Cover image for A chorus of buffalo
A chorus of buffalo
Rudner, Ruth.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Short Hills, NJ : Burford Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
183 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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QL737.U53 R84 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Rudner (a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and author of Partings ) analyzes the controversy over a disease, brucellosis, a bovine bacterial disease transmitted during reproduction. Yellowstone's buffalo carry antibodies to brucella, indicating their exposure to it, exposure they firs

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Contrary to popular belief, the American buffalo is not extinctÄbut it is in trouble. In this passionate volume, Montana writer Rudner (Partings) mixes lyrical anecdotes and meditative essays to explore the buffalo's fragile existence, its uncertain future and the politics swirling around the iconic animal. Because buffalo sometimes carry brucellosis, a bovine disease that can cause incurable, debilitating undulant fever in humans and irregular fertility in cattleÄand because ranchers are required to kill off entire cattle herds at the first sign of itÄthe roaming rights of buffalo occupy a central place in Western agricultural politics. Traveling across bison country, Rudner interviews the interested parties, watches the buffalo roam and weighs the merits of all sides. In the end, she comes down on the side of those environmental groups and private citizens who want public lands to be made available to free-ranging bison. Ranchers' fears, she argues, are exaggerated; indeed, there is no known instance of brucellosis transmission from wild buffalo to grazing domestic cattle. Rudner's reverence for the magnificent creature shines through her descriptions of firsthand encountersÄon the Dakota prairie, in Yellowstone backcountry, on a Chippewa/Cree reservation (where only five buffalo remain) and on a Sioux reservation (where a thriving herd of more than 400 buffalo live). Throughout, she evenhandedly considers the often-conflicting views of environmentalists, ranchers, park rangers, biologists, animal rights groups, Indians who eat buffalo meat and backpackers who, like herself, view the buffalo as a living link to nature's wildness. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Montana writer and Yellowstone back-country guide Rudner presents a series of ruminations on the state of the bison in the United States today. Trying to avoid getting snarled in the wildlife politics that pit ranchers and bureaucrats against environmentalists and Native Americans, she provides a fairly impartial view of the widely diverse opinions on these migratory animals, many of which have been killed when they inevitably wander beyond national park boundaries. Ultimately, however, Rudner's love and respect for these wild animals comes through, and it is clear that her heart lies on the environmental side of the issue. A good companion to Harold P. Danz's more historically based Of Bison and Man (Univ. of Colorado, 1997), this is recommended for larger public and Western natural history collections.DTim J. Markus, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One A HARD SEASON * * * THE 940-foot-long, two-lane bridge spans a deep canyon of the Gardner River. From road to river, the drop is over 200 feet. I was halfway across, on my way from Mammoth to Lamar Valley, when a big bull buffalo started down the center from the far side. Squeezing by the 1,800-pound, six-foot-tall animal did not seem an option. I stopped my vehicle. He never paused. I shifted into reverse and backed off the bridge, trying not to look down. The buffalo stayed on the road to Mammoth. Turning, I (discreetly) followed.     This is a hard winter. An ice crust formed beneath the snow has kept buffalo and other ungulates from reaching grass. Many have left their usual winter range in search of food.     My buffalo stopped at Rescue Creek, a few miles north of Mammoth. Lowering his huge head, he plowed snow aside. Pawing the ground, he found only ice. Near Yellowstone's north entrance at Gardiner, he headed up the valley west of the Yellowstone River, as if some old knowledge led him north. In the Gardiner schoolyard he scrounged a bit of scraggly grass at the edge of the running track where the feet of children had worn snow and ice to earth. The grass was not much, but it was more than anything else had been.     I stopped to watch him, then drove 21/2 miles farther north to the park's Stephens Creek facility, where the park had arranged a media opportunity for journalism interested in buffalo. A ranger met vehicles at the locked gate through which one must pass to reach Stephens Creek. This is where park horses and vehicles are kept. There are several horse corrals and a long, neat row of vehicles. And now, corrals specially built to hold buffalo. These are lined with huge sheets of plywood so that daylight does not show through the rails. The buffalo remain somewhat calmer if they cannot see daylight ahead of them. Catwalks built about 8 feet up the outside of the corrals provide rangers a place to stand to do whatever controlling of the buffalo they must do.     For weeks buffalo had funneled along a drift fence into the buffalo corrals, where they were sorted into separate pens according to sex and age, then urged down a narrow corridor into waiting horse trailers that would haul them to slaughterhouses.     For two days prior to my arrival, a vet from the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had been testing captured bison for brucellosis. Until the APHIS vet arrived, all buffalo captured here were shipped to slaughter. After the testing, it was decided to hold those testing negative, and send only those testing positive. Unfortunately, the testing itself proved deadly. The buffalo, terrified at finding themselves trapped and surrounded by shouting people, fought to free themselves. Four were so badly injured they had to be shot. The park decided to end the testing.     I watched a group of cow bison fight the route down the narrow corridor to the waiting trailer. They fought piling into the trailer, but there was no way out. They piled on top of one another. The rangers slammed the trailer door shut, several pushing against it to hold it closed, while others chained and locked it. The trailer pulled away. The bulls destined for the next trailer refused to enter the corridor. "Whooo! whoo!" the rangers shouted. "Aye! Aye! Aye!" they shouted, banging paddles and shovels against the sides of the corrals until, finally, the bulls, too, piled into the trailer on their way to death.     The day I watched was the last the park shipped buffalo to slaughter. Park rangers were sickened by the trapping. You could see it on the faces of those at the buffalo corrals, even as they shouted and banged their paddles. When the last of three horse trailers loaded with buffalo took off for the slaughterhouse, the chief ranger said, "This is a real travesty." North district ranger Mona Divine told me, "We don't want them in here. We hazed 120 last night. Some of those are down near the north entrance. Some the state is shooting now."     We could hear the crack of rifles less than 2 miles up the road. "They refused our offer of help to haze them back to the park," Mona said.     Although it is not particularly easy to move bison someplace they don't want to go, hazing--pushing them in a particular direction by using noise, horses, helicopters, anything available that will get them moving--is a technique that sometimes works.     I drove up the road, across the boundary between Yellowstone and land owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant, where the Department of Livestock was shooting buffalo. The road crosses sagebrush and grassland that back to the west into the foothills of the Gallatin Range, and to the east to the Yellowstone River. On the east side of the river, the land rises onto benches and cliffs and then up into the Absaroka Mountains. The past few days had been sunny, with little new snowfall, and there were areas along the road where sage rose out of the snow. The day was cold, brittle, sunny. Just before crossing the park boundary onto church land, I saw my old bull buffalo grazing in a small patch of sagebrush. "Stay where you are," I said to him.     By the time I reached the fields where more than 16 buffalo had been shot, the shooters were at rest while several men gutted and skinned the dead buffalo. A man I knew had told me he would be in the field dressing out buffalo on this day, but I did not see him. The DOL calls in private citizens, mostly Indians, who pay their own way but keep the meat, heads, and hides to dispose of privately. Because this meat has not been inspected by a USDA inspector, it cannot be sold publicly. The meat butchered at most of the slaughterhouses to which the buffalo have been taken is inspected and is sold at public auction. If a shooter from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks is called in to make a kill, that animal is sold at their own auction, along with any confiscated animals, such as illegally shot elk or deer.     Sun glittered on the neat, shiny mound of gut piled in front of each carcass. Two DOL trucks were parked in the first field. From the road, I watched the men working on the buffalo. So did two men from a Billings television station, here to get the story of the buffalo killing for the daily news. We were not invited onto the private land although, after 40 minutes, I walked into the field to ask the DOL whether I might watch the butchering close up. I wasn't sure why I wanted to do that, but it somehow felt necessary to watch the whole process; in some way to bear witness.     "If you wait a little, they're taking eight more down the road and those will be on the road, and you won't have to go on private property. Ma'am," the man said.     "How will I know when to go?" I asked.     "Just follow us when we leave," he said.     I waited half an hour. Nobody moved. The men field-dressing the fallen buffalo had finished their work and loaded the carcasses onto trucks. Nothing at all was happening in the field. I suddenly felt that nothing at all ever would, or that nothing ever would until the next group of animals had been shot (or, as the man said, "taken"). I decided to drive up the road on my own. So did a park photographer and the two TV reporters from Billings.     We all parked across the road from the eight buffalo. They lay resting at the far edge of the field, as they have for 10,000 years. "You will die soon," I said to them, but they did not hear. After a while, one animal stood and began its meager grazing.     We waited another half hour, but no DOL trucks appeared. An old red truck I had seen at the first field drove past. Over the radio scanner in the TV reporters' van we heard a man say, "They're bedded down out here. Everything's quiet." The truck pulled off the road below the buffalo. The radio was silent a moment, then a man said, "I don't want to go up there while those TV guys are hanging around."     "I'd like to see them in a ditch," a second voice said.     "The river would be better," the first voice said.     The next words over the radio were those of one of the DOL agents announcing that they were going to lunch while we remained parked in front of the buffalo. What I do not understand is that, since the shooting is perfectly legal under the interim bison management plan (the plan in place until a permanent method for dealing with buffalo is adopted), however one may feel about it, why are they so secretive? True, shooting a buffalo on the evening news is not great press, but goodwill gestures can always be used to anyone's advantage. The DOL doesn't need to come off as villains. Yet they persist. They had refused the morning's offer by the rangers at Stephens Creek to help haze the buffalo back into the park. Why, I wondered.     The Billings TV crew, the park photographer, and I also decided to go to lunch. I left last, driving back, past the first fields, past the park boundary. My old bull hadn't moved from his spot on the park side of the boundary. "Don't move," I said. "Don't move north. Please don't move north."     It took 20 minutes to buy a cup of tea in town and drive back out to the fields. The buffalo had moved a few yards north. He stood now just over the boundary, on church land. "Move back," I said. "A few feet. Move back."     There was one truck in the first field. All the carcasses and the skins had been removed from both fields, which were now empty but for shimmering masses of gut piled here and there on the white snow. I walked over to the truck to ask if they had seen the man I knew. The agent I spoke with looked relieved. "We thought you were from PETA," he said. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is among the animal rights groups protesting the buffalo slaughter. The DOL does not like them. "No," I said, "although I'm surprised no one is here. I just want to write a story about this whole process."     "There should be people down at the other field soon," the man said.     I drove back down to the field of eight buffalo. They had moved uphill and were virtually hidden in tall sage and juniper. I could see only two. There were no other vehicles around. I sipped my tea and watched them through binoculars. Two trucks drove up, crossed the field without stopping, and headed into the sage. A man climbed out of each. One disappeared into the brush. I heard the crack of a rifle. Again and again. The second man walked straight ahead from his truck, shouldering his rifle just as one buffalo lowered his head to graze. I heard a shot. The buffalo walked clear of the sage; away from the shooters. The man aimed toward him and shot again. The buffalo kept walking. They're letting him go, I thought. The buffalo fell.     The TV crew missed the shooting.     The shooters drove back across the field and parked at its edge. Several other trucks appeared. From nowhere. They stopped at the entrance to the field and spoke with the shooters. I walked toward them as a man in blood-stained yellow rain pants walked toward me. "You can go in with me," he said to me. "I'll ride in your vehicle."     As we drove across the slick, rutted snow, Bill LaFromboise asked if I intended to take pictures.     "I just write," I said.     "What do you want to know?" he asked.     "What happens to a buffalo. I want to see what happens."     We left my vehicle in a field of sage where eight dead buffalo lay. The sweet scent of sage, floating like a blessing about the buffalo, filled the clear, cold air. A Little stream ran through the field. So these buffalo can drink, I thought.     "I don't want to see them all killed," Bill said, "but what are you going to do ...?" He dug his sharp knife into the thick fur at the buffalo's neck. Two other men worked with him. As they worked, we heard a shot. Looking up, we saw smoke.     "What the hell was that?" one man asked.     "I see lots of smoke over there," Bill said, pointing to an uphill clearing behind a stand of trees. "They must be using black powder," he joked.     I saw six buffalo on the hill a few hundred yards away. "They must be trying to scare them," Bill suggested. The buffalo continued looking for food, as if these lying around us were not dead. Then, suddenly, they moved off, down the back of the hill, out of our sight.     The men hooked the buffalo in front of me to a truck to move him into a better position to be worked on. As he was moved, I heard more shots, then realized the shooters just wanted to get the six on the hill out of sight to kill. Killing buffalo is something you want to do in private, apparently, like sex or gluttony.     The buffalo unhooked, Bill, with quick skill, cut neatly up the center of the animal's belly, opening the flesh. A big, shimmering ball of guts popped out.     "They're a fantastic animal," he said, pausing in what seemed a moment of homage. He punctured the gut bag, deflating it, then pulled it free of the animal.     As the bull's throat was cut, blood spilled out like a waterfall. A red pool formed in the white snow. Steam poured from his throat; the warmth of the animal's life entering the cold afternoon. Looking at his teeth, Bill said, "This one is six or seven years old."     Bill LaFromboise was not apologetic about the job he was doing. He is rightfully proud of his skill, carefully explaining to me the things he was doing. Respectful of the animal, he worked quickly and nearly. I am aware this animal is dead. I am not horrified by its death, although I am by its killing.     I left while men across the field continued their work on the fallen buffalo. The snow was dotted with red blood. Wherever you looked, there was blood. On the way to my vehicle, I passed the buffalo I watched fall. He was large and beautiful. No one had begun work on him yet. There were bubbles in his nostrils, the end of breath. I stopped to touch him, to ask his forgiveness. The fur on his head was so thick, my hand could not go all the way into it without pushing.     I drove back toward Gardiner, passing my solitary buffalo. Dead, he lay where I had last seen him, a few feet on the wrong side of the park border. Copyright (c) 2000 Ruth Rudner. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Preface--The Politics of Buffalop. 1
A Hard Seasonp. 11
Buffalo Ranchp. 21
Rocky Boy's Buffalop. 35
Chiefp. 51
Hearingp. 69
Home on the Rangep. 83
Buffalo Skullp. 93
Buffalo Heartp. 95
Horse Buttep. 117
Playingp. 135
Sing with the Buffalo's Voicep. 137
The Buffalo in Yellowstonep. 159
Sources and Bibliographyp. 179
Acknowledgmentsp. 184