The buffalo skull that adorns the Montana state quarter is supposed to honor a majestic animal. In truth, it more accurately stands for the state's abysmal treatment of these icons of the West.
Over the years, thousands of bison leaving Yellowstone National Park have been hazed and killed on the grounds they might be diseased and dangerous to cattle. Then the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cooperated in an experiment. A couple of hundred bison were quarantined and thoroughly tested for the contagious disease brucellosis. Eighty-eight of these bison remain in quarantine, free of the disease, but funding for the program has run out and the state failed to devise a plan for the bison. This gave rise to a dilemma: What to do with the tested animals?
An overly influential ranching lobby protested every attempt to move the brucellosis-free bison to public lands near their precious cattle, including to state wildlife management areas. State officials also rejected as inadequate tribal proposals to house the bison. At the same time, the state insisted it could not afford to care for and feed the bison any longer.
Stymied and without an approved plan, state officials threatened to fall back on their tried and true solution to bison roaming out of Yellowstone: slaughtering them. Since 1985, the Montana Department of Livestock has partnered with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and USDA to prevent buffalo from roaming outside of Yellowstone National Park. These efforts have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and have caused the senseless deaths of more than 6,600 wild Yellowstone bison.
Senseless, because no case of bison-to-cattle brucellosis transmission in the wild has ever been documented. In fact, only female bison can transmit the disease at all. Elk, however, have transmitted brucellosis to cattle; there was a well-publicized case this past fall. Yet despite the known risk, there has never been an elk slaughter program. To further the bitter irony of this situation, brucellosis is not even an American disease. It was introduced to Yellowstone bison in the early 1900s, when calves were fed milk from infected European cattle introduced to the region.
And so, faced with no good options, Montana's Gov. Brian Schweitzer called on a rich friend—Ted Turner—for help. Turner responded by offering to house the buffalo for five years in exchange for 75 percent of their offspring, or about 190 animals. Turner explained that it would cost him roughly $480,000 to feed and care for the buffalo, and the offspring would offset his costs while also adding genetically pure bison to his herd, estimated at more than 50,000 animals. Turner would then return the original bison plus 25 percent of their offspring to the state. What the state would do with the bison at that point remains a mystery.
The whole plan stinks. Federal officials, tribes and many conservationists have all criticized the Turner solution. Opponents point out, for example, that the language permitting the program stipulated that the quarantined buffalo would "remain wild and noncommercial."
Despite public opposition to the plan, the state on Feb. 1 reaffirmed its decision giving Turner all 88 bison and allowing him to keep 75 percent of their offspring as payment for housing them. After five years, he has to return the original 88 bison to the state, thereby skirting the privatization issue, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks department explained.
Josh Osher, policy coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, doesn't think this makes the deal acceptable. "For us, the quarantine program is another indication that the Interagency Bison Management Plan is a failure. In the end, this is a handshake deal between Montana's governor and Ted Turner."
This sort of back-room dealing is disrespectful to the bison, to the tribes, and to the American people. These bison belong to the nation as a whole, not to the state or to the governor or a man with money.
For 25 years, Montana has encouraged the slaughter of these majestic creatures. Now, foot-dragging, poor planning and cronyism have set the dangerous precedent of privatizing and commercializing wild animals. Clearly, we need a new management plan. We need a plan that is based on science, not fear, one that will allow bison to repopulate Western ranges naturally and permit tribes to manage bison on their reservations.
Americans everywhere deserve a policy that ensures that America's last remaining herd of wild bison is respected and afforded the dignity that they have been denied for over a century.
Greg M. Peters is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Missoula.
Editor's note: Next week's Writers on the Range will argue in favor of the Turner deal.