Those are our buffalo, pardner (CON)

  • Greg M. Peters


The buffalo skull that adorns the Montana state quarter is supposed to honor a majestic animal. In truth, it more accurately stands for the state's abysmal treatment of these icons of the West.

Over the years, thousands of bison leaving Yellowstone National Park have been hazed and killed on the grounds they might be diseased and dangerous to cattle. Then the state and the U.S. Agriculture Department cooperated in an experiment. A couple hundred bison were quarantined and thoroughly tested for the contagious disease brucellosis. Eighty-eight of these bison remain in quarantine, free of the disease, but funding for the program has run out and the state failed to devise a plan for the bison. This gave rise to a dilemma: What to do with the tested animals?

An overly influential ranching lobby protested every attempt to move the brucellosis-free bison to public lands near their precious cattle, including to state wildlife management areas. State officials also rejected as inadequate tribal proposals to house the bison. At the same time, the state insisted it could not afford to care for and feed the bison any longer.

Stymied and without an approved plan, state officials threatened to fall back on their tried and true solution to bison roaming out of Yellowstone: slaughtering them. Since 1985, the Montana Department of Livestock has partnered with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and federal Agriculture Department to prevent buffalo from roaming outside of Yellowstone National Park. These efforts have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and have caused the senseless deaths of more than 6,600 wild Yellowstone Bison.

Senseless, because no case of bison-to-cattle brucellosis transmission has ever been documented; in fact, only female bison can transmit the disease at all. Elk, however, have transmitted brucellosis to cattle; there was a well-publicized case this past fall. Yet despite the known risk, there has never been an elk slaughter program. To further the bitter irony of this situation, brucellosis is not even an American disease. It was introduced to Yellowstone bison in the early 1900s, when their calves were fed milk from infected European cattle introduced to the region.

And so, faced with no good options, Montana's Gov. Brian Schweitzer called on a rich friend -- Ted Turner -- for help. Turner responded by offering to house the buffalo for five years in exchange for 75 percent of their offspring, or about 190 animals. Turner explained that it would cost him roughly $480,000 to feed and care for the buffalo, and the offspring would offset his costs while also adding genetically pure bison to his herd, estimated at more than 50,000 animals. Turner would then return the original bison plus 25 percent of their offspring to the state. What the state would do with the bison at that point remains a mystery.

The whole plan stinks. Federal officials, tribes and many conservationists have all criticized the Turner solution. Opponents point out, for example, that the language permitting the program stipulated that the quarantined buffalo would "remain wild and noncommercial."

Despite public opposition to the plan, the state on Feb. 1 reaffirmed its decision giving Turner get all 88 bison and allowing him to keep 75 percent of their offspring as payment for housing them. After five years, he has to return the original 88 bison to the state, thereby skirting the privatization issue, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks department explained.

Josh Osher, policy coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, doesn't think this makes the deal acceptable. "For us, the quarantine program is another indication that the Interagency Bison Management Plan is a failure. In the end, this is a handshake deal between Montana's governor and Ted Turner."

This sort of back-room dealing is disrespectful to the bison, to the tribes, and to the American people. These bison belong to the nation as a whole, not to the state or to the governor or a man with money.

For 25 years, Montana has encouraged the slaughter of these majestic creatures. Now, foot-dragging, poor planning, and cronyism have set the dangerous precedent of privatizing and commercializing wild animals. Clearly, we need a new management plan. We need a plan that is based on science, not fear, one that will allow bison to repopulate Western ranges naturally and permit tribes to manage bison on their reservations.

Americans everywhere deserve a policy that ensures that America's last remaining herd of wild bison is respected and afforded the dignity that they have been denied for over a century.

Greg M. Peters is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Feb 11, 2010 09:06 PM
So, let me see if I have this straight:

1) Turner is only keeping the bison temporarily. It will still ultimately be up to the State to determine their long-term fate.

2) He's keeping 75% of the offspring for his own use. Ok.

3) Bison have been used commercially for quite a while, right? How is this any more of a "commercialization" of bison than all the other already existing commercial bison operations? In fact, if anything, wouldn't it be less of one, since those bison on loan from the State will be returned, instead of slaughtered?

Honestly, I'm trying to understand just what exactly is such a big deal about this.
What Smithhammer Said: What's the Big Deal?
Feb 11, 2010 11:52 PM
Couldn't have said it better, Smithhammer. Thanks.
Thos Barnes
Thos Barnes
Feb 12, 2010 07:57 AM
Only fair decision regarding bison is return them to the care of the tribes. Any commercialization is better than casinos and reservation lands, while poor for most purposes, would support these range friendly animals.
Show Me The Money
Cody L. Custis
Cody L. Custis
Feb 12, 2010 11:44 AM
This is yet another article from the all hat and no horse environmentalist community of Missoula. Greg does not like slaughtering bison. Greg does not like giving the bison to Ted Turner. So, Greg’s proposed solution is … not proposed.
There is a reason why Ted Turner can implement solutions to Montana’s bison problems. Ted Turner, as a successful businessman, has the resources to create an alternative to bison slaughter. Those like the Buffalo Field Campaign and Greg are big on rhetoric, short on resources.
So, I’ve got a real solution. Put the bison on eBay, to the highest bidder, to care for or slaughter within Montana’s brucellosis plan as the bidder sees fit.
On the recent bison decision for the quarantined
william barkley
william barkley
Feb 12, 2010 02:51 PM
If I had to trust a rich man then, probably, it would be Mr Turner. He has become a great philanthropist, maybe the best when it comes to the environment and endangered species. The real problem is the stubborness of the cattle industry and the equivocation in the Brucellosis argument. Mr Peters has a clear picture of the situation and I hope he continues writing on it.
These Ain't Pets for the Rich and Elite
Andy Wakefield
Andy Wakefield
Feb 12, 2010 03:09 PM
I'm surprised to see so many staunch defenders of the rich, powerful, and elite posting on this article.

Here's why I oppose handing the bison over to Turner:

Turner should not be allowed to take animals that belong to the public to be utilized for his own schemes for privatizing nature.
   Turner is one of the largest private land owners in the American West--and this precedent does not bode well for our common heritage in public lands.
   Less than a hundred buffalo should not be overly burdensome for our public land managers to deal with in a manner that bennefits these animals and not wealthy individuals.
   Turner's interest in keeping the offspring from these bison surely has to do with his pathetic ecotourism/hunting businesses promoted on his various and vast ranches located throughout the American West.
   Instead of commercializing wilderness, let our public lands be spaces that leave room for plants and animals to do thier own thing, rather than function as just another commodity for the elite.
So what do you propose?
Feb 12, 2010 04:01 PM
Oh, please. My defense of this plan, or rather, my inability to see anything so terrible in it, has nothing to do with Turner being "rich, powerful, and elite." Get over your tired classicism.

Yes, he is the single largest private landowner in the country. So what? How exactly does this, "not bode well for our common heritage in public lands?" That seems like an easy comment to throw out there, but it's really nothing more than presumptive hyperbole, is it? How exactly is the private land that Turner owns, not to mention the millions that he has put into conservation and restoration on much of that land, such a looming threat to our public land?

And if Turner has commercial interests for the offspring, so what? I don't know about you, but I'm capable of both enjoying wild bison for the impressive native animals that they are, AND enjoying the hell out of a lean, healthy bison burger now and then. Try it - you might like it.

And ultimately, what are you offering as an alternative? That we should, "let our public lands be spaces that leave room for plants and animals to do thier own thing, rather than function as just another commodity for the elite." Wow, profound and practical. Have you considered a career in public lands management?
Public or Private, It's Our Choice
Andy Wakefield
Andy Wakefield
Feb 12, 2010 07:47 PM
It is not just Turner, of course, who poses a threat to our public domain. It is also other wealthy individuals out there--but primarily corporations--that are treated the public domain as though it is their own pile of so-called "resources." We see it with timber, oil and gas, and grazing industries. All of them are similar in that they would turn our public resources into their own private profits.

Turner, to be sure, represents a type: an incredibly wealthy person who has the POWER to buy big chunks of land, influence politicians to "loan" him bison, and fulfill his own pathetic nature tourism/hunting schemes.

In a word, Turner represents corporate-governmental problem that we are facing in this country--where the poltical and corporate elite unite to hoard the whole cake and then throw a couple crumbs back to the public in the name of philanthropy, conservation, humanity.

It's not just Turner who I oppose, but anyone out there who would carve down our public domain--whether land, resources, or (in this case)animals down to their little private enterprises.

My question to "Smithhammer" is this: Why such a staunch supporter of Turner? Do you work for him or something?

As for me, I don’t think this particular issue is a big deal, whether Turner gets the animals or not. The significance of the issue, of course, lies in its symbol: the symbol that the powerful and wealthy can fulfill their own desires for privatizing public nature ("resources") to fulfill their own desires--and in this case even having the nerve to call it conservation.
Feb 12, 2010 09:43 PM
Andy -

I'm not a "staunch supporter" of Turner, nor do I work for him. I have absolutely no vested interest in what Turner does at all. I just think you guys are making a big deal out of something that doesn't really seem to be, nor offering any real, practical solution as an alternative, either.

On top of that, I think your attempted point (and I use that word generously) meanders all over the place. It's already been made clear that Turner isn't privatizing, nor jeopardizing, any public land at all. Nor is he taking ownership of these bison - they are to be turned back over to the state. What exactly is he "hoarding?" What exactly is in so much danger?

And then, after going off on a whole diatribe about the guy, and this issue, then say that you actually don't think this issue is a big deal? Weird.
To Defend the Wealthy or To Not
Andy Wakefield
Andy Wakefield
Feb 13, 2010 08:51 AM

I hate to belabor my point here, and promise to cut it off after this.

But I think the point I am trying to make is very clear. Turner, thorough his incerdible wealth and political connections, is gaining access to public property--buffalo--to fulfill his own ends. Turner's ranches are run to turn a profit, and perhaps the largest revenue-generating operation he has is selling buffalo meat. So, yes, the 100 animals will be returned, but Turner will keep about 180 of their offspring to add to his already 50,000 hoard of buffalo roaming on his private ranches for ecotourists and hunters willing to pay a premium price for their little adventures on Turner's private nature "preserves." Oh yea, and Turner is turning his buffalo--and our buffalo--into something resembling the modern cattle industry by turning the animals into burgers.

As for the solution: give the buffalo free access to our public lands. If they can support all those diseased cattle, these lands cans surly support a hundred buffalo. This is the best use our public domain can be put to--providing space (habitat) for plant and animals to do, yes, their own thing.

And please refer to the last two lines of my previous comment, just in case you missed my reasoning as to why I am opposed to this. My opposition is simply to the rich and wealthy getting whatever they want--but particularly when what they want is public property.
Our Buffalo
Ghina Murphy
Ghina Murphy
Feb 16, 2010 11:00 PM
Well said. The bison are one of few animals known to adapt to different landscapes. Science sure wasn't used to make the decision for these bison.
Let 'em roam!
Feb 12, 2010 05:08 PM
The quarantine program is a fraud (as this sorry outcome illustrates--no where to go with the domesticated "product" of their costly experiment but a private landowner) and the American taxpayer is getting soaked to foot the bill. Yellowstone is surrounded by public land and wilderness already owned by the American people, but because of livestock industry politics & greed, bison aren't allowed to migrate onto it or establish a resident herd in Montana. Hellfire, bison aren't even considered WILDLIFE in Montana! The solution is to designate public land adjacent to the park as WILD bison habitat and let 'em roam, just as other wild native wildlife do.
Wayne Hare
Wayne Hare
Feb 13, 2010 07:30 AM
You think THIS is weird? Weird is that this essay about the fate of BUFFALO drew a flurry of 10 comments. The two stories about the fates of PEOPLE in Mountain View, NM and the SWOP letter drew a combined total of FOUR responses. This is a perfect example of why poor communites have no love or trust for the environmental community. The SWOP letter was dismaying 20 years ago and seems to still be. THIS is what you have your panties in a wad about?!?!? I'll bet my heard of buffalo against your herd of bison that not one of you even knows Ted Turner.
J Peck
J Peck
Feb 15, 2010 09:36 AM
I don't get the problem here. I go to the market and buy buffalo meat, doesn't that suggest bison are already being bought and sold? My only problem here is why on earth are ranchers so ignorant about where the disease is coming from? If it's elk and not bison, well, I know they like to hunt elk; is this just a case of people putting the blame on bison in order to avoid the truth and keep the elk around for hunting?
Devil in the Details
Greg M Peters
Greg M Peters
Feb 16, 2010 10:11 AM
Thanks for all the comments.

I want to clarify a couple of points and elaborate on my opinion just a bit. To begin, I have no problem with Ted Turner or his bison operation. Mr. Turner has been an excellent steward of his land and the wildlife that live on it, and he should be lauded for his conservation ethos. I have a problem with the State of Montana allowing the Department of Livestock - who's only concern is to find ways for the ranching industry to wring as much profit from their operations as they possibly can - to dictate how a WILD, FREE-ROAMING, wildlife population that belongs to all Americans is managed.

As far as solutions to this problem go, I wrote at the end of the article that the American people deserve a bison management plan based on science, not fear, and that allows bison to survive the winter without harassment or slaughter. If that means buying out ranching leases or creating a compensation fund for ranchers whose cattle are infected by brucellosis, then let's start a fund, I'll be the first to donate. If, as was the case here, the two choices offered are slaughter or turning wild bison over to a wealthy individual who will gain profit from the transfer, then clearly turning the bison over is the best option.

Other solutions that I also mentioned in the article are to turn the bison over to the tribes, place them on State Wildlife Management Areas which are designed for this purpose, or other public range lands. It is not the environmentalist community in Missoula, or the Buffalo Field Campaign specifically, that are preventing solutions to this problem. Rather it is the Montana Department of Livestock's insistence that slaughter is the only solution - even for bison that have been quarantined for five years and have no brucellosis - that has prevented any forward progress on this issue for over 25 years.

In essence, my "beef," and the point of my opinion piece, is that the State waited and waited until the last minute to make a plan for these bison therefore backing itself into a corner and setting a precedent for the transfer of wild animals to private individuals. If the state had simply done the leg work to find a home range for these bison, none of this would be at issue. But it didn't, it stalled, and caught with its pants down, State officials decided to give the bison to the Governor's rich pal.

What will happen when the DOL wants to start eradicating elk - the only know transmitters of brucellosis to cattle in the last century? Will they simply round up the elk near Yellowstone and give them to elk ranchers in Idaho? According to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, as long as the ranchers gave some of the animals back, it would be just fine.

Again, thanks for the comments. Fortunately, it does seem like the Inter Agency Bison Management Team is starting to stand up to the Montana Department of Livestock and is starting to craft a management plan that does not encourage slaughter and harassment.
wild vs commercial bison
Soapy Smith
Soapy Smith
Feb 16, 2010 08:53 PM
The difference is that "commercial" bison are bison that have been bred over generations for private/commercial use. They are not genetically pure, and many have been bred to some degree with domestic cattle. The bison in question are the last wild, "free-roaming" herd in the US. (Free roaming is questionable, since the feds won't tolerate them outside of the Park). The biggest problem I see is the precedent it sets for future deals between commercial interests and the agencies privatizing our wildlife.