby bison incident was beyond the pale). Sometimes we’re just bedazzled and tempted by the marvel of nature that we increasingly only know in electronic form. It’s happening all over the world, and will only going to get worse as we are more isolated in cities, and tempted to sin by more new technology (drones are already a problem and virtual reality is next).  You’re going to have to sit down as “parents” of the park and have a tough love conversation about what you need to do to protect people, wildlife, cultural resources, and the environment.

Maybe it’s not communications that will fix the problem. Maybe it’s confining people to ranger-led tours and shuttles.  I would pay for it, and go with you. But honking and yelling at people who are trying to do the right thing, and soft-balling risk while asking people for cool images- well, you’re kinda asking for what’s happening.

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So what exactly am I supposed to do when I’m pulled over safely in my car with the windows up and the bison decides to start shoving it out of the way?

Hearing the thunder- Madison Buffalo Jump State Park

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September 2016- Visiting the buffalo jump at American Prairie Reserve was a little like falling down a rabbit hole.   I’m positively the worst for spying something new (to me at least) and following it where ever it goes. I already heard about buffalo jumps  a couple years ago from a state park employee and fellow workshop trainee. After my first visit to the APR jump, the rabbit in the waistcoat appeared, and after him I went.

What’s a buffalo jump? For thousands of years, Plains Indians staged complex, collaborative efforts to lure bison toward a carefully selected cliff, then trigger a stampede that would send them running over it to their deaths.  Runners were trained from youth, like Olympians.  Their hunting life may have been equally short.

Buffalo jumps hold their secrets. Maybe the practice started with bison, as legend tells it, or perhaps early humans hunting woolly mammoths figured out it was safer to trick them into plummeting over a cliff than hunting them on foot.Use of North American buffalo hunts supposedly ended 1500-1700-ish, when horses allowed year-round hunting of bison, but there is at least one later account that involves horses and guns. Earliest hunters used less of the animals than later groups, and there is evidence of “gourmet butchering” at an early Folsom site.

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Diorama of a buffalo jump

The details will be worried over by academicians and tribes, but you can skip the intellectual discussion, visit the places and fire up your imagination.  I was lucky enough to find Madison Buffalo Jump State Park completely abandoned on a September Tuesday and spent a few hours hiking and imagining the dramatic hunt.

Montana State Parks did a great job with the language on the signs:  one walks through the entire process, from pre-hunt rituals to buffalo runners luring grazing bison forward, running them into drive lines with buffalo “frighteners” on either side, then causing them to stampede over the cliff to a slope below.  The front runners would have to leap to safe places on ledges below.  The bison that survived the fall would be finished off and then a mass effort to process commenced.

It’s obvious in this Google Earth aerial what made the Madison Jump a good site, but I suggest going there and walking it to imagine the logistics and danger involved first hand. After all, the Plains Indians didn’t find the site on the internet, and neither should you.

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And if you’re blessed to find yourself without other people distracting you, the lonely site is a perfect place to walk and imagine you’re wearing a buffalo runner disguise. You can hear the bison herd vocalizing in low rumblings that drift in from far away.

Your walk begins at the end of the hunt. As you hike up the old buffalo trail leading around the north side of the cliff, look at the processing area and imagine groups of women killing bellowing, immobilized bison after they’ve fallen. Imagine a staging area for processing, with the same women energetically removing hide, meat, organs, sinew for housing, clothing, tools, and food.

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From a park sign

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Farther up the trail, the grazing and driving areas start coming into view.  You can see the natural ramp that winds toward the jump and imagine runners luring the animals forward, careful not to start a stampede too soon and lose the whole herd.  Rock cairns along the way would guide the animals and hide “frighteners”. The animals would be restless, unsure, but move forward warily.  They would be twitchy, ready to bolt and turn the whole herd into a boiling mass of big brown bodies, horns, and hooves.

And then toward the top, on the last rist to the cliff, the frighteners would make thunder happen.  Runners disguised by wolf hides would leap out whooping, yelling, scaring the animals into a blind stampede.  Runners up front might have to leap to ledges below and out of the way as the pounding herd ran straight for the cliff edge and over.  As you stand with a bison’s last view, you understand.  You can feel your blood pounding in your ears, hear the bellows and people shouting and grass and insects and dust kicked up into a storm around you.  You hear the thuds below.

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It would be quiet afterward once the last animal bled out and expired.  The hunters would be drained, completely spent from exertion and adrenaline.  Maybe some would be injured.  Maybe part of the herd balked, peeled away, and stampeded away to safety, or ended up in the forested bowl below the other side of the cliff.

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I sat on the cliff and drank a bottle of water, gazing at the expansive view as the imaginary hunt faded in my mind.  A few hunter-leery deer tip-toed into view before they caught sight and scent of me and bounded away.  The loud rattling calls of sandhill cranes rose from the river snaking through the Madison River Valley past green crop circles.

These jumps were abandoned long ago by native hunters, and then excavated for bone to use as fertilizer.  I’m sure artifact pilfering has been common.

But the feeling of the place is powerful enough that it will draw me back.  I’ll read some books, look for documentaries, research Native American perspectives on the jumps.  I’ll go to First People’s Buffalo Jump in Ulm the next trip.  I’ll walk where the bison walked, be the animal next time, and not imagine myself as a specatator of a movie in my head.  It’s that crazy rabbit hole again.

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Resting buffalo head rock- you see it, right?
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This has to have been a ritual stage- I would make it one, anyway
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Blessed to see some fresh fall flowers…
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But the faded ones have their own rich beauty.
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These rocks look like they calved from the cliff and tumbled in a line down a ravine, but they’re so- well, orderly.  Your mind starts to see the imprint of ghosts everywhere.