Ranchers without honor

When it comes to bison, they go back on their deals

| April 12, 2012

The battle over what Montana can do with bison that wander beyond Yellowstone National Park's borders continues. The primary antagonists are those who want to see bison returned to their historic home range on the Great Plains and those who want to keep them confined within Yellowstone's borders. While news accounts refer to "brucellosis-free" bison that have been quarantined, the historic perspective and a deal cut by past legislatures seem to have been forgotten.

The story goes all the way back to the near extermination of millions of bison that once roamed the plains. We can forego the sinister and tragic reasons for their slaughter and take up the tale as a remnant herd, cloistered within Yellowstone's borders, grew to thousands of animals. Being bison, they sought to leave the park in spring each year to forage and birth their calves.

Unfortunately, the primary path to greener pastures led directly to Paradise Valley, where the mighty Yellowstone has carved a wide and water-rich landscape of natural terraces well suited for cattle ranching. And like all such valleys in Montana, its lands and waters were long ago claimed by ranchers. Wandering bison were not seen as natural migrations of indigenous wildlife, but as unwanted competition for graze and carriers of the disease brucellosis, which can cause pregnant cattle or bison to abort. That the disease was introduced to Yellowstone's wildlife by ranchers is largely ignored because brucellosis has been mostly eradicated, except in the park's bison and elk.

While there has never been a documented case of bison transmitting brucellosis to bison in the wild, the potential for disease transmission was enough for the ranching community to demand the slaughter of bison leaving the park. Bison, however, remain an iconic symbol of the West, and as pictures of blood-splattered snow and dead bison made their way around the world, thousands of people vociferously condemned the killings, boycotted Montana's tourism industry and demanded that Montana's bison policy change.

It was this driving force that moved the Republican-dominated legislature of the late '90s to seek a solution and salvage Montana's reputation while, as always, protecting the sacred cow. Their answer to the dilemma was to lay out a long-term policy centered around capturing bison that wandered outside the park, sending those that tested positive for brucellosis to slaughter and quarantining others in a yet-to-be-built facility for eventual distribution to Montana's Indian tribes, in order to repopulate the genetically pure bison that held both a sacred and practical role for thousands of years.

As the lobbyist for the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, my job was to secure live, genetically-pure bison for distribution to tribes, although with a Republican legislature and governor, it would obviously have to be on the cattle industry's terms. Bison advocates' great hope was that cattle ranchers would appreciate what genetics mean to their industry and understand that Yellowstone's bison were the only genetically pure remnants in the nation.

That battle was hard, but in the end an agreement was reached. The plan, which would require years of preparation, called for securing millions of dollars in federal funds to build quarantine facilities near Yellowstone's border, where wandering bison could be captured and held for five years, until they were deemed "brucellosis free," and then could be distributed to tribes that wanted them.

Years passed in the quest for money to build the quarantine facilities, but eventually the funds were appropriated and the quarantine facilities were built and stocked with bison.

More years passed as the captured bison remained isolated to ensure no contact with brucellosis. But the capacity of the quarantine facilities was limited and the slaughter of thousands of wandering bison continued. More bison were killed during Gov. Brian Schweitzer's term than under any governor before him, but Schweitzer sought to redeem that sad statistic through a variety of methods, including a request to allow hunting within Yellowstone's borders, which was rejected out of hand by the federal government.

In 2010, Schweitzer struck a deal to move 88 bison to Ted Turner's ranch. The deal raised the hackles of bison advocates who saw it as privatizing publicly owned wildlife, but it spared the bison. The state also acquired thousands of acres of land near Avon known as the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area and sought to relocate bison there. But the 2011 legislature, again dominated by Republicans, rewrote the bison statutes to prohibit relocation without a statewide bison management plan.

Exploiting what he believes is a loophole in the law, Schweitzer moved 38 bison to Fort Peck tribal lands recently. Stockgrowers filed an immediate court challenge to prohibit further relocations.

Schweitzer, in relocating the bison to tribes, is sticking to the deal agreed to by past legislatures. These moves by the ranching industry are duplicitous, if not outright shameful.

We hear much from the ranching community about "moving the goal posts" when it comes to wolf reintroduction. Now it appears that "moving the goal posts" somehow doesn't apply to the long-term bison plans to which they formerly agreed.

While it is the right of each legislature to write or rewrite laws, there must be a modicum of trust that, in the search for solutions to large public policy issues, a deal made is a deal kept. Right now, it's the stockgrowers who are breaking that deal and putting the future of negotiated policy agreements in serious jeopardy. There's still time for honorable voices to speakā€”but so far, the only sound we hear from ranchers is the swish of lawsuits being filed to break their former agreement.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

OMG I friggin hate these leftist idiots sooooooo much.

report 1 like, 7 dislikes   
Posted by Imnothomophobicijusthatefags on 04/22/2012 at 10:08 PM

Typical of what would come out of Missoula, all comments should be categorically disregarded.

report 3 likes, 7 dislikes   
Posted by Ranchhand on 04/20/2012 at 6:44 PM

Where are all the animal rights' attorneys? why don't they get involved? What a great case to take on???? The Cattle Association gets away with this because they have powerful attorneys and a lot of money on their side. They need to be challenged by animal rights attorneys! Put forward these cases to any attorneys you know!!!

report 6 likes, 5 dislikes   
Posted by veritass on 04/18/2012 at 9:56 AM

Kishmei -

There are two prominent state senators that should hang their heads in shame over this. One is Jim Peterson, who was Senate President last session, was chair of the Stockgrowers Association and, ironically, sponsored the bill to make the Code of the West law in Montana. The other senator is John Brendan of Scobey, who is well aware of the deal that was made and has no problems whatsoever breaking it.

So, just to call these hypocrites out, here's the Code of the West they were so hot about putting into statute but, obviously, aren't living by -- particularly numbers 3 and 6...which would be "when you make a promise, keep it."

"Although the Code of the West was unwritten, every cowboy knew what it was. The
Ten Principles are Jim Owen's distillation of the timeless, universal cowboy values
that are still relevant to our lives today. They are at the heart of cowboy ethics and of
Jim's book, Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.

1 Live each day with courage

2 Take pride in your work

3 Always finish what you start

4 Do what has to be done

5 Be tough, but fair

6 When you make a promise, keep it

7 Ride for the brand

8 Talk less and say more

9 Remember that some things aren't for sale

10 Know where to draw the line

report 11 likes, 4 dislikes   
Posted by Ochenski on 04/15/2012 at 12:15 PM

I heard a state senator complaining on the radio about the Fort Peck bison, saying they are bound to get out and damage adjacent ranch lands. He seemed to be forgetting that ranchers have enjoyed a "fence out" law in Montana forever, where anyone who doesn't want their neighbors livestock wrecking their land is required to fence them out. Nor are you allowed to put your neighbors cow in the freezer for trespassing. If ranchers don't like bison they can by golly fence them out just like they've always expected us to do. And if that is difficult, tough.

report 19 likes, 5 dislikes   
Posted by Kishmei on 04/14/2012 at 8:01 AM

It is time to kick the cowboy welfare bums off public lands as they are getting away with grazing (and sometimes over-grazing and or damaging riparian zones) public lands for a fraction of the fair market value. Grazing cattle near Yellowstone is completely unnecessary and should be stopped entirely to create a winter buffer zone for the bison.

And in many cases the welfare ranchers will block recreational access to public lands and make a killing by privatizing wild game with fee hunting. Clearly, any rancher grazing cows on public land should not be able to block access to that land. The recreational economy is big business in Montana and privatizing public land limits puts a damper on our recreational economy. Thus we are subsidizing an activity that harms the overall economy.

Also, we should begin to condemn access through private land to public land in areas where access is being denied.

report 20 likes, 6 dislikes   
Posted by JConrad on 04/12/2012 at 11:34 AM

The State of Montana is bought and paid for by "cattlemen" and its time this stopped! Because of their greed and money they are destroying our natural resources! It is time this state starts stepping on their toes and put them back where they belong...THEY DO NOT OWN THIS STATE..period!!!

report 18 likes, 5 dislikes   
Posted by Cj Rolphe on 04/12/2012 at 8:42 AM
Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment