Helena's Buffalo Bills 

As Montana livestock officials once again ship Yellowstone National Park's bison to the slaughterhouse by the truckload, those animals fortunate enough to survive the winter may have a powerful new ally in the state legislature.

Before winter is out, lawmakers will have the chance to vote on bills designed to stop the wholesale killing by livestock gunmen, extend the animals' winter range to public lands outside the park, and calm ranchers' fear of disease. It almost sounds too good to be true, but the proposals have a surprising amount of bipartisan support. The key to it all recalls the Vietnam-era policy of burning a village to save it: Legislators are proposing to bring back the bison hunt.

First and foremost, says Representative Hal Harper (D-Helena), is the need to get the Department of Livestock out of the business of managing wildlife. Instead, authority over bison would be transferred to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"Wild animals should not be under control of the Department of Livestock," Harper says. "Wild bison should be classified as a game animal and regulated by the department that regulates wildlife."

A new bill in the Montana Legislature proposes to reclassify Yellowstone National Park’s bison as game instead of livestock.
Photo by Chad Harder

That part of Harper's proposal has won enthusiastic support from the most active of bison advocates, Buffalo Nations. Former Missoulian Mike Mease, co-founder of the group now spending its second winter in West Yellowstone protecting the bison who wander out of the park, says shifting authority would be a tremendous step forward.

"That would be great, it's our main agenda," he says. "After watching the DOL haze and torment the whole ecosystem, really, we see they've got a lack of respect for any of the wildlife out here."

A second bill, sponsored by Hungry Horse's Republican Representative Doug Wagner, is more controversial, but vital to making any deal happen: the hunt. Harper, who supports the idea, emphasizes the need for a so-called "ethical" or "fair chase" hunt. The amount of land needed for such a hunt, he says, would help solve the problem of limited winter range.

"There'd have to be enough area. You can't gun them down in a feedlot," he says. "That ties the issue to winter range. You can't expect large animals to confine themselves to mountain tops and expect them to winter there."

Harper sees potential for letting bison graze on national forest land, as well as land recently acquired by the federal government in a swap with the Church Universal and Triumphant on the northern edge of the park.

"That way they could expand their winter range, and then we'd make sure they're back in the park by spring to minimize the threat of brucellosis," he says.

Proponents of the measures point out that the annual slaughter, which combined with bad weather in 1997 to wipe out half the park's herd, has been fueled by concerns over brucellosis, a disease brought to North America by European cattle and carried by bison and elk. Elk, they say, have escaped similar attempts at eradication because they benefit from a strong hunting lobby. Hook-and-bullet support for bison could translate into much stronger protections for the animals.

It's a theory Mike Mease finds troublesome.

"Our worry is that we don't know if there is a viable population," he says. "The herd still hasn't recovered from the '96-'97 slaughter … We're also worried about the 'island population' effect. We ought to be spreading out the genetics to other parks and Native American herds. Until the science and background on what the ecosystem can handle is there, I don't think we can jump right into a hunt."

And Buffalo Nations is concerned about more than just the science; its members routinely talk about our social relationship with the bison-one which used to be sacred. They fear a hunt on white man's terms would merely resurrect the profane policies that nearly led to the animals' extinction early this century.

"The notion of a fair chase hunt is a European philosophy. Any pre-Columbian people would just as soon have the animal stand there and willingly give its life," Mease says. "Fair chase is European in the sense that it's a game-you're trying to take advantage of the wildlife."

The bills' success will likely hinge on the willingness of the Department of Livestock to relinquish its authority over bison to wildlife managers. At press time, DOL officials had not returned the Independent's phone calls.

Nevertheless, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say they believe 1999 will be the year the killing stops.

Representative Wagner, who wore a buffalo robe in House chambers last session to promote a hunting bill, says ranchers who opposed him in 1997 are now lining up quietly in support. "Now, we've got some serious consideration," he says. "If we can get some rancher to carry it, with that kind of support it will go."

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