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Surviving on scraps

Scavengers thrive on recycling hunters' Yellowstone bison kills

  • 6 min to read
Taut hides

Neal Tyagi scrapes a hide, one of the most monumental tasks Buffalo Bridge faces since the weather is cold, the hides freeze and they are large.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

BEATTIE GULCH — On the mornings when Epona isn’t awoken by gunshots, she can sleep in, her fox fur hat stuffed under the covers to keep her feet warm in the depth of the February cold, and her 3-month-old Baby Boy snuggled next to her.

Unlike other areas of the world, gunshots in this valley just north of Yellowstone National Park are a joyous occasion for the young mother and her friends. The echo of a rifle shot means a hunter has probably killed a bison just across the road from their canvas tent encampment.

“If we wake up to shots at dawn, we’re moving” to help the hunters, said Epona, 29, who like many of her friends would not give her last name out of privacy concerns and to avoid an online presence.

“Hunters can’t fathom that a bunch of white people are coming out with sleds and don’t want anything,” she said. “Hunters expect us to want money. That’s part of what makes this so special, that we’re just friends having fun.”

That fun includes scraping the fat and meat off of one of several buffalo hides stretched out within wooden frames leaned up against a wooden fence and barn. Others are extended across the ground. Scraping the hides is slow work, especially since they have been frozen by the winter’s deep cold. Yet there is nowhere else these folks would rather be.

Gardiner Basin

Time seems to have ignored this small encampment of people set up in a valley divided by the Yellowstone River and wedged between the rocky flanks of the Gallatin and Absaroka mountains. Here eight friends indulge in a monthlong communal experience that includes wearing and making fur and hide clothing, eating meals together and planning their day’s work around repurposing bison parts scattered across the camp.

The rhythm of life is dictated by the sun’s rising and setting, as well as whether the temperature is too unbearably cold to make working outside unbearable.

“We’re pretty hard to pigeonhole,” said Katie Russell, a founder of the group known as the Buffalo Bridge Project. “You have to come out and spend time with us to get to know us.”

Cold camp

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Kitchen tent

Buffalo Bridge volunteers gather for breakfast, coffee and discussion in the kitchen tent, which also features bison tails hanging from the middle pole and bison legs thawing near the woodstove.

On an overcast February day when wind out of the south cuts like cold steel, Epona and seven of her friends are gathered in a woodstove-warmed canvas wall tent discussing their winter’s work — helping hunters to skin, gut and haul their bison kills at no charge. Their only rewards are thank yous, invitations to visit the hunters’ homes, an occasional gift or the remains of the bison that the hunters have not taken — the heart, head, hide, hooves, ribcage and even the stomach.

“This is so much more fun than sitting in an office from 9 to 5,” said Ania, the designated camp cook and ‘so much more.’ “When I first went out with an empty sled I felt weird. I was wondering, ‘What are these people going to think? That I’m coming to take?’”

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Safe zone

Bison hunting along the northern border of Yellowstone National Park is a controversial subject. Here a sign designates a safe zone where the animals can't be shot. 

That tension is often amplified by the political controversy that swirls around the Montana bison hunts conducted at Yellowstone Park’s borders. The seemingly docile animals may see millions of harmless Yellowstone tourists pass by in the summer while within the safe confines of the park. But when these same animals migrate north to winter in Montana’s Gardiner Basin they face a gauntlet. Hundreds of bison are shipped to slaughter by the National Park Service, the meat donated to American Indian tribes, in an attempt to reduce the burgeoning bison population. Others are shot by tribal and state hunters in a small area bordered by time-share Lincoln log homes, ranches and the headquarters of a one-time doomsday cult. So far this season the estimated number of bison killed by hunters is 360.

So seeing unusual things here is maybe not so unusual.

Buffalo calling

When Russell first saw a bison hunter butchering his kill four years ago she was instantly fascinated.

“For some people it would have been a revulsion problem, but for me it was like Christmas day,” she said, her eyes widening. “I started talking to people and found somebody who would let me help them. From that I got a sense that we were needed here, that there was space for us.”

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Meat Shed

Buffalo Bridge members Alex and Epona remove slow-cooked bison hearts from a large pot to prepare the meat for canning.

Russell wrote a successful grant request that allowed her and friends to return the following winter during the bison hunt to help hunters, scavenge bison remains and in the process refine traditional skills such as how to render fat, how to scrape hides and make useful items from the leftover parts of a bison hunt. The camp became known as Buffalo Bridge and in 2015 launched an Indiegogo fundraising page. This year the group is self-funded and has been in the Gardiner Basin since Jan. 15.

“We’re here for the buffalo, to honor them and make use of everything we can,” Russell said.

They also take great joy in helping hunters, especially tribal hunters.

“We learn from other hunters and share what we learn,” said Jerry Moisin, a Buffalo Bridge member who likens the atmosphere to his own family’s deer hunts, with everyone pitching in to achieve one goal.

Camp visit

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Buffalo Bridge Alex baby

Buffalo Bridge volunteers Alex and his son Baby Boy are shown outside Yellowstone Park. The group salvages bison parts from hunters near Gardiner. February 4, 2016..

Last Thursday the group’s work included removing several bison hearts from a 10-gallon steel pot where they had been simmering all night over a gas burner. Alex, a 28-year-old member and father to Baby Boy, carefully plucked out each steaming-hot heart the size of a cantaloupe, placed it on a cutting board and using a knife as long as his forearm chopped the meat into cubes to be canned along with the broth.

This work took place inside what the group calls the “Meat Shed,” an old barn inside an occupied horse corral on the property where Buffalo Bridge rents its campsites. The cramped quarters, rich with the heavy smell of cooked organ meat, includes a stove where they pressure can, a dehydrator for making jerky and the “blessed grinder,” a commercial-quality meat grinder used to render liver and scraps into ground jerky. On the floor under a wooden counter the head of a bison rested. On the counter a full bison backbone stretched out as if tanning in the windows’ sunlight.

“We take the necks and pressure-can the meat; the bone broth makes a mean gravy,” Epona said.

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Bison heart

Alex cuts up boiled bison hearts in the Meat Shed to prepare it for canning. The group shares what it scavenges, from canned meat to jerky, hides, horns and heads.

“The canning process is a huge part of what we do, and drying the meat,” Alex said.

On a shelf rested gallon freezer bags filled with dried meat and liver jerky that was as thin and crisp as a cracker. Whatever’s left at the end of their stay in mid-February will be divided between the friends to stock their pantries.

“The reality of being scavengers is that we take in more than we use,” said Josh Dodd, a 40-year-old camp member from Oregon. “Some we will return.”

One story

The nature of the encampment is evidenced in the Buffalo Bridge members’ clothing. Epona wore a heavy brown wool sweater that extended over a blood-stained buckskin skirt under which she wore leggings and calf-high insulated boots. A goatskin belt, with the fur still clinging to the inside, held a knife in a handmade leather and wood sheath. But it is the fluffy red fox hat that drew immediate attention, coiled atop her braided long blonde hair as if curled up to sleep.

“In college I was on the professional track,” she said, but she became disillusioned, realizing she didn’t “know how an eggplant grows.

“It hit me like (expletive) lightning. I don’t need to be in an ivory tower. I need to learn some life skills.”

Ania echoed Epona’s cynicism with academia.

“I was going to get my Ph.D. in neuroscience and try to understand human consciousness,” she said. “Now I’m smushing buffalo brains.”

Yet she sees it as a great opportunity to connect with people she may not otherwise have met — the bison hunters and tribal members.

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A song for baby

Buffalo Bridge volunteers Alex and Epona sing a song to their son, Baby Boy, in a wall tent outside of Yellowstone National Park near Gardiner.

“When they’re skinning a buffalo together, the banter becomes like that at a bar — dirty jokes, life stories — and we’re called angels for helping out,” Ania said with a beaming smile.

On this day no shots would be fired requiring the group to troop out into the biting wind. So Alex sharpened his knife and skinned a bison leg, one of several thawing out under the woodstove. The camp dogs ran in and out of the tent in a playful mood. There were books to read and there was coffee to drink. And Baby Boy, who has not yet been officially named, bounced on his mother’s knee after breastfeeding as Epona sang to him in a hauntingly crystalline voice:

“Our fathers and mothers built up this great tower,

From sweat, blood and tears, to nuclear power,

And the only thing clear from the vantage point given?

It's lonely being severed from the rest of god's children!”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.