Where the Buffalo Still Roam 

Behind the scenes at Montana's annual bison roundup

Smoke rises, flesh burns, and a score of school children gape silently as the unmistakable scent of burnt skin wafts toward them. The branding iron is removed, and the two-month-old calf is released back to the pasture. And so it goes at the National Bison Range annual roundup.

The National Bison Range was created nearly a hundred years ago to provide a breeding stock of buffalo for public lands, when America’s bison population had dwindled into the double digits. Today, the range serves a much broader purpose. This year, it sold 52 animals to private citizens and donated 17 more, including 12 to the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota. What most people don’t realize, range officials say, is that it’s more accurate to look at the Bison Range as a state-sponsored ranch, rather than a refuge.

Indeed, the ranch-like approach to handling the bison at the National Bison Range goes unnoticed by many of the 250,000 people who visit every year. “Ninety-five percent of the people coming through think this is a national park,” says one visitor center employee. But as roundup literature emphasizes, “We do allow visitors to watch, but our main purpose is to handle the vaccinations, branding and sales of the bison.”

This may seem an odd way to handle wildlife, but the breeding success of the range speaks for itself. At the time of its inception in 1908, only a few dozen bison survived from a population that 35 years earlier, range officials estimate, approached 70 million. Today, 200,000 bison live in the United States, with about 25,000 in public herds. Many people continue to believe that bison are an endangered species, but Pat Jamieson, outdoor recreation planner for the National Bison Range in Moiese, points out that stable breeding populations exist all over the country. “People think the Yellowstone bison are the only ones left,” she says.

Another effort that has bolstered buffalo numbers has been the InterTribal Bison Cooperative. This multi-tribe organization has helped bring buffalo herds back to more than 50 reservations, in an effort to promote cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development.

Nonetheless, all of these programs together only begin to reverse a century’s worth of policies that openly targeted America’s bison herds. In the late 1800s, the federal government recognized the Indian reliance on buffalo and actively pursued a program to eliminate them, in an effort to control the tribes. As Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano stated in an 1873 report to President Ulysses Grant: “I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies in the effect upon the Indians. I would regard it rather as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labor.”

Today, some of the nation’s bison—particularly those in and around Yellowstone National Park—continue to face a similar threat. As a result of Montana state policy, bison wandering out of Yellowstone to forage traditional winter feeding grounds have frequently been killed in an effort to prevent domestic cattle from becoming infected with brucellosis, a disease that causes pregnant females to miscarry.

There has never been a confirmed case of bison transmitting brucellosis to a cow in the wild. Still, the Montana Department of Livestock—in Montana, buffalo are classified as livestock instead of wildlife—has killed more than 1,200 of Yellowstone’s free-roaming bison over the last four years, for fear of spreading the disease, leaving only about 2,400 animals in the park.

This policy, and the growing debate surrounding it, has caused Yellowstone’s buffalo to become pawns on Montana’s political chessboard. And at no time has this seemed more true than in the 2000 election season. Montana gubernatorial candidate Mark O’Keefe stated earlier this year, “My first executive order a half an hour after being sworn in as governor will stop the killing of bison that wander outside the park.” Republican candidate Judy Martz, by contrast, has sided with Montana’s ranchers and is committed to continuing the state’s current policy.

Meanwhile, concern over Montana’s buffalo policy has also gone beyond politics, garnering national attention from high-profile entertainers who are now throwing their weight behind the cause. Just this week, the Indigo Girls, Bonnie Raitt, Dar Williams and other performers converged on Missoula as part of the Honor the Earth concert series. Proceeds benefited the Save the Yellowstone Buffalo campaign, a group promoting pro-Indian and pro-buffalo candidates.

Through it all, though, the National Bison Range seems to have remained immune from any sense of alarm. At this week’s annual roundup, it was just another day on the range, where the buffalo still roam.

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