The boy and the buffalo

After chaining himself to a Yellowstone gate to stop bison slaughter, Comfrey Jacobs faces three years without access to the buffalo herds

Comfrey Jacobs handcuffed to a barrel
Derby Dixon/Buffalo Field Campaign

Shortly before dawn on a rainy morning in early March, 20-year-old Comfrey Jacobs, born near Gold Hill and a recent official resident of Montana, handcuffed himself to a bright orange barrel filled with cement and scrap metal at the center of the gates in Yellowstone National Park that led to the Stephens Creek bison trap. The hillsides behind him were still dusted in snow. Somewhere beyond them, in the lush grasslands of the valley that drains into Montana’s Gardiner Basin, where hungry bison eating for both themselves and their soon-to-arrive calves come to graze, lay a capture facility for the buffalo.

Each year, a varying number of bison are removed from the Yellowstone area as part of ongoing management in the name of protecting Montana’s $2 billion cattle industry. Jacobs had recently begun volunteering with the Buffalo Field Campaign, a volunteer organization that runs daily patrols to document the government’s controversial management activities for buffalo, which includes hunting; hazing with helicopters, horseback riders and ATVs to push buffalo and their newborn calves 15 or 20 miles back into the park; baiting capture facilities with hay to lure the buffalo in and loading livestock trailers with buffalo to be hauled away for slaughter.

Jacobs had watched, helpless, for months. And then he had enough.

The hours he sat waiting for park service staff to arrive, he spent thinking about the buffalo, he says, “and just trying to think about how, yes, this really sucks, I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m about to go to jail as soon as they get me out of this barrel. But it was a really incredible experience because a group of buffalo was wandering around hours before in that area, so on my car ride to jail, I got to see this beautiful group of buffalo playing around right next to where I’d been arrested.”

When the interagency group arrived at the Stephens Creek trap that morning, they found Jacobs with his arm threaded through a hole in the barrel. Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers were also at the site.

“It was just an individual choice he made, but obviously we support that kind of thing,” says Mike Mease, co-founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign. “He said he wanted to do something and he was tired of just documenting it and wanted to risk his own self, and kind of gave me a heads up that something was going to happen that day.”

Jacobs was repeatedly given the option to unlock himself and refused, stalling the park service’s operations for more than two hours. Eventually, they brought in a front-end loader, picked him and his barrel up together, and moved them to the side of the road. Livestock trailers could then get through to the bison trap, while the park service called in a welding truck to cut Jacobs out of the barrel. The activist was still there when three trailers loaded with bison left.

“Seeing those animals crammed into little tiny livestock trailers and actually being able to smell them and smell pure fear was something that made my situation a lot easier for me to go through,” he says. It only strengthened his commitments.

The reason for managing the Yellowstone bison herd is to prevent brucellosis from possibly being transmitted from the buffalo to cattle that graze on the public lands outside the park. An estimated 50 percent of bison test positive for the diesease, which can lead to miscarried or stillborn calves. With Montana’s cattle industry being worth more than $2 billion, the threat is taken seriously, even though such a bison-to-cattle transfer has never been documented outside of a laboratory setting. In 2008, when two cattle herds tested positive for brucellosis, the estimated cost to the livestock industry in Montana was $30 million. U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service required all cattle leaving the state to be tested 30 days before traveling. It was later determined that that outbreak had been spread by elk, not buffalo, but the price tag keeps the Montana Department of Livestock willing to spend $500,000 for their portion of the management activities that go into the Interagency Bison Management Plan, created by that department along with the National Parks Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture, trying to keep the bison and cattle from mixing. The lack of hard proof that buffalo are a threat to cattle when they leave the park is one of the reasons that the Buffalo Field Campaign find the hazing and capture to manage bison so offensive. And that was among the motivations that inspired Jacobs to take action.

Jacobs was born on Gold Hill, and split his time growing up between the Boulder area and Grand Junction, which he claims as home.

“One of the terms I like to refer to, growing up in Grand Junction, is ‘Places with great repression often form the best resistance,’ and that’s one of the experiences I’ve had,” Jacobs says. “Because of the amount of social and overall repression in the Grand Junction area and being very strict and conservative, that when there was a very rebellious force, it was probably some of the most rebellious stuff I’d ever done because of the amount of repression we were faced by the overall community and the different groups we were trying to influence.”

He started reading Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey, following the work of Karl Marx and Martin Luther King, Jr., and general leftist theory. He fell in love with the Monkey Wrench Gang and started learning about Earth First! at a very young age, and has been active with Earth First! since he was 16. He was involved with the anti-war movement as a teenager, and met people doing independent media work in the Grand Junction area, and moved toward advocacy work for the homeless and environmental justice issues. He was kicked out of school his sophomore year for inciting a riot after assembling a walkout in protest of identification badge policies he found to be a violation of student privacy, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel report at the time. More than 100 students walked out, and 30 were suspended. He was also involved in a blockade of Sarah Palin’s motorcade when she was coming through Grand Junction in the final days of her vice presidential campaign. Video shows a cluster of fewer than a dozen activists rushing into the street between the slow-moving cars of her motorcade, and police officers rushing after them to shove and drag them aside.

“I just fell in love with this idea of actively influencing democracy, direct action and civil disobedience, and never really felt like voting had much of a difference because I was usually a minor through all of this, so I couldn’t vote to begin with, yet everything around me is influenced by the political system so I wanted to be a part of that political system as much as I could,” Jacobs says. “There’s more to politics than just casting a ballot every once in a while. I feel you actively have to be a part of the politics you want to influence, and that’s where I fell in love with the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action.”

The school district un-enrolled him shortly after he turned 16. He worked for a youth corps that partnered with the Forest Service, which paid for his GED, and trained in wildland fire and wildlife management courses.

Before his visit to Montana, which he’s recently changed to his official residence, he’d planned to stay in Colorado for the rest of his life, he says, “but there’s no buffalo.”

He’d been told for years by activist friends about the Buffalo Field Campaign, and headed for the campaign offices planning to stay for three months.

“I ended up staying for the entire season and absolutely falling in love with the buffalo and the work BFC does, through my limited experience here and at that time, and decided this was an environmental justice campaign that I wanted to commit myself to more fully, so I ended up dedicating myself here and I’ve been out here this season since the beginning of the year and will be here until September, and it’s just an absolutely incredible experience, it’s an amazing landscape that I get to live on, the people out here are absolutely fantastic,” Jacobs says. “But more than anything, it was just having incredible and beautiful experiences with the buffalo that made me want to dedicate my time to them. But not just the incredible experiences but some of the atrocities I’ve watched against them in management practice just strengthened my commitments to being out here.”

The core of the work he’s been doing with the field campaign was documenting migration patterns and hunting activities in the winter, and helping protect road crossings and documenting management actions in the spring.

That has also meant skiing out in negative 50 degree temperatures first thing in the morning to get an exact count of 118 buffalo walking out of the park, or falling asleep while on patrol and waking up to find a herd of 50 buffalo grazing on the grass surrounding him, feet away from where he slept. He’s had 2,000- pound bull buffalo walk up to him and look him in the eye before walking away, as if knowing he doesn’t mean them any harm, he says.

                                         Courtesy of The Buffalo Field Campaign

It’s also led to some experiences that make his voice tighten with anger. He’s witnessed buffalo captured for experimentation and quarantine by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, asked agents what they’re doing and had them respond that they’re watching buffalo give induced abortions. He’s watched herds of buffalo be hazed with helicopters, horseback riders and ATVs, and seen buffalo break legs, calves get swept downriver or become separated from their mothers and left alone, an almost certain death sentence, and cow buffalo dropping their calves in the middle of a hazing operation with 12 horseback riders in pursuit.

“At that point, there’s nothing we can really do besides document and try to spread the word of what’s actually happening through our video work, but things like that are definitely what influenced me to take individual action this spring,” Jacobs says.

This year, the situation became particularly tight. Hunting operations meant nearly every buffalo that walked outside the park was being gunned down as soon as it stepped outside the invisible boundary of Yellowstone National Park. And the park service management was implementing capture and slaughter with a baited trap that was situated on the migration path for buffalo leaving the park.

“So if they even made it past these piles of hay during this really rough winter, they were getting gunned down, so there wasn’t really a choice,” Jacobs says. “On one side of the line, you had a firing line, and on the other side of the line you had a baited trap for slaughter, and that was something incredibly hard to watch.”

The list of demands he tied to his civil disobedience included the immediate halt of all current and future capture and slaughter management actions by for Yellowstone National Park, release of currently captive buffalo, Yellowstone National Park’s withdrawal from the Interagency Bison Management Plan for ineffectively maintaining a wild, free-roaming bison population and not meeting the best interests of the public or the bison, and public oversight and media access to Stephens Creek as long as capture and shipping to slaughter continues. The Interagency Bison Management Plan, established in 2000, is set to expire in 2015. Management partners include the Montana Department of Livestock, the National Park Service, Animal Health and Inspection Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and, since 2009, tribal entities. They’re just starting to develop the environmental impact statement for the plan, according to Christian Mackay, executive officer for Montana’s Department of Livestock. He says it’s too soon to tell if the next version of the plan will include significant changes to the way bison are managed. The Buffalo Field Campaign hasn’t been invited to the table for those discussions.

“I feel like I was effective this year, though I do not feel it’s a permanent victory whatsoever,” Jacobs says. “Bison management is still going to continue and buffalo are still going to be sent to slaughter in the years to come, so it’s a very temporary victory, and that’s only a victory raised through public awareness. None of the demands I went into this action with were personally met, so I personally cannot claim victory. … Unless folks are actively putting pressure on them and vocally showing that they support free roaming buffalo and don’t support capture and slaughter in bison management, this is going to continue to happen.”

Jacobs’ work with the Buffalo Field Campaign transitioned from that of a volunteer to paid staff at the beginning of June. He’s working as summer coordinator, helping volunteers and running outreach programs. He hopes next year he’ll be working as volunteer coordinator, training and taking care of volunteer life at the campaign.

“So many people never heard about this, but then all the sudden someone is arrested in Yellowstone all the sudden all this news media is calling up from all around the globe, and it’s amazing what one man’s actions can do to educate a lot of people about an issue,” Mease says. “The one thing I think a lot of people forget, and they like to look at people that take those kinds of actions as extremists or radicals, but this country was founded on non-violent civil disobedience and that’s how we create change in this world.”

Jacobs’ act of civil disobedience earned him charges of disorderly conduct and interfering with a government operation. The Yellowstone district court judge — Yellowstone has it’s own jail, courthouse and judge, who more frequently sees cases that deal with poaching and the jail cell more often serves as a holding cell or drunk tank — sentenced Jacobs to pay fines and fees of $3,390 and banned him from Yellowstone National Park for a three-year probation.

“It feels more of a ban from buffalo than Yellowstone, especially after hazing operations for the last month,” he says. “It breaks down this way: I’m not allowed in the park and buffalo aren’t allowed out of the park. So that’s something incredibly hard to deal with. I don’t get to see any buffalo until they start migrating out in the winter.”

In the plea agreement with a district attorney, for which he’d changed his plea to guilty for the misdemeanor charge of interfering with an agency operation, he was going to pay restitution for the cost of the park hiring a welding truck to cut him loose, about $355 — or a tenth of what he’s since been fined, serve seven days in jail and have one year of unsupervised probation with a ban from the park.

The judge, upon reviewing the plea agreement, said he wouldn’t be inclined to accept that sentence. Jail was too harsh (and, for the state, expensive) a punishment, but the fines and park ban not sufficient to discourage this kind of activisim.

Of the fines and fees, $2,500 was a “forced community service restitution donation” to the Yellowstone Foundation, a fee his lawyer, Summer Nelson, filed a motion to correct on the basis that unharmed third parties shouldn’t receive restitution payments.

                                         Courtesy of The Buffalo Field Campaign

The judge denied the challenge on July 22. If Jacobs appeals now, his case will move on to a different court.

The increase in fines and fees was because, Jacobs says, he’d received donations to a legal fund and the court wanted to make sure he wasn’t profiting from his civil disobedience. Paying the fines and fees took everything he had left in the legal fund. He’d used a little more than $1,000 of it to cover travel costs and the purchase of clothes he could wear to court. The rest was going to go to his lawyer, Nelson, a former Buffalo Field Campaign volunteer who took his case pro bono.

There aren’t many similar cases to compare to, but Jacobs’ sentencing looks notably harsher than what two protestors who locked themselves down together at the Yellowstone National Park visitor’s center in Mammoth received, Nelson says. They were fined just over $100 and sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation with a ban from the park.

Her impressions of the prosecution, she says, were that “they felt like they wanted to send a message because the campaign had continued to have volunteers individually take actions of civil disobedience.”

The ban means Jacobs can’t take his mother on a tour through the park he’d planned this summer, and his work with the Buffalo Field Campaign is limited — the majority of his work had been documenting buffalo migration and management actions, which often led him into the park.

“Living on the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, it’s kind of hard not to just wander through and enjoy it,” he says. “So I’ve done everything from swimming in the Madison River to skiing around the geysers in the middle of winter and going on incredible hikes through the Gallatins.”

The herd of bison that Jacobs and the Buffalo Field Campaign are trying to protect are like no other on earth.

At the very end of the 19th century, some 23 wild bison survived the routine slaughter befalling the rest of the 20 million to 30 million wild bison that once lived on America’s Great Plains by retreating into the remote backcountry of what is now Yellowstone National Park. The 4,200 that exist in and around Yellowstone today are descended from those two dozen bison, and unlike the roughly 200,000 bison in ranches around the U.S., their genes have not been mingled with cattle genes, making them the only behaviorally wild and genetically pure buffalo herd left in the U.S. And Yellowstone is the only place bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times.

The animal considered an icon of the American West and put forward for recognition by Congress as the national mammal has been all but gone, so that little herd ought to be a national treasure, Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers argue.

This spring, 600 members of that herd’s members were removed, more than 250 to hunters, some to slaughterhouses and some to research facilities. A day after Jacobs’ arrest, a Yellowstone press release announced they’d met their target of 600 bison for removal this year, and were shutting down operations at the Stephens Creek bison trap near Gardiner.

A week later, they announced a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or conviction of those responsible for shooting and killing three bison inside the park, clarifying that taking animals or any animal part, including shed antlers, from inside the park is prohibited.

“Basically any buffalo that come into Montana are subjected to either harassment or killing and this is the world’s most significant bison population. … It’s the only wild population left,” says Stephany Seay, media coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign who’s been with the organization for seven years. “We are documenting all the negative things that are happening to them so we can show people what’s going on with these animals that millions of people come to Yellowstone to see every year.”

Since the winter of 1996-97, when nearly 1,100 buffalo were slaughtered when they crossed the Montana state line, the Buffalo Field Campaign have patrolled the Yellowstone boundary, monitoring buffalo movements and documenting with videos and photography the Montana Department of Livestock and National Park Service bison management. The numbers killed go as low as none in 1999/2000, six and seven in 2000/2001 and 2009/2010 respectively, and as high as 1,631 in 2007/08.

It was that winter in 1997 when Daniel Brister, who’d recently moved to Montana to pursue a graduate degree, was watching the count of dead buffalo go up on a bulletin board on the University of Montana campus in Missoula. That next winter, having heard about the Buffalo Field Campaign, he went out to spend a week volunteering with the campaign. He spent nights working the midnight to sunrise shift, his time divided between hunkering down over a fire and skiing out to check on bison where they’d bedded down, helped move a herd of buffalo away from a ranch where they would surely have been killed the next morning, got arrested for it, and got hooked on direct actions that could make a real and immediate difference. 

                                         Courtesy of The Buffalo Field Campaign

“I could defend the buffalo on their habitat in a direct way, and that really spoke to me,” Brister says. “That just felt much more like a real connection than I had ever been able to find.”

He came for a week, and stayed for the whole winter. Fifteen years later, he’s the Buffalo Field Campaign’s executive director and the author of In the Presence of Buffalo: Working to Stop the Yellowstone Slaughter. It’s important to clarify, he says, that the Field Campaign doesn’t organize these direct actions like the one that got him or Jacobs arrested — or the one in 1999 that blockaded a Forest Service road for two months with a tripod-like structure that had a volunteer at its peak for 24 hours a day, sometimes through minus 40 degree weather.

They just document those efforts, and try to draw more attention to the cause.

“This department has had to deal with public protests of one kind or another and they have — some of them have been very creative, but they have never stopped any action that was planned to take place that day. We’ve always managed to go around them or remove them when necessary,” says Mackay, with the Department of Livestock. “It’s kind of just become part of the landscape, it’s something else that we just deal with, like the terrain or the weather.”

Over years of activism and organizing, Buffalo Field Campaign has rallied 16,000 subscribers to their weekly updates from the field, seen volunteers trained as highway flaggers to warn motorists on highways near Yellowstone when bison are crossing to prevent accidents that can injure motorists and kill buffalo, and distributed signs to private landowners who’d prefer to see bison left alone on their lands, rather than hazed back into Yellowstone National Park by helicopters, ATVs and agents on horseback. In May, Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed an official declaration that, unless there is an imminent threat of disease transmission from bison to livestock or people, bison management operations now have to stay off private property unless they have permission.

Brister says what he keeps coming back to as the answer for why Yellowstone’s bison are so carefully managed, if the threat of brucellosis transmission is truly an empty one, is the livestock industry.

“I really think that it’s a range war and the livestock industry is used to controlling our public lands,” Brister says. “You can have tremendous subsidies to graze cattle on public lands for way less than market value if you compare to comparable private lands and I think that the livestock industry fears more people asking that question — why aren’t buffalo allowed on our public lands? Why are they kept in Yellowstone National Park? And people wanting buffalo back on our public lands and that resulting in a decrease in the amount of grass available for domestic livestock.”


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