Blood sport 

The world is watching Montana's bison hunt

Montana has a higher percentage of residents who hunt and fish than any of the other 47 contiguous states. For many Montanans, myself included, the annual ritual of hunting big game to fill the freezer for the year ahead is a time of anticipation, preparation, and the joy of a successful hunt. It's no surprise, then, that recent polls found the overwhelming majority of Montanans support the state's first bison hunt in over a decade. But that's not necessarily the way millions of others view the situation-and their reaction could cause significant problems for Montana.

During the last attempt to hunt Yellowstone's bison, game wardens literally took "hunters" into the field, pointed out bison to be killed, and stood by while the slaughter took place. The park bison, which had never been exposed to hunters, were about as wary as refrigerators as they were dropped in their tracks.

Unfortunately, the hunters and game wardens were not the only ones to witness these "hunts." Cameras and reporters from all over the world came to Yellowstone's borders to capture the proud "hunters" posing with their unsuspecting prey. And killing an animal that can easily top 1,500 pounds is not a bloodless spectacle. The gory pictures of blood-splattered snow and dead bison adorned the front pages of dozens of international newspapers, starting a figurative tsunami of protest against the slaughter and prompting calls for a tourism boycott of Montana.

Anti-hunting sentiment is something Montanans know exists out there in the world, especially in the cities and nations in which the workings of the natural world have been almost completely replaced by the trappings of an industrialized, nature-isolated society. For the millions who live in these places-at least the non-vegetarians-meat comes wrapped in tidy little plastic packages delivering no direct experience and very little realization of the processes of industrial butchering necessary to bring their food from the range to the kitchen.

No one wants to think of the hydraulic hammer that pierces the brains of panicked cows, their blood draining into gutters, hides pulled off by mechanical skinning machines, or the high-pressure blasting to remove the last of the meat from the bones. Out of sight, out of mind...just pass the medium-rare T-bone and don't think about it.

Thanks to our proximity to nature and the high numbers of Montanans who still harvest their own food from the wild, we know that death and dismemberment are indeed part of the process-and it's a process that far pre-dates mankind's short time on earth. For those of us lucky enough to actually live in Montana and experience the hunt and harvest, it is a conduit that connects us to some of the most basic of human instincts.

So what happens when millions of people have their TV screens filled with the scenes of Montana's new bison hunt, which starts this week? Predictably, many will simply be repulsed by the shock of the visual images. As with the old hunts, there will be a lot of blood on the snow. There may even be more than before, because this time hunters are not allowed to simply drive up, load the bison in the back of a truck and disappear. This time around, since the acreage on which the hunts can take place has been significantly expanded, it will often be necessary for hunters to field dress, quarter, and pack out the hundreds of pounds of meat.

There will also be a lot of discussion about why any of this bloodshed and gore is even necessary. In this regard, Montana will have a tough time finding much to rationalize the hunt. The cattlemen will howl about the threat of bison transmitting brucellosis to their herds, as they have in the past. But there will also be experts who will correctly state that such disease transmission is only theoretical and has never been documented in the wild.

Even those who defend the hunt will be hard pressed to explain how killing 50 bison out of a herd of almost 5,000, a mere 1 percent, will significantly reduce the chances of brucellosis. Nor, for the same reason, will they be able to justify the hunt in terms of managing the bison numbers vis-à-vis the park's so-called "carrying capacity."

In truth, the real solution to expanding bison numbers and the theoretical disease problem is for the federal government to rein in cattle grazing on the National Forest lands surrounding Yellowstone-thus removing the chance of contact between wild bison and cattle and providing sufficient winter range when deep snows drive the bison from the park in search of food. As a nation, we should admit that the artificial boundaries drawn around the park over a century ago are simply insufficient to maintain Yellowstone's wild bison herd.

Instead, Montana has reinstituted the bison hunt and now, what should be a national solution to a national problem falls squarely on Montanans. If the millions of people around the world who are appalled by killing Yellowstone's bison react negatively, it is Montana that will pay.

How serious is the threat of a tourist boycott? Well, let's put it this way: tourism is Montana's second largest business-and if it weren't for federal crop subsidies, it would undoubtedly be first. High gas prices have already impacted end-of-summer tourist travel and may have contributed to the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial's projected 10 million visitors who simply failed to materialize.

If the world rejects the bison hunt, Montana will suffer disproportionately. The bottom line remains the same, however. The hunt, for better or for worse, is not a viable solution to Yellowstone's bison problem-and we ought to force the feds to do it right.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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