Heartbreak and Bright Blessings - Facts of Life in the Company of Buffalo
Animal Stories from All-Creatures.org

FROM Buffalo Field Campaign
May 2020

As death is a fact, so is new life. Balm to the wounded hearts are the many Bison Calves who are coming into the world right now....

The local DOL agent drives around every day looking for “outlaw” buffalo because of the livestock industry's unfounded fear of brucellosis being spread to cattle, but we find a sick and dying bull and he didn’t even bother taking a blood sample to see if there was a disease.

Bison Calf
A buffalo calf enjoying a warm, sunny day - Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign

It’s been a long, wild season here with the buffalo, a season coming to a close at the end of next week. We are shifting our focus to our garden and to the promise of outreach to folks far and wide, if this virus gives us a break. After so much trauma in the Gardiner Basin and some here in the Hebgen Basin, we have all been delightfully reeling in the baby booming of new buffalo calves. Every day more and more calves arrive.

It’s so cool to be with the herds, the moms and calves are so talkative with each other this time of year. Deep grunts from the moms saying things like, “Junior, get over here! Watch out for this! Stop playing with that!” and the wee bleats from the calves, “Mom, where are you? I want milk! What’s this thing here?” The families are all working and moving together, feeling free in this coming time of plenty. Everyone is looking out for the new family members. It always fascinates us to think about these little red guys and how they will change so much to become such enormous big, brown buffalo. For now, they are playing, relaxing, napping every chance they get, and zooming around like little red bullets full of the glory of new life. Their gentle, patient mothers edging them along ever so gracefully. Buffalo mothers are the best role models of motherhood ever.

dying Buffalo
We found our friend suffering tremendously and knew we had to act - Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign.

But, in life, there is the fact of death. The end of last week was a harsh lesson in that. We have been in mourning as we lost a brother bull on Friday. I have been needing to and hesitating to write about this. Part of me didn't want to, feeling we had betrayed him in some way. Me and my good friend and patrol partner made a call whose intentions were good; but you know what they say about that. The day before, we got a call about a "distressed" bull. The told location of where he was was unclear, and we get a lot of calls about buffalo who some concerned citizens (bless their hearts) believe are in trouble, but are actually fine. But sometimes these calls have significant merit.

We did not find the bull the day of the call, but we found him the next morning. He was in really, really bad shape. In the throes of dying. “Distressed" is not the word we would have used, seeing his condition. He was clearly suffering. In agony and in a lot of pain. He was bedded down in an awkward way, his legs askew, breathing heavy, hard, and fast. He was grunting, quietly roaring, gurgling, and convulsing. He could not get up. He could only lift up his head and would do that for just a little while, then plop back down into the arms of the earth in his agony. He was not distressed. He was dying and suffering tremendously.

We didn’t want to, but we knew we had to make the call. Our first choice, a human skilled in dealing a swift release was not available; Our second choice, also skilled (for we have witnessed it), was also unavailable. We left messages, hoping they would get back to us. Really, we were hoping this bull would take his last breath before they did respond. We called camp for advice and support and they called the local dispatch. It was our local Gallatin County sheriff who finally responded.

Things turned into the stuff of nightmares. Cindy and I have been with these buffalo together for 17 years. We've known this handsome, mature bull since he was just a wee calf. We've seen so much, grown so much together, with these buffalo. They are our friends and our family. Neither of us wanted to make these calls, but we knew we had to. This beautiful bull was suffering so much, and not a grizzly bear or wolf pack was in sight to end it in the proper, natural way. So, the local dispatch sent one of our county sheriffs, one who loves the buffalo too. Someone who is good to us. He did not want to do this. But, he knew he had to and he did. As he pulled his weapon out he said, “I can do it with one shot, but i'm going to give him two so he does not suffer.” Painful long minutes later, it took him nine shots to the head. The bull's eyes will haunt us forever. Our purpose was to END his suffering. We know we made the right call, but they sent the wrong person. It was one of the most painful things I have ever seen in my time here with the buffalo. When it was over other authorities arrived. With all the diseases arriving in the world, we asked the Montana Department of Livestock to take a blood sample, in case he was sick, but they failed to do that.

The local DOL agent drives around every day looking for “outlaw” buffalo because of the livestock industry's unfounded fear of brucellosis being spread to cattle, but we find a sick and dying bull and he didn’t even bother taking a blood sample to see if there was a disease. So we don’t even know why he was dying. It could have been anything. In the end, he was taken to the dump to become compost. One of our most Sacred Relatives. Our hearts are broken to pieces. We only wanted to ease his pain, and ended up causing more. But, it's over now. He is free from his suffering. So many tears and so much heartache, so many prayers for this beautiful bull. We put out tobacco, prayed, laid our hands on him, wept with him. SACRED.

Bison Calf
Everyone needs to have a good scratch once in a while, and a warm gravel road is so inviting for the task! - Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign

As death is a fact, so is new life. Balm to the wounded hearts are the many calves who are coming into the world right now. Every day, more little buffalo miracles spring to life, such a gift to the earth. They fill all of our hearts with so much joy and laughter. Their quiet, protective mothers are such a shield for them; their bonds are incredibly strong and profound. After a season of such great loss, these little buffalo calves are miracles of the most magical kind. Their coming into the world draws so much attention. People from faraway places travel to Horse Butte for just a glimpse; if the buffalo are along the highway, many travelers pull over to see them, huge smiles on their faces when they encounter the little calves. Calving season is one of the greatest rewards for the hard times we endure here with the buffalo. The mama buffalo are visibly so proud of their beautiful babies, and rightfully so. As our executive director and Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) tribal member has said, “every time a buffalo calf stands is a victory for us.”


Return to: Animal Stories