The lion's share of a shaggy, bloodied bison leg lies draped across a table in a wall tent just north of Yellowstone National Park, its black hoof hanging off the edge and the jagged, broken femur sticking straight into the air. A cotton wick stuffed into the still-fresh marrow casts flickering shadows across the canvas. Clustered around the leg-turned-candle is a trio of spoons fashioned from horn and a herd of tiny toy bison idly bound together from scraps of hide. Harmony Cronin sprawls on the pallet-and-cardboard floor on her stomach, drawing bison skulls and hoof prints on scrolls made from brown paper bags.
Outside, a full moon lights up the entire Gardiner Basin. Woodsmoke mingles with the musty smell of drying animal hides stretched on racks against a nearby shed. It's warm for a March night and, for the first time since dawn, a lull has settled on the camp of Buffalo Bridge. This loose collection of primitive skills practitioners arrived nearly a month ago to scavenge what they could from the state and tribal bison hunts occurring just across the dirt road on the Gallatin National Forest. They've spent their days scraping strips of fat and flesh from what hides the hunters didn't want, peeling the hocks off legs the hunters didn't take, bark-tanning the elk and bison stomachs the hunters didn't need. The camp is full of sore muscles and bruised knuckles, but no one complains.
Buffalo Bridge has come a long way since Katie Russell first drove down to the Gardiner Basin from her home near Twisp, Wash., two years back to pick through gut piles and scour the juniper for unclaimed hides. Russell has spent the past 10 years tanning hides and foraging for wild foods, a lifestyle choice illustrated as much by the weathered buckskins she wears as by her website, wilderbabe.com. Her desire to ensure no piece of these bison goes to waste has proven contagious among others in the primitive community, and has attracted the interest of tribal members as well. Following Buffalo Bridge's inaugural year in 2014, Russell, Cronin and several others camped on the lawn of Nez Perce Tribal Conservation Officer Lee Whiteplume for several weeks hosting workshops on the art of brain-tanning and working hides—lessons in what Cronin calls the "language of skin."
"It's a forgotten education, history, knowledge that should be preserved," says Philip Currie, the Boston native and Gardiner restaurant owner who rents his yard to Buffalo Bridge for their camp. "Never know when we're going to need it again. I'd like to have this crew with me if shit hits the fan."
This season didn't go entirely according to plan for Buffalo Bridge, however. Higher elevation snowmelt brought on by warmer weather allowed the bison to migrate back into the park earlier than usual, resulting in a lower than projected hunter harvest and, subsequently, fewer carcasses to scavenge.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
Several tribes including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai in Montana and Nez Perce in Idaho have been exercising treaty rights for the better part of a decade to hunt bison as they migrate beyond Yellowstone's boundaries. These hunts, in addition to limited state-issued tags for non-tribal hunters, are folded into the Interagency Bison Management Plan's annual figures for population reduction. This year the National Park Service proposed removing 900 bison from the population300 to 400 through hunting and the rest through a controversial capture process that sees the animals trapped and shipped to slaughter. According to Andrea Jones with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 173 bison were taken by hunters in the Gardiner area, with an additional 12 killed outside the park's west boundary. The latest figures from Yellowstone show 518 bison culled through capture so far this year.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- A pair of Yellowstone bison lounge beside the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley. Unseasonably warm weather and high elevation snowmelt this year allowed the bison to migrate back into the park early.
"While we didn't meet the projected goals of the winter, we did a reasonable number of animals," says Rick Wallen, bison project leader with NPS. "I think the total number removed for this winter is a little over 700 at this point in time. That's probably going to roughly offset this year's reproduction, so we'll probably project a population abundance this coming summer very similar to what the population abundance was last summer."