Oh, give them a home: Ending the bison rebuff

Posted: Sep 18, 2019


Imagine the nerve of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) suggesting that wild bison be managed with the use of wildlife management areas (WMA). That was the message they got last week at a meeting in Shelby, Montana, where local ranchers told an FWP representative that bison were not welcome anywhere near there. “I'm against the whole project now and will be forever,” said one resident, who was rewarded with applause. The naysayers at the meeting were so vocal that proponents of the plan weren’t even allowed to speak.

The project in question is the temporary relocation of wild bison from two holding facilities on private land (the Slip & Slide pastures outside Yellowstone National Park and Ted Turner’s Green Ranch outside Bozeman), where they’re running out of room. Under the plan, as many as 120 animals would be moved to one or more of the following locations in Montana: Marias River WMA, Spotted Dog WMA, Fort Belknap Reservation and Fort Peck Reservation. A maximum of 40 bison would be relocated to any one site. Marias River WMA is nearly 9,00 acres; Spotted Dog is about 38,000 acres; Fort Belknap is 675,000 acres; and Fort Peck is over 2 million acres.

According to the FWP’s environmental assessment, staff would be hired to maintain and monitor the bison, and extensive fencing would be erected to keep the animals enclosed. If a breach of the fencing were to occur, a “capture team” would be dispatched using ATVs, horses, pickups and/or a helicopter. Any beast that eluded the herding team would be euthanized and its body donated to science (and a food bank).

This Fort Knox-like stratagem is due to the fear of bison mingling with cattle, of which there are many around Shelby. The bison being considered for relocation were calves quarantined in 2005 and 2006 from the Yellowstone herds, where some of the animals are known to carry brucellosis, a nasty bacteria (originally from cattle) that may cause a cow to lose its first pregnancy after being exposed to the disease.

These particular bison, however, have been tested annually for the past several years and are completely disease-free. They are, in fact, part of a study to produce genetically-pure, brucellosis free cattle. Moreover, there are no known cases of Yellowstone bison ever transmitting the disease to domestic cattle.

Why does FWP want to go to all the trouble of relocating bison to other parts of Montana? Last year they started work on the feasibility of establishing a wild plains bison population in the state to actively prevent the species from becoming threatened or endangered.

Bison once roamed most of the North American continent – modern estimates put their numbers at 30 million head on the Great Plains alone. Humans were hunting bison in what is now known as Montana as far back as 13,000 years ago. Historic kills sites have been recorded in 40 out of 56 Montana counties. Later, as early settlers surged west, they noted many species in their journals, but it was North America’s largest land mammal that was of most interest to them. The sight of bison meant that they had finally reached their new frontier.

In the mid-19th century, famed artist George Catlin noticed that bison numbers were nose-diving, owing to over-hunting and diseases introduced by cattle. He prophesized about the future of bison and Native Americans this way: “It is truly a melancholy contemplation for the traveler in this country, to anticipate the period which is not far distant, when the last of these noble animals, at the hands of white and redmen, will fall victim to their cruel and improvident rapacity until the bones of the one and the traditions of the other will have vanished and left scare an intelligible trace behind."

Catlin urged the federal government to set aside lands for buffalo preserves. They ignored him, not because they didn’t trust his observations, but rather because they did. The presence of bison meant that Native Americans would continue to defend their home on the range. Exterminating the species meant that whites could weaken their enemy. In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant’s Interior Secretary, Columbus Delano said, “The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains.”

Instead of establishing parks to help bison numbers recover, the administration helped build the railroad into Montana, and gave bison hunters endless free ammunition. During this campaign, thousands of bison were skinned for their hides and left to rot in the succulent grass. By the mid-1880s, buffalo in Montana were a rare sight, while bone collectors became commonplace.

Today, North American bison are listed as “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List of Threatened Species.” As of 2008, there were 20,504 plains bison in 62 conservation (both captive and free-ranging) herds in the US and Canada. In order to maintain a viable population, each herd should have at least 1,000 bison. Only five herds of plains bison clear this hurdle—including those in Yellowstone, some of the only remaining genetically-pure (free of cow genes) bison in the country.

Montana has just one public herd of 400, genetically-diluted bison fenced into 18,500 acres on the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge. The Montana Comprehensive Fish and Wildlife Conservation Strategy lists bison as having Tier 1 status, meaning that they are in “greatest conservation need.” In 2005, the FWP said it had a “clear obligation to use its resources to implement conservation actions that provide direct benefit to these species.” Last year, bison were listed as a “species of concern” by the Montana Natural Heritage Program.

The FWP has worked hard to try to fulfill its mandate to increase the number of disease-free bison in Montana. They are attempting to avoid bison falling to levels at which they will be considered a threatened, or endangered, species and therefore require legal protection. Attention ranchers: state and federal management strategies resulting from that classification could be messier than a cow tangled up in barbed wire.

Voices that have been muted during this debate are those of Native Americans. The tribes including the Sioux, Assiniboine (or Nakoda) and Gros Ventre—on the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations actually want these bison on their land. One of Fort Belknap’s goals is to restore a genetically-pure bison population to their rez, which was established in 1888. Bison are not just a link to their past and culture, but a tool for their present economic welfare. Augmenting their current herd of 400 would be a boon to their meat-packing and smokehouse operations.

I’m not suggesting a return to the time when bison were thick as domestic cows now are on the plains. But a look at the big picture, and a real consideration of FWP’s creative wildlife management strategy, is warranted.

For most of us, bison are now a novelty we snap photos of in our state and national parks. How lucky these select Montanans, in Shelby and beyond, would be to have the chance to encourage a return of the buff—a true American icon—in their state. How thoughtful they’d be to put right, in some small way, the crimes we committed while usurping a people we once considered savages. Instead, the rejection of the FWP proposition is a rare opportunity squandered due to unfounded fear.

The public can comment on the bison relocation plan through October 19.

~Heather Hansen

Copyright © 2019 Red Lodge Clearinghouse. All rights reserved.