You may have seen news photos of the massive, shaggy beasts that are a national totem, standing more or less complacently while hunters approach. Easy as one, two, three, the animals come crashing down.
It's an outrageous sight, but strangely acceptable — the first hunting of Yellowstone National Park bison in 15 years. The last hunt died amid a barrage of bad publicity, because everyone saw that it was more like shooting animals in a cage. The hunt still boils down to that, but there's not much bad publicity now. Almost everyone finally realizes that our Yellowstone bison policy is a failure, whether or not we have a hunt.
It's also rich with ironies. Hunters have long been leaders of conservation, with a wild as well as a preservationist streak. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, responsible hunters organized to stop the over-hunting and market hunting that threatened the survival of many species. They supported the preservation of habitat, including the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, where the nation's once-vast bison herds were saved from extinction.
The park remains the primary sanctuary for wild bison. But over the years, the cattle industry has effectively taken charge of the park's bison. Because the bison carry a disease, brucellosis, that might spread to cattle, every time the bison population exceeds the capacity of the park's habitat, federal and state agencies protect the industry at all costs, using harassment, roundups and mass slaughterings to prevent the bison from roaming outside the park.
Livestock spread the disease to Yellowstone wildlife to begin with, and now the wildlife pays the price of protecting livestock. Going into this winter, due to a few good recent years, the park had about 5,000 bison, though the park's habitat can support only 3,000 long-term, according to biologists. So Montana's wildlife agency, with wide public support, began the new hunt, running a lottery and attracting thousands of applicants for the chance to get one of the 50 permits.
Hunters have bagged some 30 bison so far. The bison are so accustomed to being around tourists, a person with a gun can drive within a hundred yards of a herd that has no place else to go. Then the gunner finishes the nonchalant stalk by walking up to the specific target and shooting from a few yards away.
Meanwhile, in between the hunters, the agencies continue the policy of total control, using snowmobiles to do roundups of bison along the park's borders. They've trucked more than 550 of the park's bison to an Idaho slaughterhouse in the past few weeks, and more will be dispatched to that fate.
As unfair as the hunt looks, it's better than this industrial roundup and slaughter. It could also spur a solution. That's why the agencies hope to expand the hunt. If the bison are subjected to more hunting pressure, they'll learn to be more wary of people with guns. And an increasing demand for opportunities to hunt the animals enshrined on our nickels from 1913 to 1938 might also build political support for allowing them to roam beyond the easy access roads.
It's clear hunters can still be an impressive political force. They asserted their power magnificently two months ago, when a few Republicans tried to sneak a proposal through Congress that would have sold some public lands to mining companies and other developers. The National Wildlife Federation led a campaign that quickly enlisted more than 700 sporting and conservation groups, including many thousands of hunters. The broad-based, nonpartisan uprising halted the proposed selloff.
Hunters know that without wild lands, and animals roaming on their own terms, there can be no real hunting. Their next rallying could be for Yellowstone's bison. Groups like the Wildlife Federation are already working with willing landowners and agencies to move cattle off habitat outside the park, allowing bison more room to roam. And researchers are trying to invent a vaccine that could be used to protect bison, elk and cattle from the brucellosis disease, which would also lower barriers to roaming bison. Those efforts need more funding and leadership.
If more hunters call for opening the cage around Yellowstone's bison, and expanding the bison’s territory; if they demand solutions from the region's governors, legislators and members of Congress, it would be good for them, and for the animals, and for the nation as a whole. Those are good reasons for giving this outrageous hunt a try.