Sometime soon, a stock truck will pull alongside a prison-like fence in the upper Yellowstone River valley of Montana. Moments later, a gate will open and dozens of Yellowstone National Park bison will be herded like cattle onto the truck, just like some 1,400 of their wild brethren back in the bleak winter of 2007-08.
Only this time -- for the first time -- instead of heading off to an undignified demise in a slaughterhouse, these first of 88 Yellowstone bison will be destined for a long-overdue date with freedom.
After two years in quarantine pens north of the park, they are to be turned loose to roam across 12,000 acres of remote sagebrush and forest southwest of Bozeman, Mont. For anybody who cherishes iconic American wildlife, seeing these bison amble off the truck and wander toward a new horizon will be a moment worth celebrating. Some 150 years ago, the last great herds thundered across the Great Plains by the millions. Today, the bison is the only wild animal in America still largely confined by the boundaries of a national park.
Think about that. Such creatures as deer, elk, pronghorn, coyotes, bears, wolverines, badgers, skunks, eagles, marmots, moose, grizzly bears and even wolves are limited only by available food sources and their ability to coexist with humans. But wild bison are treated like livestock, kept behind invisible fences on territory that is a fraction of their historic haunts. When they follow their natural instincts and leave the deep snows of Yellowstone in search of winter forage, they are either hazed back into the park or rounded up and killed.
The dispersal of this small remnant from Yellowstone's priceless gene pool is an important first step toward a larger vision: Restoring wild, free-roaming American bison to appropriate public and tribal lands across the West.
Because media mogul Ted Turner owns these 12,000 acres, some are decrying the decision by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to park wildlife for five years on a private ranch. But just as these 88 bison were oblivious to the political boundary separating freedom in Yellowstone from likely slaughter just to the north, so will they be blissfully unaware that the vast expanses on which they'll feed come with a deed.
It is true that the temporary solution isn't ideal, but given that bureaucratic gridlock has thus far prevented the relocation of these disease-free bison to wildlife refuges, state parks or tribal lands, it is still a solution. At best, these bison would remain confined to the holding pens until they're necessarily returned to the park, where many would undoubtedly contract brucellosis and migrate back out during the next harsh winter -- only to be herded like cattle onto a stock truck headed in the wrong direction. At worst, they'll be slaughtered immediately to make room for the next wave of migrating bison, and two years of careful taxpayer-funded monitoring would be for naught.
Such treatment is almost unfathomable for this symbol of the American West, which is so otherwise revered that its likeness appears on our money, our flags, our national park logo and on the helmets of dozens of professional and college football teams. Now, the move of these bison to Turner's ranch, after numerous failed attempts to relocate them to tribal lands and a state park in Wyoming, is one of many hopeful signs that the conversation about bison is finally changing.
We could be on the cusp of an opportunity to create an American wildlife legacy that would rank along with the restoration of the wolf to Greater Yellowstone as one of the great ecological success stories of the 21st century. Montana is at long last taking steps toward creating a plan that could allow the return of bison to lands that haven't trembled under their hooves for 150 years, lands such as the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge and Fort Peck Indian Reservation. In addition, Wyoming's state veterinarian supports moving disease-free Yellowstone bison to Guernsey State Park.
But this isn't just a Yellowstone or Montana or Wyoming issue. Bison will continue to reproduce at prolific rates beyond Yellowstone's carrying capacity. They will migrate out of the park in winter, and as populations grow they will need homes outside of the Northern Rockies. Yellowstone bison continue to need champions to stop the slaughter and protect this icon of the West.
Jeff Welsch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the director of communications for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.