Born free

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Amy Martin It's not quite dawn yet. The wind is blowing pretty hard and it's cold, although not as cold as it could be. And … I'm heading out to go watch the bison hunt.


Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold. I’m Amy Martin, and for this third episode, we’re going back to Yellowstone National Park.


Amy Martin So I'm following another truck out to the line, where the national park meets national forest, and where it's legal to hunt, and when I was driving through this area yesterday, there were over two hundred bison moving through it.

This first season of our show is all about the American bison: this animal that we venerate as a symbol, but don’t really know what to do with in real life. We saved them from extinction, and then we kind of forgot about them. But here, on the borders of Yellowstone National Park, they’re not letting us forget any longer. 

Amy Martin I'm just seeing the first buffalo of the day but they are on the other side of the river. And they’re right next to the road and I don't think they can be shot over there.

Amy Martin In case you’re just joining us, here’s what we’ve covered so far. In episode 1, we got an overview of the Yellowstone situation. In a nutshell, bison want to migrate out of the park, and that’s generating controversy. Then in episode 2 we went back in time, and explored how the near-extermination of buffalo was part of the violent oppression of Native people. Now we’re going to start to weave all of this together, and look at bison through the eyes of two cattle ranchers who are contemplating what bison restoration would mean to them. And I’m also going to take you with me on a buffalo hunt.

Amy Martin There are – one, two, three, four, five, six – hunters all staring up into the hills. Trying to see I guess if something’s moving up there. Which makes me think it probably is.



Amy Martin Druska Kinkie lives on a cattle ranch about 30 miles north of Yellowstone, in a place called Paradise Valley. 


It’s easy to see how this area got its name – it’s all snowy peaks, a winding river, big sweeping meadows. As Druska showed me around, her dog and several cats and even a family of turkeys circled around her.    



Druska loves animals, and animals love her. It’s not an overstatement to say she’s devoted her life to them. 

Druska Kinkie When we were little kids, you know the drive-in theaters were big, and so we would always go to the drive in movies. And the movie that we went to see that I remember real clearly was Born Free. And that's where my passion for animals started. And that's what I always wanted to do.  

Amy Martin How old were you do you think when you saw that? 

Druska Kinkie It was grade school. Early grade school.

Amy Martin Born Free was a big hit in 1966. It was a true story about a woman who raised an orphaned lion cub and then returned it to the wild in Kenya. Even if you don’t know the movie, you might have heard the song:



Lots of kids dream of working with animals. Druska made it happen. She went on to major in animal science, then she traveled to central Africa with the Peace Corps to teach high school students about raising livestock. And when she came home, she earned a master’s degree in reproductive physiology. This no-nonsense, stick-to-it-ness is something she says she got from her mom. Her parents were divorced when she was young, and her mom raised Druska and her three sisters alone.

Amy Martin And she was your role model you said.

Druska Kinkie Mm-hmm.

Amy Martin In what ways?

Druska Kinkie Well, just being independent and resilient. Knowing that, you know, you just went and did what you were going to do. And there really wasn't any question about “Can I?” It was, “OK, I'm going to go do this.” 

Amy Martin Druska met her husband in graduate school, they moved to the ranch where he grew up, and now they raise cattle here together with their son. I spent several hours with Druska on two different occasions, and one impression she left me with is that her cattle mean much more to her dollars and cents. I could see it on her face when she talked about them, and I could hear it in her voice when she told me the story of her own Montana ranch version of Born Free. One of her cows had complications while trying to give birth to twins. She and her husband Rich were able to save the calves, but the mother died. So they brought the orphaned brothers onto their enclosed porch. Basically, just brought them into a room in their house.  

Druska Kinkie And that became their home for 12 days. And you had to keep the temperature in there above 85, 90 degrees and so we had a heat lamp going, the stove was roaring and you had to feed him every two hours.

Amy Martin What does it take to keep two orphaned newborn calves alive? Most Americans have no idea. So I asked Druska to walk me through some of the details.

Druska Kinkie It was hotter than Hades on that porch. And so I am over there feeding them in my shorts and my tank top because it was just so hot. And you know you feed them and then you have to potty ‘em. And so you have to rub their butts and make sure that they know to potty and I wished we would’ve owned stock and paper towels because we would have done well.

Amy Martin The calves had weird bleeding incidents, one of them develop goiter. They would seem to be improving, and then they would regress–

Druska Kinkie You know, it was just up and down and up and down. ...

Amy Martin On day 12, they decided the calves were doing well enough to be moved out to the barn, under heat lamps.

Druska Kinkie And they did pretty good, so we grafted one of them to a cow and that went well and he was pretty happy. 

Amy Martin Grafting is when you get a cow to adopt a calf she didn’t give birth to. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Druska has a lot of experience, though, so she made it work for both of these orphans.  

Druska Kinkie And then the other one with the goiter. I just kept you know I was feeding him four times a day. So at 2 a.m. every single night I'm down there with bottle and he finally got a mom in May.

Amy Martin But the story doesn’t end there. The calves lost their hair for a while, they had other mysterious ailments–


Druska Kinkie It was just issue after issue with these guys. But they’re out on grass with their moms, close where we can keep an eye on ‘em. And you know you can still go up to the one. The first one that we grafted, he’s kind of forgotten. But the other one you can go up to him anywhere and he just wants to be petted. And if you scratch his belly he almost rolls over like a dog. [LAUGHS] Before he got his mom, he'd follow me up to the house to get fed and you'd open the porch door and he'd come walking in on the porch.

Amy Martin [LAUGHS] Like, “This is where I was born.”

Druska Kinkie And he and the dog would play in the yard. 

Druska Kinkie So I guess those are the reasons why you do it. 

Amy Martin The first time I met Druska, her husband was taking a load of cattle to market. And she told me she can’t go along on these trips. They’re just too hard for her.

Druska Kinkie You know, you, you get attached and you love them all, and you know, there's so many animals that we have that we can pet and be around like that and they just stand there and like it. And the thought of something happening to them is heartbreaking.

Amy Martin Well, and I think that's something that maybe people might not understand is, you know, at the end of the game obviously you have to sell these calves off to become someone's dinner. 

Druska Kinkie Yeah.

Amy Martin And how do, ... I think the average person who never has worked with animals might not understand how you can be so passionate and, like, protective and loving of the animals. I think they might assume that if you have to sell them off that you have to cut off that side that's open and loving towards them. How do you put all that together inside yourself? 

Druska Kinkie I haven't managed to cut it off and it's heartbreaking. And, I don’t know, it never gets easy. 

Amy Martin Druska was inspired to work with animals as a child, her life has been centered around them ever you’re probably expecting that she’s advocating for more wild bison on the landscape, right? 

Druska Kinkie I think the concept of free-roaming bison will harm agriculture immensely.

Amy Martin Druska is not pro-bison. She’s not even lukewarm on bison. She is fully against efforts to expand habitat for wild buffalo in Montana. So, how did the little girl who was inspired by the movie Born Free became the woman convinced that bison herds need to stay small and contained? 

Druska Kinkie OK, so there’s a disease issue with bison. They’ve been exposed to   brucellosis.


Amy Martin In our first episode, we learned that brucellosis is a bacterial disease carried by some elk and bison in and around Yellowstone. They originally caught the disease from livestock, and now they can pass it back to cattle. So, I asked Druska to explain what this threat of disease means to her.

Druska Kinkie We're under a whole different set of regulations than everybody else. And we have to follow different rules. 

Amy Martin There are no Yellowstone bison on Druska’s property. They aren’t allowed to migrate that far north. But because Yellowstone elk do move across her land, she’s in something called the Designated Surveillance Area – a region of Montana where the state requires extra brucellosis vigilance from cattle producers. They have to put special tags on their animals and do additional testing. And, if an infection is found, ranches have to go into quarantine. That’s never happened to Druska, but it did happen to a neighbor once, when he took his cattle to market.

Druska Kinkie One of his cows tested positive. They made him load up everything that he had brought in. They padlocked his trailer. And sent him home with a highway patrol escort. And then he was immediately quarantined and he couldn't sell anything for months.

Amy Martin The infection was found in the fall, and that was especially painful, because–

Druska Kinkie Fall is when we sell everything and that's the one time a year we get paid. And he can't sell anything. Now if you're a particular producer that's running on borrowed money, how are you going to explain that to the bank? 


Druska Kinkie In the big picture for me, it could mean my demise. I mean bottom line – it can mean the end for us. And I still don't think people understand that. And I still don't think they understand the ramifications of a quarantine. They do not get it. 

Amy Martin This feeling – that people don’t get it – I think that’s an important piece of understanding where Druska’s coming from here. Because, even without the brucellosis issue, I think there’s a way she feels under siege – like her way of life is just as endangered as any wild animal. According to the Farm Bureau, farm and ranch families are just 2.2% of the U.S. population. We don’t usually think of it this way, but people who work in agriculture are in a minority group in our country. And one of the annoying things about being in a minority group is a feeling of being misunderstood, or just invisible in the broader culture. As someone who grew up on a farm myself, and I feel like I can relate to that a little bit. It’s not just that people don’t get quarantine would mean to her. They don’t get ranching at all. 

Druska Kinkie I think people from away, away from the state, away from this area, need to understand that nothing is simple. 

Amy Martin The Greater Yellowstone Area is one of the largest semi-intact ecosystems in the world. It’s a place where we celebrate the wildness and freedom for animals and ourselves. But Druska’s life is a celebration of our ability to nurture animals – to intervene in their lives, to care for them with wisdom and kindness in the service of providing food. It’s like her ranch is located on the fault line where wildness and agriculture meet. Part of what we’re trying to figure out when we talk about bison restoration is if our country is big enough, and broad-minded enough, to honor both of these traditions.

Druska Kinkie In your mind, in your heart, what you’ve said is, “I’m going to take care of you because you’re mine, and I’ll do the very best I can, and you can’t do that if you have all of these threats that you have hanging over your head that you can do nothing about. And so you feel like you’ve failed.

Amy Martin Many bison conservation advocates say these fears are overblown – that the risks bison pose to cattle are minimal, and manageable. But what I sense in Druska is a need for acknowledgement. Acknowledgement of her fears, and also of the love she has for her animals, and the deep responsibility she feels for them. 

Druska Kinkie We are not a bunch of people out here that, that don’t care about wildlife, that don’t care about the land, that don’t care about our own cattle. We care very deeply about all of that. And we try to make a balance, and it’s hard. It's not simple.

Amy Martin And Druska’s opposition to wild bison isn’t simple either. The brucellosis infection at her neighbor’s place was traced to elk. As we talked about in episode one, only elk and not bison have actually transmitted brucellosis to cattle in the wild. But elk are free to move in and out of the park, while bison are hazed back in, or shipped to slaughter. So I asked Druska to help me understand what’s going on here. If both animals pose a risk to cattle ranchers around Yellowstone, why are we treating them so differently?

Druska Kinkie Years ago in our mountain property, when I would see an elk, it was thrilling. I just thought, “Wow look at that.” And now I see an elk and I think disease, and I don't want to have anything to do with them.

Amy Martin Druska says on her ranch, they do haze elk. Not back into the park, but off of their property. And they get some help from the state of Montana to do that. But that still doesn’t answer the fundamental question here: why have we decided that brucellosis-infected elk can migrate freely, but bison cannot? It’s not Druska’s job to explain this apparent inconsistency in state policy.

That’s a question for state officials, and later this season, I’ll bring you perspectives on this from the governor and others. But for now, we’re going to set it aside and continue with Druska’s story. And from her point of view, the fact that elk have transmitted brucellosis and bison have not doesn’t mean all that much. Her opposition to bison isn’t so much about what has happened. It’s about her fears of what could happen. And she has other concerns besides brucellosis.

Druska Kinkie I don't think in Montana there there's a place for free roaming bison. Period. 

Amy Martin Even without brucellosis. 

Druska Kinkie Even without.

Amy Martin Why not?

Druska Kinkie I don't think there's enough resources. Not in the state. 

Amy Martin She’s talking about grass. In Montana, like most parts of the west, ranchers can buy permits to graze their cattle on designated sections of public land, often at rates that are well below market prices. And this puts cattle and wildlife in direct competition with each other for bites of grass. Druska says grazing rights aren’t on the top of her agenda: she feeds all of her cattle on private land. She’s more worried about property damage and public safety and other issues. But grazing rights are a major factor in the conflict over wild bison overall. 


Amy Martin As such an animal lover and as someone who's been involved in animals for your whole life, like, is there a part of you that just would think it would be cool to have that restoration of this big animal?

Druska Kinkie No. 

Amy Martin As I talked to Druska, I kept trying to square her lifelong passion for animals with this flat-out no to bison restoration. She was really patient with me as I kept throwing out possible solutions. What if we used only brucellosis-free bison, and only on public land? What if conservation groups set up funds to repay ranchers for any damage bison might cause? But Druska said it was hard for her to get behind these kinds of ideas, because that would imply that she’s on board with the project of bringing bison back. And she’s just not. To her, bison restoration looks like a zero sum game. If bison win, her cattle lose. 

Druska Kinkie You know, I just got finished talking about how much they mean to me. And bottom line for me, they mean more to me than an elk or a bison.

Druska Kinkie You know you have all these people out there fighting for free roaming bison and it's a, it's a concept, it's a vision that they have of the Old West and bison just roaming and being happy. And, we're fighting for our ability to survive here and make a living as we have for the last 60, almost 70 years. And they don't have anything to lose in their vision. And we have everything to lose in ours.

Amy Martin Bison advocates don’t agree that they have nothing to lose – they say a lot has been lost already, and they’re trying to regain a small piece of it.  But I hear Druska’s point: she feels like she and other ranchers may have to deal with the downsides of something that other people want.

Druska Kinkie It seems, like, to me that there's an awful lot of people here that move here anymore and try and change it. And it confuses me because if it was good enough for them to want to be here why the big emphasis on let's change it some more. 

Amy Martin Druska feels likes outsiders who don’t understand her are coming into her world and trying to change it. And I think I get how that is threatening. But the people who could probably understand that feeling best are Native Americans.

Kale Thomas To me you know I am a rancher, too, but you know we encroach on all these animals’ habitat and then we play the victim, most of the times, and I don't think that's right.

Amy Martin We’ll have more, after this short break.


Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and in this episode, we’re getting perspectives on bison from two cattle ranchers. We spent the first part of the show with Druska Kinkie, who lives north of Yellowstone, and now we’re going to hear from Kale Thomas.

Amy Martin Your last name’s Thomas?

Kale Thomas Yep, I go by Thomas.

Amy Martin Thomas.

Kale Thomas Thomas.

Amy Martin OK. Why did I think that on Facebook it looks like your last starts with an “s”?

Kale Thomas That’s “stmalover.”

Amy Martin And...

Kale Thomas “Stma” means cow.

Amy Martin Oh…[LAUGHS] Oh cool.

Amy Martin Kale raises cattle and teaches Salish language on the Flathead Reservation, in the northwest part of Montana. I met him at a livestock auction – as his nickname indicates, he really loves cows, just like Druska. But he thinks wild bison and cattle can co-exist. He says the risks posed by wild animals are just part of the deal, if you’re going to ranch in Montana. 


Kale Thomas You know, I mean we run cattle up in the mountains, and you know, a wolf eats one of our cows, and you know, it’s the wolf’s fault for doing what he should do, you know, feed himself and his family, and then we play the victim like, I don't know. It seems silly to me. 

Amy Martin Kale says these kinds of debates always come down to the same question: do we think of wild animals as something that’s in our way, a nuisance or a menace that we have to control? Or do we approach them like they have a right to be here, and it’s our job to adapt to them?

Kale Thomas A lot of Indian people, yet, they still have a certain, carry certain amount of respect for nature and plants and animals and them sort of things. You know, we’re we're taught to be that way.

Amy Martin Kale wants more habitat opened up for wild bison. And he also wants more opportunities to hunt them. Many different tribes used to hunt on the land that became Yellowstone National Park, but hunting has been forbidden inside the park since the early 20th century. In the mid-2000s, the state of Montana began issuing a small number of permits for people to hunt just as the bison crossed the park boundary. Then, tribes from four different reservations reasserted their treaty rights to hunt on the park boundary, too. So now, there’s a state hunt and several different tribal hunts, all happening on a few small pieces land, two of which are just outside of the town of Gardiner. I talked to Kale a few weeks after he’d gone there, intending to hunt with his uncle.

Kale Thomas We was so disgusted about how things was that we just left.

Amy Martin What do you mean?

Kale Thomas It, it’s just not our way of hunting, I don’t think the way that me and my uncle was brought up that we believe in how the hunt is going now. 

Amy Martin They turned around and drove the five hours home empty-handed, he says, because they did not agree with how this hunt was set up.

Kale Thomas Basically, the buffalo come out in this small area called Beattie Gulch. And you wait for the bison to come out of the park and as soon as they get to the shooting area which is really small. Because there are so many hunters, you’ve got hunters shooting at the same buffalo, and then two or three different people trying to claim that buffalo, and people arguing about it and fighting. Things like that. 


Amy Martin I’m here in Beattie Gulch. And I’m basically on a bison hunt stake out. Which is kind of bizarre.  

Amy Martin I’m sitting in my truck on the side of the road, and a whole bunch of other trucks are pulled over here, too. As the bison try to migrate north out of the park, they get funneled here, through Beattie Gulch, with the Yellowstone River on one side and a steep ridge on the other. It’s a pinch point on their migratory path, and the boundary for the park cuts right through it. There’s no sign, or fence, but the hunters know where it is. On the side of it, the bison cannot be shot. On the other side, they can. So this is where the hunters line up, and wait. And right now, a group of bison is approaching.


Amy Martin OK, so, you can see some bison now getting closer. Very, very close to the park boundary line. 

Amy Martin These bison don’t seem alarmed by all the vehicles pulled over and the dozens of people staring at them. These are Yellowstone bison: they deal with lines of curious humans all the time. Usually, the people watching them are just holding cameras. But today, they have guns.


I’m talking to some hunters, when all of the trucks start to pull away from Beattie Gulch. The bison there had turned back toward the park, but some others had been spotted just a few miles away, heading to the park boundary.

Amy Martin Well, all the hunters are moving away from this spot. So, I guess I will too. 


I jump back in my truck and join the parade of vehicles racing up to a ridge, where the bison are about to cross out of the park. Once I got a glimpse of the animals moving toward us, I pull over to watch.

Amy Martin Another truck pulling up behind me, hunter walking across the road, scope and a gun.

They are a lot of people with guns spreading out across the ridge, and the bison seemed to become agitated by all the activity. They start to run.

Amy Martin there, two, three, four bison I can see, and I think there are a couple I can’t see. I’m going to see a bison die here in a minute or two.


I saw six bison get killed. 


Amy Martin Context is everything when it comes to making sense of a story. So, here are some crucial bits of context for this bison hunt. The first comes directly from what we learned in our last episode: bison were central to many Native Americans, and they have been denied the opportunity to hunt these animals here for over a hundred years. So Kale says, even though he may not like the way this hunt is currently being conducted, he also doesn’t appreciate judgement from outsiders.

Kale Thomas A guy come up to us. And basically told us how awful we was for hunting and that the bison should roam free and them sorts of things. 

Amy Martin And what was your response to that?

Kale Thomas You know, basically, I told him that we're feeding our family and that this is our tribal hunting right. This is our treaty right. And we've basically lost everything as tribal people, so I don't think you have a right to comment on this. 

Amy Martin Another thing to keep in mind is that if we’re going try to imagine a future with more bison in it, we probably also need to imagine a future with more bison hunting. Humans have been the bison’s primary predator for thousands of years. And in fact, some of the key people responsible for saving bison from extinction did so because they wanted to be able to hunt them in the future – hunters have done a lot to preserve habitat and foster the restoration of wildlife. I’ve never hunted myself, but I did help pack out an elk that a friend shot once. I tied a rope around my waist and dragged a quarter of it through the snow for three miles. In grizzly bear country. And I think of that as a peak experience. So I’m not anti-hunting, and I don’t think I’m particularly squeamish. 


But this hunt is set up in a strange way. There’s the issue of the small area for hunting, and the fact that it’s mostly happening right next to the road. And then there’s the time of year it takes place: elk, deer and most other large game are hunted in the fall, before they’ve been battered by winter weather. But this hunt happens when the bison are at their weakest, at the end of the winter, when they’re hungry and many of the females are not far from giving birth. And it’s not uncommon for bison to get wounded in this hunt, and then run back across the park line, where hunters can’t go. Then, park officials have to try to track down wounded animals, and sometimes they can’t find them all. 

Kale Thomas You know, the way we were brought up, you’re supposed to show the animal respect, and you know, it’s a spiritual thing. It’s supposed to be because you are, you are taking something’s life.

Amy Martin Were you surprised? 

Kale Thomas I was. It was pretty shocking. Pretty sad to see it happen the way that it is.


Amy Martin Kale wants the right to hunt inside park boundaries, something park officials strongly oppose. But they do agree on a different solution: opening up more habitat for wild bison in other places, so they can have a true, fair chase bison hunt. 

Amy Martin Do you think you're going to try and do another bison hunt anytime soon?

Kale Thomas I don't think I'll ever take part in the bison hunt again.


Amy Martin This hunt is happening in this small area, at this odd time of year, not because it makes sense for the bison, but because we, the humans involved here, can’t agree on a better plan. So whether they get loaded onto trailers and shipped to slaughter houses, or shot when they step over the park boundary, a significant number of these bison are going to end up dead every year, one way or the other, until or unless we figure out other places for them to go. And a process for getting them there.

Robbie Magnan It’s a big, political game that’s being played at the expense of the buffalo.

Amy Martin In our next episode, we’ll meet Robbie Magnan, who runs the buffalo program on the Fort Peck Reservation. He says he has a solution to the Yellowstone conundrum. But he also says some people are fighting it, every step of the way. 

Threshold is produced by me, Amy Martin, with help from Nick Mott, Zoe Rom, Jackson Barnett, Nora Saks and Josh Burnham. Music by Travis Yost.