Ochenski: Horns of a dilemma 

The great Montana bison flip-flop

Well, it sure didn’t take long for the Schweitzer administration to run into the ugly leftovers of past administrations, did it? Not even two weeks into his term, up pops the not very good idea of once again “hunting” Yellowstone National Park’s wild bison. I put quotes around hunting because shooting the protected park bison, that know absolutely nothing about being hunted, is about as sporting as shooting dumpsters. Yet here the plan is, and now Brian Schweitzer’s got to do something about it.

The irony of it all, of course, is that Schweitzer is himself a hunter and has been credited by national political pundits with winning the governorship, and overturning 16 years of Republican rule, because of his appeal to hunters. But therein is also the root of his conviction. Real hunters don’t shoot penned elk, deer or park bison, they believe in fair chase ethics where the game and the hunter are given at least marginally equal footing.

It’s also fair to say that Schweitzer has a considerably greater appreciation for the world beyond Montana’s borders than his extremely parochial predecessor. While buffoons like Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commissioner John Brenden can rant about how Montanans don’t care what others might think, Schweitzer remembers the front-page headlines in papers around the world showing Montana “hunters” posing with dead bison in the blood-splattered snows. He no doubt also remembers the calls to “boycott Montana” that followed the gory episodes. And luckily, it’s Schweitzer and not Brenden sitting in the gov’s office.

In December, Schweitzer announced his opposition to the so-called “hunt.” But thanks to a law passed in the last Legislature, Fish, Wildlife & Parks was required to take applications for the hunt and issue permits. Approximately 8,300 people applied, but only 10 got bison permits. Since the timing of the hunt was left up to the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission, Schweitzer immediately appointed three new commissioners who voted Monday to stop the hunt.

Unfortunately, simply canceling the hunt really doesn’t jive with Schweitzer’s pro-hunting convictions. A small but vocal storm of protest was raised by some who accused Schweitzer of caving in to out-of-state interests because, after all, he canceled the hunt. So it was back to the drawing board for Brian and the commission, resulting in Tuesday’s decision to issue the permits, but hold the hunt only when true fair chase conditions exist. And this brings us to the heart—if not the horns—of the dilemma.

The whole reason Yellowstone’s bison are being hunted at all is because they naturally migrate out of the park during the depths of winter in search of food. To most folks, that hardly seems like reason enough to impose a death sentence—to say nothing of the stunning idiocy of reverse genetics, where we slaughter the bison that are smart enough lead their herds to better forage in the dead of winter. But here is where Montana’s cattle industry weighs in—and it has weighed in heavily in the past.

While virtually all of Montana is cow country, the last remaining wild buffalo herd in the nation is confined to the artificial boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. Because the range of the bison is so limited, the powers that be have decided that the park’s bison herd must not exceed the “carrying capacity” of the park itself. That all of this is a wholly artificial imposition on the natural genetic tendencies of these magnificent wild animals is ignored. We are treating them like cattle, not wild animals, and even give the Department of Livestock management authority over those bison that “trespass” out of the park.

The concern—and it is theoretical because it has never actually occurred in the wild—is that the bison will transmit brucellosis back to the cows that originally gave it to them. Brucellosis causes cattle to abort. Such a transmission, should it ever occur, could potentially cause Montana cattle to lose their “brucellosis-free” status and cost millions to remedy.

None of this is particularly new information. Back in the ’90s, the Legislature wrestled with this thorny issue and agreed to cooperate with the federal government to construct quarantine facilities so those bison that left the park could be held, tested and given to Montana’s Indian tribes to help rebuild the herds that were slaughtered during the brutal “settling” of the West. Unfortunately, molasses in 30-below weather moves faster than the federal government, and the quarantine facility and distribution scheme remains unaccomplished nearly a decade later.

For his part, Schweitzer has tried to make lemonade out of the lemons he has been given. But the real solution lies far beyond knocking down some bison with lead bullets…whether through fair chase or abhorrent slaughter. The real solution lies in allowing these animals to follow their instincts and leave the snowbound park in search of better winter forage. To do so, however, requires that the cattle industry give up some grazing leases on federal lands surrounding the park; granting a small buffer zone for winter bison forage certainly won’t destroy Montana’s cattle industry.

Interestingly, Yvon Chouinard, founder of the successful Patagonia company, has weighed in on the battle by offering to pay the costs for anyone who gets a bison permit—provided they don’t shoot a bison. Schweitzer, who ran on a platform of working with corporations to find solutions to Montana’s problems, ought to give Chouinard a call, ask him what he thinks the solution is, and ask how much he might be willing to contribute to accomplish it.

Between an expanded range, a quarantine facility and enough land to permit a true “fair chase” hunt, we might be able to get out of this thing with our honor intact—and leave the horns of this particular dilemma behind us.

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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