Anyone with a heart had to cheer the bison.
One recent snowy day in Great Falls, Mont., three
of the half-ton creatures were being loaded off a truck into a
slaughterhouse. One of the half-wild bovines busted through a
five-foot timber corral and — bingo! — led a buffalo
breakout. The three beasts stampeded through the busiest streets of
this city of 57,000, their hooves slipping and sliding on the
In my imagination, the bison were heading
for the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s what I would have
The Rocky Mountain Front, just north of Great Falls,
is the dramatic landscape where the jagged limestone cliffs come
crashing up over the Great Plains. When explorer Capt. Meriwether
Lewis rode through in 1806, he estimated he could see 10,000 bison
from one high knoll. Two hundred years later, the Front remains
among the very best wildlife habitat in North America.
Front is home to the largest herd of bighorn sheep in the United
States and our second-largest herd of elk. It’s the only
place in the United States where grizzly bears still venture out of
the mountains, and onto the prairie.
The Front is nearly
500,000 acres of public land — mostly the Lewis and Clark
National Forest, with some land under the Bureau of Land
Management, and some owned by the state of Montana. It’s
still sacred to many people of the Blackfeet Nation, who
appropriately call it the "backbone of the world." I escape there
myself, when the slaughterhouse of modern life seems to have me in
a squeeze chute.
People like me go to the Front to hunt,
to hike, to camp, and just to feel the power and drama of this
place. No matter how many times I visit, the sweeping grandeur of
the landscape makes me gasp. I love the Front so much I avoid
writing about it, out of fear of attracting more people.
But the Front has a problem Americans deserve to know about, and
that is the energy policy formulated by the Bush
To put it simply, that policy moves energy
extraction to the front of the line, when it comes to our public
lands. I think of Blindhorse Drainage, a magnificent piece of
habitat that the Bureau of Land Management considers an official
"outstanding natural area." It is just that — outstanding and
natural — and it’s clear to me the highest and best use
is to keep it that way. But the Bush energy policy would put on the
blinders and order: Drill it.
That galls me. It violates
the will and determination of generations of Montanans who have
worked hard to keep the Front the way we love it. The Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska may be getting most of the
airtime in this debate, but the Front is equally at risk and
There is no place like the Rocky
Mountain Front. But the West is scattered with special places to
hunt, camp and explore. And many of them are also slated for energy
extraction, no matter their higher values. The Washington Post
reported that hunters around the nation — many of whom often
vote Republican — are increasingly fed up with this notion
that one industry has a new trump card on public lands.
Please understand that I drive a car and heat my house with fossil
fuel. I agree that there are places on public land where it makes
sense to extract energy. At the same time, it makes no sense to me
that bulldozers, well pads and pipelines belong equally every
place. In my book, the Front is one of those places where they do
not belong, period.
All one has to do is travel north to
Alberta, Canada, where the energy companies have been sucking
wealth from under similar geology. Energy companies may profit
handsomely, but the land, the locals and wildlife are poorer for
it. The idea of replicating this industrial blight in Montana makes
But what became of the bison streaking through
the streets of Great Falls?
The hoof-race ended shortly.
The animals caused a stir, got their photo in the local newspaper,
but were shot down in a field and hauled back to the
slaughterhouse. I suppose the owner was relieved to have them
reduced to buffalo burger before they caused a traffic
The bison, in the end, had nowhere left to go
and be free. I hope Americans don’t find themselves someday
in the same predicament.