The bison are in rut at Alum Creek.
Two or three hundred of the shaggy beasts are crowded in the little valley. The bulls have left their normal bachelor groups and joined the big herds of cows and calves to parry each other for preferred mates. They are antsy, kicking up dust devils that swirl around them like brown mist.
I walk slowly up the creek to a group of five dark bison, three females and two males. One of the bulls looks ancient. His eyes are crusty, one of his black horns broken. He is large, but unsteady on his legs, which look too thin to support his bulk. He sucks breaths deeply and raggedly. His lower lip is extended and quivering as he approaches one of the young cows. He shakes his head, his tongue flicks repeatedly at the air, as if tasting the estrus.
As the old patriarch struggles to mount the cinnamon-colored female, a young bull rushes over, butts him in the side, nearly knocking him down. The young bull kicks at the ground, snorts aggressively. The old bull stands his ground for a moment, drool stringing from his mouth. Then finally he turns away from what will almost certainly be his last summer. He staggers downstream towards me, his head hung low, flies gathering at his eyes.
I am less than a mile from Yellowstone’s main road through the Hayden Valley, an artery thickly clogged with vans, mobile homes and the leather-and-chrome swarms of weekend motorcycle ganglets. There is no one else here in the pathway of the great herds. Even the metallic drone of the machines has faded so that I can hear the heavy breath of the bison in their annual ceremony of sexual potency.
Even bison, the very icon of the park, aren’t safe here in their last sanctuary. The shaggy bovines are victims of rancher panic and a gutless government. Like cattle and elk, bison can carry an infectious bacterium that leads to a disease called brucellosis which can, rarely, cause cows to abort fetuses. There’s no evidence that Yellowstone bison have transmitted the disease to Montana cattle, grazing cheaply on public lands near the park. But as a preventive strike, all bison that wander outside the boundaries of the park in search of forage during the deep snows of winter are confined in bison concentration camps, tested and either killed on site or shipped to slaughter-houses.
Not to worry. Ted Turner is coming to the rescue. I read in the morning paper that Turner is offering to liberate the bison quarantined at Corwin Springs, ship them to his 113,000 acre Flying D Ranch south of Bozeman, fatten them on his vast rangeland grasses and serve them up for $18 a plate at his restaurants.
Suddenly, the old bull turns my direction, angry and frustrated. He snorts, paws at hard dirt and feigns a charge.
I retreat and stumble south across the slope of stubborn sagebrush, over a rounded ridge and down into the Trout Creek valley, leaving the bison to settle their mating preferences in peace.
I’m leaking a little blood. The day before I took a nasty plunge down the mossy face of an andesite cliff at a beautiful waterfall in the Absaroka Mountains, ripping the nail off my big toe.
Each time my foot snags a rock an electric jolt stabs up my left leg. I stop at a at the crest of the ridge, find a spot clear of bison pies, and sit down. I ease off my boot and bloody sock, untwist the cap from a metal flask of icy water and pour it over my swollen toe, already turning an ugly black.
Even in late summer, the valley of Trout Creek is lush and green with tall grasses in striking contrast to the sere landscape of the ridges and the broad plain of the Hayden Valley. The creek itself is an object lesson in meander, circling itself like a loosely coiled rope on its reluctant path to the Yellowstone River. Once acclaimed for its cutthroat trout, the creek has been invaded by brookies, rainbows and brown trout—though these genetic intrusions are viewed with indifference by the great blue heron that is posing statuesquely in the reeds, waiting to strike.
Fifty years ago, Trout Creek was an entirely different kind of place. This valley was a dump, literally, and as such it was then thick with grizzly bears. The bears would assemble in the early evening, after the dump trucks had unloaded the day’s refuse from the migration of tourists to Fishing Bridge and Canyon and Tower Junction. Dozens of grizzlies would paw through the mounds of debris, becoming conditioned to the accidental kindness of an untrustworthy species.
The bears became concentrated at the dump sites and dependent on the food. This all came to a tragic end in 1968 when the Park Service decided to abruptly close the Trout Creek dump, despite warnings from bear biologists, Frank and John Craighead. Denied the easy pickings at the trash head that generations of bears had become habituated to, the Craigheads predicted that the grizzlies would begin wandering into campgrounds and developed sites in search of food. Such entanglements, the Craigheads warned, would prove fatal, mostly to the bears.
And so it came to pass. The dump-closure policy inaugurated a heinous decade of bear slaughter by the very agency charged with protecting the bruins. From 1968 to 1973, 190 grizzly bears in Yellowstone were killed by the Park Service, roughly a third of the known population. That’s the official tally. The real number may have been twice that amount, since the Park Service destroyed most of the bear incident reports from that era. Many bears died from tranquilizer overdoses and dozens of others were air-dropped outside the park boundaries only to be killed by state game officials.
The situation for the great bear has scarcely improved over the last forty years. There are more insidious ways to kill, mostly driven by the government’s continued lack of tolerance for the bear’s expansive nature. New park developments have fragmented its range, while cars, trashy campers, gun-totting tourists and back-country poachers rack up a grim toll. And now the climate itself is conspiring against the grizzly by inexorably burning out one of the bear’s main sources of seasonal protein, the whitebark pine.
Yellowstone is a closed system, a giant island. Genetic diversity is a real concern for Yellowstone’s isolated population of bears. So is the possibility of new diseases in a changing climate. The death rate of Yellowstone grizzlies has been climbing the last few years. The future is bleak. So, naturally, as one of its opening shots, the Trump and his wrecking crew move to delist the Yellowstone population from the Endangered Species Act, stripping the bear of its last legal leverage against the forces of extinction.
During the very week I was hobbling around Yellowstone one of Montana’s most famous grizzlies was found by a rancher, shot and killed on the Rocky Mountain Front near the small town of Augusta. He was a giant, non-confrontational bear who weighed more than 800 pounds and stood more than seven-and-a-half feet tall. He was beloved by grizzly watchers, who called him Maximus. His anonymous killer left his corpse to rot in a field of alfalfa in the August sun. The government exhibited only its routine apathy at this illegal and senseless slaying. Let us pray that the great bear’s DNA is widely disseminated across the Northern Rockies and that his killer meets with an even more painful and pitiless end.
I catch a flash of white circling above me. Osprey? Swainson’s hawk? I dig into my pack and extract my binoculars and am quickly distracted by a weird motion on the ridgeline across the valley. I glass the slope. Four legs are pawing frantically at the sky. It is a wolf, rolling vigorously on its back, coating its pelt in dirt, urine or shit. Something foul to us and irresistible to wild canids.
The wolf rolls over and shakes. Dust flies from his fur. He tilts his head, then rubs his neck and shoulders onto the ground. He shakes again, sits and scans the valley.
His coat is largely gray, but his chest is black streaked by a thin necklace of white fur. He presents the classic lean profile of the timber wolf. Perhaps he is a Yellowstone native. He was certainly born in the park. His neck is shackled by the tell-tale telemetry collar, a reminder that the wolves of Yellowstone are under constant surveillance by the federal wolf cops. He is a kind of cyber-wolf, on permanent parole, deprived of an essential element of wildness. The feds are charting nearly every step he takes. One false move, and he could, in the antiseptic language of the bureaucracy, be “removed,” as in erased, as in terminated.
This wolf is two, maybe three years old. His coat is thick, dark and shiny. There is no sign of the corrosive mange that is ravaging many of the Yellowstone packs, a disease, like distemper and the lethal parvo virus, vectoring into the park from domestic dogs.
It has been more than 20 years since thirty-one gray wolves were reintroduced into the park, under the Clinton administration’s camera-ready program. With great fanfare, Bruce Babbitt hand-delivered the Canadian timber wolves to their holding pens inside the high caldera. Of course, it was an open secret — vigorously denied by the Interior Department — that wolves had already returned to Yellowstone on their own—if, that is, they’d ever really vanished from the park despite the government’s ruthless eradication campaign that persisted for nearly a century.
These new wolves came with a fatal bureaucratic catch. Under Babbitt’s elastic interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, the wolves of Yellowstone were magically decreed to be a “non-essential, experimental population.” This sinister phrase means that the Yellowstone wolves were not to enjoy the full protections afforded to endangered species and could be harassed, drugged, transported or killed at the whim of federal wildlife bureaucrats. Deviously, this sanguinary rule was applied to all wolves in Yellowstone, even the natives.
The Yellowstone packs, both reintroduced and native, are doing well, but not well enough considering the lethal threats arrayed against them, even inside the supposedly sacrosanct perimeter of the park.
This young wolf might well be a member of the Canyon pack, a gregarious gang of four wolves frequently sighted at Mammoth Hot Springs on Yellowstone’s northern fringe, where they dine liberally on the elk that hang around the Inn, cabins and Park Headquarters. This close-up view of predation-in-action agitated the tourists and when the tourists are upset, the Park Service responds with a vengeance. The federal wolf cops were dispatched to deal with the happy marauders. When the wolves began stalking the elk, Park Service biologists lobbed cracker grenade shells at them and shot at the wolves with rubber bullets. Finally, the small pack left Mammoth for less hostile terrain, showing up this summer in the Hayden Valley, throbbing with elk and bison.
But the non-lethal warfare waged on the Canyon pack wolves came with a bloody price. The wolves lost their litter of pups, a troubling trend in Yellowstone these days. Pup mortality in Yellowstone is on the rise. Last year, on the northern range of the Park only eight pups survived. Several packs, including the Canyon and Leopold packs, produced no pups. Over the last few years, the wolf population inside the Park has dropped by 30 per cent. Even so, the Bush administration decided to strip the wolf of its meager protections under the Endangered Species Act in Montana and Idaho, opening the door for wolf hunting seasons in both states. Then Judge Donald Molloy, a no-nonsense Vietnam Vet, placed an injunction on the hunts and overturned the Bush administration delisting order.
Revoltingly, the Obama administration redrafted the Bush wolf-killing plan and again stripped the wolf of its protections under the Endangered Species Act. So now both Montana and Idaho are set to kill hundreds of wolves each in state authorized hunts—unless Judge Molloy once again intervenes to halt the killings. Both states have brazenly threatened to defy the court if Judge Molloy rules in favor of the wolf. The putatively progressive governor of Montana at the time, Brian Schweitzer, was especially bellicose on the matter, vowing: “If some old judge says we can’t hunt wolves, we’ll take it back to another judge.”
In Idaho, the state plans to allow 220 wolves to be killed in its annual hunt and more than 6,000 wolf gunners have bought tags for the opportunity to participate in the slaughter. Up near Fairflied, Idaho rancher vigilantes are taking matters into their own hands. Six wolves from the Solider Mountain pack in the wilds of central Idaho were killed, probably from eating a carcass laced with poison. Don’t expect justice for these wolves. Rex Rammell, a Republican from Idaho, has placed wolf eradication at the top of his political agenda. Rammell also made repeated quips about getting a hunting tag for Obama. After catching some heat for this boast, Rammell sent out a clarifying Tweet: “Anyone who understands the law, knows I was just joking, because Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue hunting tags in Washington, D.C.” Welcome to Idaho, where Sarah Palin got educated.
Across the valley, the wolf is standing rigid, his ears pricked by the bickering of a group of ravens below him on the far bank of Trout Creek. He moves slowly down the slope, stepping gingerly through the sagebrush. He stops at one of the looping meanders, wades into the water and swims downstream. He slides into the tall grass and then playfully leaps out, startling the ravens, who have been busy gleaning a bison carcass. Earlier in the morning a mother grizzly and two cubs had feasted here, I later learned from a Park biologist. Perhaps the Canyon wolves had made the kill, only to be driven away by a persuasive bear. Perhaps it was an old bull, killed during the rut.
The wolf raises his leg and pisses on the grass near the kill site. He sniffs the ground and paces around the remains. Then he rolls again, twisting his body violently in mud near the bison hide and bones. The ravens return, pestering and chiding the wolf. He dismisses their antics and grabs a bone in his mouth.
I lurch down the hillside for a better view, bang my aching foot on a shard of basalt and squeal, “Fuck!”
The wolf’s ears stiffen again. He stares at me, bares his teeth, growls and sprints up and over the ridge, his mouth still clamped tightly on the prized bone, and down into the Alum valley, where he disappears into the dancing dust of mating bison.
This essay is excerpted from Heatstroke: Earth On the Brink, forthcoming soon from CounterPunch Books.
+ The best news of the week: a new wolf pack has been located in northern California in the shadow of Mt. Lassen. The pack is rearing a litter of pups. There are photos.
+ The verdict is in: Marijuana has finally been linked to violent crime….REDUCTION.
+ 27 people have been killed by US police in the last 7 days–that’s more people than the police in the UK, France, Denmark, Austria and Germany combined killed in all of 2015.
+ Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke served a little more than one term in Congress as the Representative from Montana. But he put his tenure to profitable use. Over that time, Zinke raked in more than $375,000 in campaign cash from the Oil & Gas industry.
+ Perrynomics: Rick Perry showed up at a coal plant this week and invoked a novel economic theory to explain his push to expand coal mining in an age of declining coal use. “Here’s a little economics lesson: supply and demand. You put the supply out there and the demand will follow.” The Chicago School must be flummoxed by Perry’s understanding of the dynamics of supply and demand. Of course, this pearl of wisdom was dropped by a man who could only manage a 2.0 GPA at Texas A&M, where he peeked out a D in a class called “Meats.”
+ Mike Pence, channeling George Orwell, has vowed to “put American boots on the face of Mars.” Why Mars? Perhaps it’s a humanitarian intervention meant to liberate the sex slave colony Trump propagandist Alex Jones claims that NASA is running on the red planet.
+ Apparently, ICE has run out of grandmothers, fieldworkers and sick teenagers to deport and is now hunting down veterans…
+ How HRC sowed the Myth of the 17 Intelligence Agencies and the courtier press ate it up…
+ In the bused-in crowd of Polish nationalists at Trump’s speech in Warsaw, someone had the presence of mind to wave a Confederate flag to make Donald feel at home…
+ Poland just inked a deal to buy 8 Patriot Missiles for $7.6 billion. Suckers…Patriot Missiles, manufactured by Raytheon, are about as accurate as Trump tee shots.
+ By the Pentagon’s own assessment, “at least 607 have been unintentionally killed by coalition airstrikes” in Syria. If it happens month after month after month can you really call the civilian casualties “unintentional”?
+ The latest entry into the NewSpeak Dictionary: “Collective Self-Defense Strike.”
+ Imagine the mass hysteria if Chinese bombers were buzzing Kauai…
+ A dog story from The Dead Bird, October 12, 1889 (Sydney, Australia).
There is an excellent dog story by Mr. Blenkinsop, AVD, in the last Hayes Sporting News. It appears that he has been in the habit of treating a considerable number of dogs. And amongst them two for wounds about the head and ears. Some six weeks after the latter were cured, a Spaniel with a severe gangrened wound in the front of his left ear presented himself at Mr. Blenkinsop’s house, and utterly refused to be turned out. Mr. Blenkinsop then operated on and attended to the wound until it was completely cured, and the dog has stuck to him since. He now asks whether that dog came to him knowing him to be a veterinary surgeon, and if so, whether it had ascertained the fact from the two dogs previously treated for similar wounds. We incline to the latter hypothesis, for the dog could not possibly have spotted Mr. Blenkinsop as a veterinary surgeon by looking at him.
(Thanks to Jonathon Green.)
+ The American Middle Class bought into Neoliberalism, but someone else cashed in at their expense.
+ When it comes to air quality there’s EPA safe, Obama safe and Trump safe, none of which are actually “safe.”
+ The average working-class American household can no longer afford to buy a new car. Apparently that’s okay with Detroit, That’s okay, because some people in the country can afford to buy 100 of them a year.
+ The great German actress Nina Hoss gave a revealing interview with The Guardian this week, where she lamented the collapse of the European and American Left. “Neoliberalism has managed to take away the safety net underneath people’s lives – and convinced them that, from now on, it will be entirely their own fault if they fail,” Hoss said. “If there is ever going to be a revival of the left, it’ll be because they have managed to fill that space and regain trust. We have to work together to make sure people feel valued and connected again.” Hoss is performing in Manchester in a play called “Returning to Reims.” Don’t know about the play–though Hoss was one of the best things about the awful Homeland–but the memoir it is based on, Returning to Reims, written by Michel Foucault’s biographer Didier Eribon is one of the best things SemioText(e) ever published, analyzing in a very personal way how the French Left lost (abandoned) the working class.
+ This week readers of the New York Times were treated to that rare occasion when the paper consulted the opinion of Noam Chomsky. But it comes a price: 200 columns by David Brooks and Bret Stephens and Clinton hatchet man Mark Penn to try to repair the damage.
+ How McCain Celebrates 4th of July: Calling for more troops in a war against an Army-less “enemy” that no one remembers why we are fighting…
+ Jeremy Corbyn, the world turns its lonely eyes to you…
+ The more Corbyn repudiates Blairism and purges the party of Blairites, the higher Labour’s fortunes rise…There are plenty of lessons here for Democrats, none of which will be learned.
+ France’s mercurial new president Emmanuel Macron invited Mahmood Abbas to the Elysee Palace this week, where Macron said that Palestinians had a “legitimate right” to their own state. Macron is a one-step to the left three-steps to the right kind of politician, which still may put him at the top of the heap of European heads of state these days…
+ There’s simply no level of harassment of daily life in the West Bank that’s too petty for the IDF to sink to, such as swiping solar panels donated to small Palestinian villages by the Dutch government.
+ Trump is apparently considering wiping out federal heating assistance to low-income families this winter. Why? Like poverty, hypothermia is merely a state of mind. And if that doesn’t pan out, perhaps global warming will come to their rescue…
+ Alien: “Take us to your leader!”
Earthling: “Ivanka or the old man?”
+ There’s a civil war breaking out among the One-Percent over the escalating housing prices in Washington, DC.
+ Nixon Library has the Watergate tapes. Let’s hope the Obama Library, now rising on the southside of Chicago, one day houses the tapes of the millions of phone calls his eavesdroppers tapped into…
+ A detailed study by researchers at Georgia State University discloses that terror attacks committed by Muslims receive 449% more coverage in the American press than terror attacks committed by non-Muslims.
+ The New York Times, fulfilling its mission as the bleeding edge of neoliberalism, launches a pre-emptive strike on the movement to lower prescription drug prices…
+ Future generations will come to think of Great Barrier Reef only as a mellow variety of pot they enjoyed once while passing through Sweet Home, Oregon…
+ Two West Coast travelers of the hard road converge at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach…
What I’m reading this week…
Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment and the Real American Exceptionalism by Marc Morjé Howard
What I’m listening to this week…
Little Pieces of Blazing Hell
Roberto Bolaño: “American television is full of smiles and more and more perfect-looking teeth. Do these people want us to trust them? No. Do they want us to think they’re good people? No again. The truth is they don’t want anything from us. They just want to show us their teeth, their smiles, and admiration is all they want in return. Admiration. They want us to look at them, that’s all. Their perfect teeth, their perfect bodies, their perfect manners, as if they were constantly breaking away from the sun and they were little pieces of fire, little pieces of blazing hell, here on this planet simply to be worshipped.”