Montana's interaction with the nation's last wild bison herd, in Yellowstone National Park, has been a long and heartbreaking story. For decades, bison that crossed the park's boundaries in search of forage and calving grounds have been shot by wildlife agents, captured and shipped to slaughter by the thousands and hunted as big game animals. When plans were announced to consider moving a select group of bison to other areas within the state, many were hopeful that the last remnants of the herds that once numbered in the millions might run free again. But a preliminary plan offered by Governor Schweitzer and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks raises questions of just how free those bison will be.
To understand the bison issue, one has to reach back at least a few decades. In the '80s, Yellowstone's bison, although loved and revered by the nation's citizens, were not so loved by Montana's livestock industry. The reason was straightforward if you looked at it from a stockgrower's point of view. Brucellosis, a disease that causes cattle to abort, had originally been introduced to Yellowstone's bison by ranchers intent on settling the West. But then the nation undertook a stringent brucellosis eradication campaign and, over years and at a cost of millions of dollars, was able to nearly eliminate the disease—except in Yellowstone's bison.
Under harsh federal management, any infected cattle were immediately slaughtered, as was the rest of the herd from which they came. The state was subject to restrictions on trade in order to prevent the transmission of brucellosis to other herds.
Facing such strict measures, the livestock industry took few chances of infection from Yellowstone's bison. Since transmission could occur simply by cattle coming in contact with a bison's afterbirth, a thick red line was drawn around Yellowstone National Park. Bison that crossed the line were eliminated.
The reaction to that policy was global shock and outrage. Pictures of dead and bloody bison appeared on the front pages of newspapers in London and throughout Europe as well as in the U.S. What Montana's ranching community called necessary, tens of thousands of people around the world called an atrocity.
Then the state legislature passed a law that allowed the capture and containment of bison leaving the park. They would be quarantined for years until they were determined to be free of brucellosis. They would then be available for distribution to Indian tribes that wished to repopulate their lands with the massive animals that hold cultural and religious significance for North America's first people.
But years dragged on, funding was hard to come by, and, as Yellowstone's herd continued to grow, the bison slaughters continued. More bison have been killed under Brian Schweitzer's governorship than at any time in the history of the state, with the number totaling in the thousands. To ameliorate the state and federal role in these slaughters, Schweitzer initiated a bison hunt. Some have described these hunts as akin to shooting a parked car. In the end, the result was the same—dead buffalo in the snow.
In the meantime, federal rules were changed to eliminate many of the most onerous brucellosis provisions. Entire states were no longer quarantined, entire herds didn't have to be slaughtered if one cow was found to have brucellosis, and the rules were particularly adapted to the area around Yellowstone National Park.
Schweitzer has announced plans to move quarantined, brucellosis-free bison to both tribal nations that want them and state Wildlife Management Areas. This year's state legislature, however, had different ideas about translocating bison, and loaded up any such effort with significant sidebars contained in SB 212, which passed and was signed into law by Schweitzer.
Which brings us to the current controversy. Fish, Wildlife & Parks is legally required to develop a management plan that comports with SB212's provisions and put it out for public comment before any bison transfers can occur. The problem—at least if you thought bison were going to be allowed to roam free once more—is that under the management plan, the bison will be penned behind 7-foot multi-strand fences, herded and fed by FWP staff on ATVs and tractors, and virtually indistinguishable from animals in standard cattle ranching. (Read and comment on the plan at fwp.mt.gov) One former legislator who's been active in the bison issue for decades told me recently, "I thought we outlawed game farms in Montana, but this plan sure looks like a state-run game farm." And the fencing plan may well do more damage to other truly wild animals, such as elk, deer and antelope, while providing the illusion of free-roaming bison.
It's time for this expensive and unnecessary charade to end. Schweitzer says Montana should be "run like a ranch," but these brucellosis-free bison pose no disease threat to Montana's cattle. Like any other big game animal in Montana, the bison should be allowed to truly roam free once again. To do otherwise is little more than a feeble attempt to buffalo the public about "wild" bison.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.