SEASON ONE | EPISODE ONE
For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People
Note: Threshold is produced as a listening experience. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion, emphasis, and subtle nuance that’s not conveyed in the text. We write and edit all of our transcripts, and as such, they might contain human errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Amy Martin Let’s see how to describe it. It’s like hard. Hard to capture. Green. Lots and lots of green everywhere. Trees in the distance. A little line of snow over the top of the ridge across the valley. And in front of me are hundreds and hundreds of bison, I think the most bison I’ve ever seen in one place. Just soaking in this beautiful morning. OK, I’m going to try and capture some of their voices now.
Amy Martin Clearly these bison did not get the memo that a radio reporter was coming to interview them this morning.
Amy Martin They’re being unbelievably picturesque and unbelievably quiet.
Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold. I’m Amy Martin and I’m in Yellowstone National Park.
Amy Martin The calves are, like, sacked out, they’re like just laying flat on the ground, and there’s a calf nursing. There’s a mom and a calf walking...and there’s lots of little tails switching about. Cud is being chewed. [LAUGH] It’s like a small taste of what must’ve been so normal to see: hundreds of thousands of bison, just doin’ their thing.
Amy Martin A huge group of any kind of animal is a spectacle. But the fact that there are this many bison here is something of a miracle. Because we came so close to losing this animal. Before Europeans arrived, there were more than 50 million wild bison in North America. In 1901, there were just 23 left in the United States. Less than two dozen free-roaming bison, protected here inside Yellowstone National Park. This is where we saved the American bison extinction – those 23 animals are the ancestors of this group I’m watching now.
Mike There’s buffalo everywhere, it’s just unimaginable how many buffalo there are here.
Donnie They’re just so powerful-looking and so big, and mighty.
Cheyenne This is just mind blowing. It just kind of gives me goosebumps.
Caroline Oh wow, this is the most bison I’ve seen all together, all at once. This is, ah, pretty incredible.
Jerry This, this is just a joy to see them, ya know?
Amy Martin Quick note here: bison and buffalo refer to the same animal. Bison is the more scientifically correct term, but a lot of people use both words interchangeably, so we will too.
Amy Martin What did you think when you came around the corner of the highway and saw all these bison hanging out here in this valley?
Ethan I was shocked. I mean, it looks like there’s a couple thousand bison right over here.
Amy Martin What does it make you feel?
Ethan It makes me feel like...it makes me feel so connected to nature.
Donnie To see the little calves, it’s just awesome. We’re so happy to see those.
Deborah This is what it is. This is where it’s at, not the Dairy Queens and the Walmarts.
Bindu We are absolutely the luckiest people on Earth to see this.
Cheyenne It's just an emotional experience for sure. Like, you hear so much about these magnificent animals, but we don't really know the feeling of seeing them until you see, like, these big, huffing, just beautiful animals. Awe. That's all I can say.
Mike I hope that, ah, nothing ever happens to this.
Amy Martin These are just a few of the millions of people who come to Yellowstone every year, in part to see these animals – the largest wild bison herd in the lower 48. The day I made this recording, there were probably close to 5,000 animals in the park. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can see bison at anything close to their natural scale.
But what most visitors to the park don’t realize is that hundreds of these animals we’re watching will be slaughtered in less than a year. Right now, in January 2017, as we prepare for the broadcast of this show, 900 Yellowstone bison are slated to be killed. Yearling calves, pregnant females, big stately bulls – almost 20 percent of this herd will be destroyed in the next few months. And this isn’t an anomaly. It’s become an annual winter ritual in Yellowstone. Five hundred animals one year, a thousand the next. So, why?
Amy Martin We came so close to losing this animal. Then we saved them from extinction. So why are we now killing hundreds of them every year?
Well, there are a dozen different answers to that question, but all of them begin with this: when different people look at this valley full of bison, they see entirely different things. Where some see a beautiful restoration story, others see a threat to their way of life. And a third group sees these animals as the key to their future. Bison are sort of trapped in the spaces between these different worldviews. They’re stuck in this weird liminal state, somewhere between being exterminated and being fully restored, because we’re stuck between a complicated history that we haven’t fully reckoned with, and very different ideas of what we want the future to be. In short, what I’ve found after a year of reporting on these animals is that when you start out talking about bison, you end up talking about America. Who we were, who we are, and where we’re headed. And I think that’s why things get so tricky.
Amy Martin So, we’re going to dig into all of these issues here, the practical and the philosophical. That’s what this show is about: each season we’ll explore one story from the natural world and what it says about us. This season, it’s bison in America, next season it’ll be something else. One of my main goals is to give people on all sides of an issue a chance to be heard, and to get your input, too. I want Threshold to be a place where we can have a different sort of conversation, a deeper dialogue. And we’re going to take on issues that need our attention now – problems that need to be solved, or decisions that need to get made. Like, with bison – whether or not you understand and care about these animals has real-world consequences. We could take one path, and end up with many more wild bison in the future. Or we could take another, and end up with a lot fewer, or none at all. You could almost say we’re at ... a threshold.
Chris Yeah, I definitely see the three. Then to the right of those three that are obvious, there’s two, a cow and a calf, that are just against black.
Amy Martin It’s January 2016, and I’m in Yellowstone, counting bison. Or at least, trying to.
Amy Martin I see three, I don’t see.
Chris Geremia And to the left of that there’s a cow walking in the draw.
Amy Martin Oh, I just saw that cow...
Chris Geremia There you go.
Amy Martin Up towards the, just below the ridge.
Amy Martin It’s cold and grey with a dusting of snow on the ground and a feeling of more coming in the air. I’m in a big pick-up truck with two national park biologists: Chris Geremia, who you just heard, and Rick Wallen.
Rick Wallen My name is Rick Wallen, and I’m a biologist with the National Park Service, and I’m the team leader for our bison ecology and management program.
Amy Martin Rick is a little bit like a bison himself. He’s super tall and he has a big beard – both of those things are true of buffalo, as well – and he’s also kind unflappable in a very bison-esque sort of way. He’s been leading the bison program at Yellowstone since 2002 – a very controversial 15 years – and in that time, he’s had a lot of people direct a lot of intense feelings his way. But whatever gets thrown at Rick, it seems to just roll off his back. Maybe he learned how to stay calm under pressure when he was an artilleryman in the Army, but I have a feeling it’s just kind of who Rick is.
Rick Wallen Today's mission is to drive around the Gardiner Basin. And we're going to try and count all the bison that we can find and determine what their distribution is: size of groups, makeup of groups, things of that nature.
Amy Martin The Gardiner Basin is just north of the park, and Rick and Chris do this count several times a week, all winter long. The reason they keep such close tabs on these animals is because these bison are doing something very special. Something that some people find extremely hopeful, and other people find very problematic. These bison are trying to migrate.
[Those guys are moving… Trying to think how many...those guys are moving…]
We’ve spotted a large herd on the move. We’re on one side of the Yellowstone River, the bison are on the other side, and their dark shapes stand out against the snow.
[I’m guessing there’s 200-plus? ...]
Rick stops the truck, so he and Chris can try to get a good count.
[Pull down to the gate…]
Amy Martin That’s really cool to see ‘em move.
Rick Wallen It’s like a giant amoeba.
Amy Martin Yeah.
Amy Martin It’s kind of a funny comparison, but if you’d been there I think you’d know what Rick meant. It’s almost like the herd becomes one giant organism. Especially when you’re watching from a distance, it has a shape, and it moves with intention – kind of like its own quirky intelligence. But it’s this very same intelligence, these survival instincts pushing them to pioneer new territory, that are getting them into trouble. Because if this herd is going to migrate, they need somewhere to migrate to.
And right now, they don’t have anywhere to go.
Rick Wallen There’s no place for them to immigrate. There’s no tolerance for wild bison in very many landscapes outside of Yellowstone.
Amy Martin As we pushed bison to the edge of extinction in the late 1800s, some animals were moved to farms and ranches, and became livestock. And a few buffalo were saved in zoos – some of those animals were later brought here, to supplement this herd. And there are some accounts of other small herds that were discovered later in hidden pockets of the country. But those 23 bison we saved in Yellowstone were the only ones that were never moved off of their ancient territory.
But historically, that territory was much bigger of course – bison probably didn’t spend all winter inside the current park boundaries. Yellowstone sits on a high plateau – it averages over 8,000 feet in elevation, and parts of the park get more than 15 feet of snow in the winter. Bison are very well-adapted to the cold: they use their giant heads like snowplows to push through the drifts, and find whatever forage is available underneath. And they turn their own bodies into fuel, burning through their fat reserves to keep themselves alive. But one of their primary adaptations is this instinct to migrate. As winter progresses, bison know that they should move down in elevation, where temperatures are milder and there’s usually less snow. But what they don’t know is that this instinct to migrate is pushing them toward a very controversial line. It’s invisible – you wouldn’t know it if you walked over it, and neither do they.
Amy Martin Where’s the line, the park line?
Chris Geremia: They’re not quite there. You see where the power poles are?
Amy Martin Ok, yeah, ok.
Amy Martin We’re watching the herd approach the park boundary. One side of that line, they are wildlife, protected and venerated. On the other, they become dangerous intruders. They can be hazed, shot, or shipped to slaughter. And one of the main reasons for this is a disease called brucellosis.
Rick Wallen Cattle being brought to North America was the original source of brucellosis infection in the wildlife.
Amy Martin Brucellosis is a bacterial disease, and all sorts of wildlife native to North America caught it from European livestock. In ungulates like cattle, bison and elk, it can cause pregnant cows to prematurely deliver their calves – to have a miscarriage, essentially. We’ve almost completely eradicated brucellosis from livestock in the United States, but it persists in some wildlife, including the elk and bison that live in and around Yellowstone National Park. And here’s the kicker: both of those animals, elk and bison, are capable of giving the disease back to cattle. So this is one of the answers to the question of why we are killing hundreds of Yellowstone buffalo every year – because of the threat of brucellosis being transferred from bison back to cattle.
Now, some listeners are probably already typing emails to me right now, because of a statement I just made. I said bison are capable of giving brucellosis to cattle. And for people who are deeply invested in this issue, this is a major point of contention: just what the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle truly is. So, here are the facts as I understand them: there has never been a confirmed case of a wild bison giving brucellosis to cattle in the field. Ever. Elk have transmitted the disease to cattle, including earlier just this winter. But bison have not. However, it is possible for bison to transmit the disease to cattle. That’s been proven in the lab. So both things are true: it’s possible, and it’s never happened.
Rick Wallen The reason that we don't have that evidence is really a testament to the aggressive management approach to prevent it from happening.
Amy Martin We’ll have more, after this short break.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold. I’m Amy Martin, and this is Jody Lyle, a spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park.
Jody Lyle Now it’s true you are standing inside Yellowstone National Park right now.
Amy Martin This is not a part of Yellowstone that you’d ever see as a tourist. And that’s intentional. Because this is where hundreds of bison are captured and shipped to slaughter almost every winter. It’s a maze of intersecting corrals known as the Stephens Creek facility, and Jody is leading a tour for reporters.
Jody Lyle Alright, so as I mentioned we are here in the area that we call the bullpen.
Amy Martin Before the break, Rick said part of the reason brucellosis has never been transferred from bison to cattle in the wild is because of an “aggressive management approach.” So, here’s what that means. The State of Montana sued the National Park Service in 1995 over the issue of bison migrating out of the park, and brucellosis was a driving factor in that lawsuit. After five years of negotiations, a settlement deal was made, which said any animals that strayed outside the park boundaries would be hazed back in or sent to slaughter. So this facility is the result of that lawsuit.
Jody Lyle Once we have animals here we start, basically, gearing up to do the processing.
Amy Martin Stephens Creek is located just inside the northern boundary of the park and there were no bison there on the day of the tour. But in just a few weeks, the buffalo would be standing on this exact same ground. They start out in a big pen and move to progressively smaller spaces until eventually they land in a machine called the “silencer” which holds them still while blood is drawn and tags are clipped to their ears. After that, they’re held in pens for anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, and then they’re loaded onto trucks and sent to slaughter houses.
Jody Lyle I can tell you that the National Park Service and all of the people who work here, they don’t like having to do this. This is not what they signed up for. And the Park Service does everything in its power to find alternatives and ways to reduce the need for this facility. But, I can tell you that that’s going to require some pretty significant changes to the current bison management plan.
Amy Martin What Jody’s referring to here is something called the Interagency Bison Management Plan, or IBMP.
If you’re thinking that’s a name only a bunch of lawyers could love, you’re right. The IBMP was another part of the settlement between the State of Montana and the National Park Service. And although it sounds boring and bureaucratic, it’s actually really important. In fact, it’s part of the whole reason I chose to focus on bison for this first season of Threshold. The IBMP partners have decided the plan is due for a rewrite, and exactly what goes into it is going to impact these animals for decades. We’ve got details on how you can weigh in on the new plan on our website. But first, you need to understand that a key aspect of the current plan stipulates that the Yellowstone bison population is supposed to stay at around 3,000 animals. And since these bison are really good at reproducing, that means somebody has to kill a lot of buffalo every year. And that somebody is Rick Wallen. And his staff. And he says Jody’s right. Killing bison is not what they want to be doing.
Rick Wallen I mean I've even had people on days that we were supposed to go there and do the work call and say you know I can't do this anymore. I have to resign my position I'm sorry. And it's a personal thing.
Amy Martin All year long, Rick and his team are studying these animals, tracking their movements, recording their behaviors. And then, for a few weeks in the winter, they have to suddenly switch hats: they go from being scientific observers to executioners. And every time I talked to Rick over this last year, I asked him about that, just how he handles it, on a personal level.
Rick Wallen There is a cost, and that cost is more emotional for some than others. But, if you can I guess the cold-hearted on the days that you're working at the trap and get the job done in a professional manner, you're going to be thinking more clearly the day after.
Amy Martin For Rick, seeing the animals shipped to slaughter serves as an incentive to find a way to bridge the gap in our conflicted relationship with bison. We’ve named them our national mammal. We put images of them on everything from craft beers to football jerseys. But at the same time, we haven’t really decided to make space for them in our country again.
Rick Wallen I think the root of the problem is whether society’s willing to accept wild bison on the landscape, because they compete directly with the humans for habitat.
Amy Martin Rick says that bison want to live where we want to live, including the grasslands where we raise cattle.
Rick Wallen It's more than just the disease issues. It's all about the amount of grass that wild bison would eat.
Amy Martin So, even if brucellosis wasn’t an issue, there’s this inherent competition between bison and cattle for bites of grass. And Rick says that means bison restoration depends in part on figuring out ways to keep bison off of private land.
Rick Wallen To have agricultural lands in the area where you have wild bison you'll have to build your infrastructure for your ranch differently. You'll have to build your fences sturdier and taller.
Amy Martin Some of that is already happening. Conservation groups around Yellowstone have started programs that will pay for half of the cost of bison-proof fences, and many people have signed up. Rick says more is needed to really scale these efforts up: we need to get innovative. We may need to create special funds to help repay ranchers for the costs they bear in raising cattle around wild bison.
Rick Wallen You know and that's the part that society has to figure out. Is it worth it to try and make the sacrifice to learn to live with wild bison.
Amy Martin But it's not, in your view, mutually exclusive. It's not either bison or agriculture.
Rick Wallen There's no reason that we couldn't figure out, you know, all of those conflicts in Montana.
Amy Martin Do you think people on all sides are wanting to figure out the conflict?
Rick Wallen No.
Rick Wallen I think that there are various degrees of motivation in how to figure out how to live with wild bison.
Amy Martin Rick says it all comes back to that question of migration. Bison are meant to roam. That’s what they do. So if we want to keep this species intact as a wild animal, we just have to find more space for them. And that’s a question for all Americans.
Rick Wallen There’s a lot of public land in the Greater Yellowstone Area that don’t have cities and farms and ranches.
Amy Martin And there’s lots of public land in other parts of the state – and the country – as well. One possible solution here is sort out the brucellosis-infected animals from the Yellowstone herd, and use some of the animals that are disease-free to establish new herds in other places. I’m going to tell you about some people who are trying to do just that – and the opposition they’re facing – but let’s save that for a future episode. I’ve already thrown a whole at you here – lots of numbers, weird words like brucellosis – so kudos to you for hanging in there. This is all stuff you need to know in order to help the country make smart decisions about the future of this animal. But I had the advantage of learning about it while driving around on this gorgeous landscape, where at any moment, something like this could happen.
Chris Geremia ...and I’m going to have to pull over... [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin Speaking of grazers!
Amy Martin Rick and Chris and I have come around a bend in the road, and suddenly there are bison all around us. On all sides of the truck. It’s almost like, for a few minutes, we’re in the herd. You can see pictures on our website.
Amy Martin OK, this is awesome.
Chris Geremia Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Amy Martin The bison walking so close to us that if I rolled down the window and reached out my hand, I could touch them. Which I don’t do. And by the way, you shouldn’t do that either, if you ever come to Yellowstone. These are wild animals.
Amy Martin Oh god, the calves are really adorable. There’s just no getting around it.
Amy Martin Some people dispute the idea that Yellowstone bison are wild – and it’s true that they have a weird existence of being constantly stared at and photographed and argued over. So they’re not as wild as they could be. But they’re a lot more wild than most bison alive today.
Rick Wallen Well, since the evolution of man we've been domesticating wild animals. And bison are in the beginning stages of that process.
Amy Martin There are close to half a million bison living in North America today. But the vast majority of those are domesticated. They’re managed as livestock on farms and ranches, and often interbred with cattle. These are the bison that end up on your dinner plate. Only about 30,000 bison are protected as wild animals, and of those, more than half are split up into very small herds. They’re not evolving on a big landscape, with predators and other natural pressures.
Rick Wallen Even amongst the conservation herds there's, you know, hints of domestication going on. So the truly wild populations, at least in the lower forty eight states, are limited to probably three populations.
Amy Martin That’s the Henry Mountains herd in Utah, the Jackson herd in Wyoming, and the Yellowstone herd, which is by far the biggest. These are the only bison herds in the continental U.S. that have a chance to use and hone their greatest survival technique – that herd intelligence that I mentioned earlier.
Rick Wallen You see examples of that all over the place.
Amy Martin We’re going to wrap up this first episode with a story Rick told me when I came back to interview him again in June. We were walking through the park, and hundreds of calves had been born just a few weeks before. It made Rick think of something that had several years ago, at around that same time of year, when he and his team was doing their annual springtime bison census.
Rick Wallen I’d encountered a group that turned out to be something like eight or nine hundred animals. And there were a lot of moms with relatively young calves, two or three months. A couple of little calves didn't want to cross the river. You know they were nervous. I don't know if they had a bad experience before or what.
But, there were a couple of moms that would go in the water and they would, they would have these communication sessions that I had no idea what they were saying, but they were clearly communicating.
And mom would take off and the little calf would stay and rebel, mom would come back and they’d have their little session again. She would take off again and eventually the little calf would go. And over time, over that whole group, there were several of them that were doing that.
And there were females that would simply convince their little ones to get in their eddy. And so as they're crossing the river the calf would get in the little eddy and it was much easier to cruise. And then there were females that would put their calf like on the back side of them. So they were sort of slipstreamed. It was almost as if they were pulling them across the river.
And there were clearly calves that said, “No way mom I can do this on my own,” and they're going all over the place. And so at the other end, some of those little ones were getting out 100 yards downstream. Mom was getting up and they're having their you know, “I told you to stay close to me!” kind of conversation.
And then there were a couple, that the female actually finally gave up and went all the way across the river and was trying to convince the little one from the other side of the river, that, “You know you wouldn't listen to me now you're on your own and you got to do it on your own.”
And in the end they all crossed the river. Everyone was safe. There's a whole lot of scattering of little calves because a lot of them didn't land at the same spot that the rest of them did.
There’s a variety of ways to solve problems, and bison mothers you know just systematically work through the process. Well, if this doesn't work they try something different. And that's no different than any species, including humans. It's no wonder they've been so successful at being restored to the Yellowstone landscape that they look out for each other by and large.
Amy Martin This is what Rick is working for. This chance for bison to be bison: to be tested by their environment, and to become stronger through that process.
Rick Wallen To protect the wild, in wild bison.
Amy Martin Why is it important to protect the wild wild bison?
Rick Wallen Otherwise they go extinct.
Woman: This is the way that nature started, and we destroyed it almost. You know, so that’s why we come up here. This is the way it’s supposed to be. You know, they were here first.
Man: Well, it give you an idea, just what the world’s all about. You get used to your own little environment and you think that’s it, you know. This is spectacular.
Child: It’s just amazing what a very big place can do for wildlife.
Amy Martin But, like I said earlier, not everybody who looks at this herd of bison sees the same thing.
Drusca Kinkie I don’t think in Montana, there’s a place for free-roaming bison, period.
Amy Martin This is Drusca Kinkie, she’s a cattle rancher, and we’re going to hear her perspective later this season. And in our next episode, we need to fill a big gaping hole in this story – the space between 50 million bison and 23. What happened in between those two numbers? How did we go from such abundance to such scarcity?
Germaine White The elders never imagined that there would be a time that there were not bison here for us.
Amy Martin Find out next time, on Threshold.
Threshold is produced by me, Amy Martin, with help from Nick Mott, Zoe Rom, Jackson Barnett, Nora Saks and Josh Burnham. Special thanks to Michael Wright, Nicky Oulette, Ross Taylor, Rae Ellen Bichell, John Barth and Michael Connor for their help on this episode. The music is by Travis Yost.
Amy Martin I am, so close to so many bison. And they are so quiet. C’mon guys, this is radio. I need you to speak up.