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 slushy
In my imagination, the bison were heading for the
Rocky Mountain Front. It’s what I would have done.
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.
The 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 into the prairie.
The Front is nearly 500,000
acres of public land -- mostly the Lewis and Clark National Forest,
some lands under the Bureau of Land Management, and some owned by
the state of Montana. I escape there myself, when the
slaughterhouse of modern life seems to have me in a squeeze chute.
It’s also still sacred to many people of the Blackfeet
Nation, who appropriately call it "the backbone of the
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 Front
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 administration.
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
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 equally valuable.
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
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 me shudder.
But what became of the bison
streaking through the streets of Great Falls?
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.