The video is heartbreaking. An hours-old bison calf, wobbling on spindly legs, tries to keep up with its mother as agents from Montana's Department of Livestock and assorted federal agencies chase her down an asphalt road. The slick road provides little traction for the newborn and it goes down hard on the pavement. Scrambling to get back up, the calf tries desperately to follow its mother up a hillside but is unable to climb the snow banks still lining the road. It's springtime in Montana–and the annual effort to haze the last remaining wild bison herd in the nation back inside the borders of Yellowstone National Park has, to our state's lasting shame, begun once more.
This is an old and very sad story that begins with a decision to engage in the wholesale slaughter of what was once a thundering population of 50 million buffalo that had lived on the Great Plains for eons. Because they were the source of nourishment, both spiritual and bodily, for indigenous tribes, the federal government, driven by lust to exploit the wide-open resources of the West, was determined to herd what was left of the Indians onto reservations. A key to breaking their resistance was to decimate their primary food and materials source–the buffalo.
The eradication plan was successful and, in what may have been the largest and certainly the ugliest extermination in modern times, the bison disappeared from the plains almost in their entirety. A small band had been saved, however, and some survivors eventually found refuge within the borders of Yellowstone National Park.
Hard on the heels of the mass bison slaughter came the cattle barons for whom the open, grass-covered plains were free for the taking. Unfortunately, they also brought the disease brucellosis, which causes cattle to abort. The disease was transmitted to Yellowstone's small bison herd and remains there, infecting the bison. In the meantime, a nationwide brucellosis-eradication program has all but eliminated the disease in domestic cattle.
Theoretically, it is possible for bison to transmit brucellosis to cattle in the wild, although there has never been a documented case to prove that. Consequently, for more than two decades, cattle ranchers have kept up a ruthless campaign to keep Yellowstone's bison inside the park boundaries. But of course, Yellowstone National Park, as most people know, is not the Great Plains. Its snow-filled mountains encompass the headwaters of some of the West's largest rivers. Bison, like virtually everything else in the world, cannot live on snow, nor were they ever meant to. And so, like all hungry animals, they seek nourishment for their survival, which takes them outside the park's snowbound borders and into direct conflict with the cattle industry.
It is worth noting that in recent years Montana has lost its status as a brucellosis-free state due to outbreaks of the disease in certain cattle herds. But the important fact—and it is a fact, not a theory—is that the wild bison of Yellowstone could not and did not transmit the disease to those cattle. The prevailing theory is that the cattle contracted brucellosis from elk, and, as everyone knows, elk are virtually everywhere in Montana and cannot be contained.
It is also worth noting that our cold, wet spring has once again cloaked our mountains in new snow extending down even into the lower elevations. You can be sure the snow didn't avoid Yellowstone, and what few areas were perhaps snow-free within the Park's boundaries are again covered in white.
These conditions do not concern the agents of the Department of Livestock and their federal cohorts, however. The Interagency Bison Management Plan, which is designed to protect the cattle industry rather than manage bison, calls for hazing the bison back into the park at this time of the year come hell or high water. We have the high water, to be sure. Equally sure is the hell into which state and federal agents are now plunging some of America's last wild bison as they use all-terrain vehicles, horses, and even low-flying helicopters to move the panicked buffalo back into the park's borders.
When Governor Brian Schweitzer took office he pledged to solve the bison issue, which has plagued Montana's image at home and abroad with its captures, killings, trucking bison to slaughter, and the endless, worthless hazing. With a little over a year left in his final term, however, this promise, like so many made by this governor, remains unfulfilled.
This week, as in so many weeks before it, the state and federal governments will once again drive the bison over roads, across rivers, and through dense forests in their attempts to force them back into the snow-filled park. As an excuse, they will hold up the brucellosis "threat," even though it remains a theory, and laud their great role in saving the cattle industry from such a scourge.
But here's the rub. In many of the places where the bison are being hazed, such as Horse Butte, there are no cattle and there is no grazing. In fact, many of the private landowners in the area have repeatedly voiced their support for the bison being allowed to graze and give birth on their private lands. Likewise, they have voiced their opposition to the continued hazing, the low-flying helicopters, the ATVs, and the endless intrusion on their otherwise peaceful existence.
If you want to watch the heart-rending video of these agents hazing new-born bison calves, you can see it at www.buffalofieldcampaign.org. But be warned, it will be difficult for those with a shred of humanity to see the death of that helpless bison calf.
The Battle for the Buffalo has once again been joined. Let us all hope that someday soon it will finally end and become just a shameful memory.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.