Udder failure: The politics behind Montana’s brucellosis discovery

Some would say it was the massive bad karma from killing more than 1,600 of the nation’s last wild buffalo by state and federal agents—the largest bison slaughter since the white man’s extinction of the millions-strong herds that once roamed the Great Plains. Or maybe it was the on-going and vicious political struggle between Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Montana Stockgrowers Association. But whatever or whomever one blames, the reality is that Montana will now lose its “brucellosis free” status with this week’s discovery of yet another herd infected with the disease that can cause cows to abort. Ironically, bison caused neither the latest nor the former infections.

Most Montanans are well aware of the issues surrounding Yellowstone National Park’s bison herd and the long drama that has played out over the last two decades. Despite the fact that a case of bison transmitting brucellosis to domestic cattle has never been documented in the wild, tens of millions of state and federal dollars have been spent trying to prevent just that.

In the early days, the state tried a bison “hunt.” But worldwide criticism, including gory front-page pictures of dead bison in the blood-spattered snow, put a quick end to that as threats of tourism boycotts came from all quarters.

Then, in the mid-1990s, a joint state and federal management plan was developed that basically sought to keep the bison in the Park through aerial and ground hazing. Those that wandered out were trapped and shipped to slaughter.

Then along came Gov. Schweitzer, vowing to solve the problem while saving both the cattle and the bison. But now, nearing the end of his four-year term in office, it’s dreadfully obvious that neither the bison nor the cattle have been saved.

Truth be told, many bison advocates were hopeful that Schweitzer would find the solution. As the product of a ranch upbringing it looked like he would be able to negotiate with the state’s cattle ranchers in their own terms. His plans, which have evolved over the years, began with a “buffer zone” around the Park in which the bison would be allowed to roam in search of forage when Yellowstone’s snows piled up. Cattle that had previously grazed there would be removed, ranchers would receive generous settlements for their loss of grazing rights, and any bison that wandered out of the buffer zone would be killed.

But then politics got in the way.

Early in his term Schweitzer met with the Montana Stockgrowers Association to discuss the situation. As the story goes, and perhaps due to the political naiveté of the new governor, Schweitzer took the rather bizarre tact of telling the Stockgrowers’ Board of Directors they had to replace their executive director—which they refused to do.

But there’s more to the story. While the Stockgrowers have historically been the largest group representing the state’s ranching sector, the Montana Cattlemen’s Association was “reactivated” to provide a foil to the Stockgrowers and bolster the governor’s position. Schweitzer then went on to champion the election of its president, former California attorney-turned-rancher Dennis McDonald, as the chairman of the Montana Democratic Party, a position he holds to this day.

Understanding that political background is important, especially since the governor directly blames the Stockgrowers Association for the problems the statewide loss of brucellosis free status will cause. How, one might ask, are the Stockgrowers to blame?

As it turns out, Schweitzer’s initial plan to buy out grazing rights and develop a “buffer zone” for Yellowstone’s bison morphed into a new plan last year that would have given Montana a “split-state” status if approved by the feds. The area immediately around Yellowstone, where elk and bison carry brucellosis, would be separate from the rest of Montana’s cattle herds. Should brucellosis show up there, ranchers in proximity to Yellowstone would be required to implement vaccinations and other disease control methods, but the remainder of the state’s ranchers would retain their “brucellosis free” status. At least that’s how it was supposed to work.

Unfortunately, when the vote on the plan came before the Board of Livestock, whose members are appointed by the governor, the majority refused to endorse the plan of the guy who appointed them. Go figure, but that’s what happened. Schweitzer blames the Stockgrowers for killing the plan and, hence, for the consequences that will ensue for all ranchers due to the loss of the state’s brucellosis free status. For their part, the Stockgrowers say the Schweitzer plan would have amounted to a “sacrifice zone” for the bison, would have been difficult to implement, and would not have been in place when the latest brucellosis infection occurred.

Which brings us to the present and what to do about it.

Perhaps the battle between the governor and the Montana Stockgrowers Association will be decided in the coming months. Perhaps Montana’s ranchers will say Schweitzer was right all along, flee the Stockgrowers, and drop opposition to the “split-state” plan now that they’re facing the uncertainties and expense of dealing with the loss of their brucellosis free status. But I doubt it. Schweitzer throwing gas on the fire of their political battle by blaming the Stockgrowers for the brucellosis consequences is unlikely to bring them to the table. The Stockgrowers, however, are now equally under the gun to come up with a solution that actually works—and “just say no” won’t cut it anymore.

Wyoming and Idaho have both lost and regained their brucellosis free status in recent years, so this is not a final or fatal condition for Montana’s ranchers. On the other hand, neither of the infections that resulted in the loss of the state’s brucellosis free status can be attributed to Yellowstone bison. So maybe it’s time to acknowledge the “udder failure” of the existing management plan, change tactics to stop the gene-depleting slaughter, and finally give the nation’s last wild buffalo herd a little more room to roam.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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