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Ranchers without honor

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



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

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