Crossing the Boundary 

Though the guns are silent, Montana’s bison war rages on

All is quiet on the western front of Yellowstone National Park. About 50 bison graze within a few miles of the park border near West Yellowstone. But so far this winter, the animals have had no reason to cross the park line; mild weather has made foraging easy. Outside that boundary, in what has become an annual war between the cattle industry and bison advocates, the state of Montana killed nearly 3,000 bison between 1989 and 1999. But so far this season the body count remains, to everyone’s relief, at zero. Though the guns are silent, the fighting rages on in the political realm, with state and federal agencies at each other’s throats, native tribes scrambling for common ground, and buffalo advocates arguing that everyone is out to lunch.

At issue is brucellosis, a disease introduced to this continent by European cattle and carried by bison and elk. Although there’s never been a documented case of bison transmitting the disease to cattle in the wild, Montana officials fear for the state’s small livestock industry and have long maintained that any risk is too great.

Since 1995, the federal departments of Interior and Agriculture had been working under a court-approved settlement agreement with Montana to develop a management plan that would satisfy the state’s concerns and do away with unnecessary killing. Last spring, they released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that would allow the bison some room to roam outside the park, keep bison and cattle separate, and kill those bison who stray too far at the wrong time of year. The plan also included assurances of help for Montana ranchers should other states threaten to boycott Big Sky beef. But state officials refused to budge from their zero-tolerance policy, and the partnership fell apart. On Dec. 13, the federal agencies sent a stern 14-page letter to Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, calling the state’s position on bison “unreasonable,” “unwarranted” and “without scientific foundation.” The feds would craft a final management plan on their own; Montana could consider itself out of the loop.

At the end of December, the state responded by filing a motion in federal court to prevent Interior and Agriculture’s end-run. “Whatever conclusions the federal agencies unilaterally draw will not be binding on the state of Montana,” Gov. Racicot warned in response. “If the federal agencies’ true goal is to put together a more thoughtful and sensitive management plan for Yellowstone Park bison, these announced actions are short-sighted.”

Other players say the move was necessary. “We believe the state of Montana had taken the National Park Service hostage,” says Tim Wapato, executive director of the Rapid City, S.D.-based InterTribal Bison Cooperative, which represents 48 tribes. “They wouldn’t agree to any sort of reasonable solution or proposal. They just wouldn’t move. Their solution is to kill the critters.”

The cooperative wants the slaughter stopped all together. Its leaders have crafted their own alternative for the bison management plan which was not included in the draft EIS. The proposal includes herding bison back into the park come spring grazing season and replacing the state’s capture-test-and-slaughter pens with quarantine facilities. The bison herd would only be allowed to grow to a certain “carrying capacity,” while extra animals would go to tribes to bolster herds on reservations.

“Involvement of the tribes can be institutionalized in the management structure [of the park],” says Wapato. He says there are seven or eight tribes with treaty rights to areas in and around the park, and another 29 tribes that have used the area historically. In the future, the cooperative would like to see Indians hunting bison in Yellowstone. “We’re not saying we want the feds to stop the slaughter so we can kill them ourselves. The bison and Indian are tied culturally, traditionally and religiously, and keeping that culture alive from the 20th to the 21st century is very valuable.”

Cultural ties notwithstanding, Mike Mease, founder of the activist group Buffalo Field Campaign (formerly Buffalo Nations), says the tribes’ vision is too agrarian. A hunt? Well, maybe. But Meese says herding the animals back and forth with the seasons is too heavy-handed. “I don’t believe we need to domesticate the last wild herds of buffalo,” he says. “They should have the same rights as all other wild animals, be able to wander freely in the national forests.” A group of rag-tag but disciplined volunteers nicknamed “buffalo hippies” by an antagonistic Bozeman lawyer, Buffalo Field Campaign members are spending their third winter near West Yellowstone, poised to haze bison away from government sharpshooters and into the safety of the park. Mease says it’s not a real fear of brucellosis that’s driven the controversy, but questions of power and control.

“We’ve got to move away from buying into the brucellosis myth,” he says. “My feeling is this is about a range war, people worrying about their public lands being taken away by increasing herds of buffalo. If we were really worried about brucellosis, elk would be a much greater concern. Instead, we let 140,000 elk wander all over the place and get irate about 2,000 buffalo.”

Meanwhile, federal Judge Charles Lovell has stepped into the fray, ordering the agencies and the state to send representatives with decision-making authority to a closed hearing set for Feb. 4. “Because the Yellowstone National Park bison freely roam from time to time across the jurisdiction of both parties,” he wrote, “any lasting solution to the management of this herd seemingly requires the participation of both parties.”

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