Bison comeback meets resistance on the ground

  • Little Missouri Grassland and Theodore Roosevelt Nat'l Park

    Diane Sylvain
  • CATTLEMEN: Jerry Anheluk, Alan Wosepka and Randy Mosser

    Mark Matthews photo
  • BISON ADVOCATE: Charles Jonkel

    Mark Matthews photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

MEDORA, N.D. - Though bison graze on a national park and some ranches here, they aren't catching on in Medora, where for generations the industry has been cattle.

Some see it as just another of the get-rich-quick schemes that periodically sweep through agriculture. Everyone on the bison bandwagon is "looking at bison as a novelty, like the potbellied pig," says Alan Wosepka, a local cattle rancher.

"When people realize the (bison) meat isn't that damn good to eat," the demand will recede, Wosepka says. "Cattle have survived market swings for 100 years and kept ranches afloat," and it would be a mistake to abandon them now.

This isn't just ranchers talking. In Plains towns like Medora, cattle are a way of life for everyone from the businessmen who drive out to their ranches after work, to the youngsters who hope the 4-H bulls they are raising will pay for their first year in college.

Ironically, they are making their stand against bison exactly on the habitat that most resembles the bison's traditional range - the national grasslands.

The 1 million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands sprawls outside Medora, surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its penned-in bison. Another 19 national grasslands are scattered from Nebraska to Oregon - a total of 3.8 million acres. That's close to double Yellowstone National Park's 2.2 million acres, but unlike Yellowstone, these Great Plains grasslands are almost entirely surrounded by private agricultural land and dying small towns. The Great Plains have not yet attracted urban migrants.

All that public grassland might be imagined as akin to native prairie, ripe with wildflowers, antelope and prairie dogs - and ripe for a bison comeback. But the land has a history. Beginning in the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s, as homesteaders went bust, the federal government offered people a way out by buying back marginal farms. Today, what was once farmland is managed by the U.S. Forest Service as the national grasslands - used for oil and gas development and recreation, but mostly for grazing allotments.

Because they were once farmed, the grasslands sprout exotic grasses such as timothy, crested wheatgrass, smooth brome and bluegrass, as well as noxious weeds like leafy spurge, instead of the native green needlegrass and little bluestem. Most of the prairie dogs were eradicated long ago.

Although the grasslands are by no means a pristine and wild prairie, the land is also no longer tightly fenced and plowed. Grass grows year after year where row crops were once sowed and where mountains of soil blew east during the Dirty Thirties. This land is edging back toward what it once was.

A tough issue

The question now facing the national grasslands is whether to take another step backward - or is it forward? - and bring back the descendants of the animals that once freely ranged this land. It is a contentious issue.

Most of the grazing leases on the national grasslands are held by cattle ranchers. Bison are allowed on many other federal grazing allotments, but not on much of the grasslands. Many grazing associations prohibit all livestock other than cattle. Sometimes there's what could be called a Cattle Commons - two or more ranchers running cows on the same grass. Even on unshared allotments, there is concern that if one rancher converts to bison, that might create problems for other cattlemen.

The objections are not theoretical. A local rancher, Larry Ulsaker, has tried to keep a herd of 60 bison on his private land. Three years ago, Ulsaker's bison broke through a fence onto a neighboring cattle ranch and wreaked havoc.

"My cows scattered with the bison," says Randy Mosser, the neighbor. "I've got mostly white calves and the bison were fascinated by them. The calves would run away from the bison and the bison would chase after them. The calves never mothered up properly after that."

In a more recent escape, in spring 1997, five bison bulls got through Ulsaker's fence and did what comes naturally - they wandered more than 100 miles west, ending up in Glendive and Baker, Mont., where they were rounded up by local sheriffs.

Ulsaker admits his fences weren't the best. "I just didn't get it done right. I set a bad example," he says. Further, in his herd, two older bison cows from off the ranch were mixed with calves he had raised since birth. As Mosser puts it, "Adult bison often want to go back to from where they came."

From the start, there was trouble

Noble intentions began the campaign to bring back the bison, in the early 1980s, with two Montanans who wanted to help save family farms and ranches in the arid eastern half of their state. Charles Jonkel, then a University of Montana wildlife biology professor, and Bob Scott, a sometime rancher, proposed that farmers and ranchers manage some of their land for wildlife, and charge people who wanted to hunt, photograph or just view the animals.

"It would be like a third crop," Jonkel says now. "We hoped that in time the ranchers would band together to create bigger blocks of land."

The idea, dubbed the Big Open and expanded to feature bison, found support outside the region, including stories in The New York Times. But some locals in eastern Montana saw it as a trampling of individual property rights. There were veiled threats against Jonkel and Scott, and after a while Jonkel went back to his bears and to managing a wildlife film festival, and Scott returned to ranching.

The idea didn't disappear; it was enlarged under another working title, the Buffalo Commons, by Frank and Deborah Popper, who, as critics never tire of pointing out, are from New Jersey. The Poppers envisioned dismantling hundreds of thousands of miles of barbed-wire fences. Bison could return big time, roaming again from horizon to horizon (HCN, 2/2/98).

If the Buffalo Commons could be created, the Poppers said, tourism and bison-related industries would revive the region. Ranchers could forget foreclosures. There would be work for their children. Towns would revive. Native prairie, the nation's most endangered habitat, would recover, along with a full mix of native wildlife.

Outsiders expected locals to rally around the idea. It promised relief from a life that is harsh, what with drought, hordes of crop-consuming grasshoppers and the notorious winters.

Families tend to date back to European immigrants, lured here in the early 1900s by railroad-backed promotions that promised easy farming and ranching. North Dakota, for example, recorded its highest human population in 1930; it's been demographically downhill ever since.

In some places, nine out of 10 downtowns are deserted and paved roads are being reclaimed by windblown sand and weeds pushing up through the cracks. Billings County, home of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, has less than one person per square mile. The county would have to double its population simply to bring it up to the "end-of-the-frontier" standard set by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1890.

Perhaps as a result of that history, the Buffalo Commons has been greeted with anger and resentment around the region, perhaps because it paints so rosy a future. The people who survive on the rural plains have learned from the mistakes of their ancestors - never trust anyone who says things can be better.

So the return of the bison is opposed by ranchers like Mosser, whose family has been raising cattle here since 1903. As president of the Medora Grazing Association, which prohibits bison from grazing on the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Mosser has always been a cow man, probably always will be.

"From my experience, people can't keep" bison fenced, Mosser says. Jerry Anheluk, vice president of the association, agrees in part. His grandfather emigrated from the Ukraine and homesteaded in North Dakota in 1907. Over the years, the family bought out about a half dozen other ranches or farms that they turned into ranches. Anheluk now runs 350 cows, the maximum allowed by the association on national grassland leases to ensure that most spreads remain family businesses.

Anheluk isn't convinced that bison are the wave of the future, though he's not against the idea if ranchers who switch "show proof they are able to contain the animals and that they are willing to take on the financial responsibility should (the bison) get out."

The association took action against bison rancher Ulsaker for not fencing his herd properly. Even though Ulsaker kept his 60 bison on private land and used his public-land permit for grazing cattle, the association threatened to subtract 60 animal-units from Ulsaker's permit and sell them to another rancher. That meant Ulsaker would have lost those grazing privileges, whether his bison panned out or not. So Ulsaker plans to sell off his bison.

"I hate to do it," he says, "but it will keep the peace in the neighborhood."

Such anti-bison rules, which are allowed by the Forest Service, have been targeted by the general public and the region's chapters of the Sierra Club. "We believe the Forest Service has to provide additional incentives for ranchers who want to raise bison," says Kirk Koepsel, a Wyoming organizer for the environmental group. "The Forest Service could rearrange allotments to ensure that anyone who wants to raise bison can make the switch."

All the national grasslands in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska are undergoing management reviews that are mandated about every 10 years - and that presents an opening for the bison. "It is one big ecosystem," says Larry Dawson, a staffer on the Little Missouri Grasslands. "The Northern Plains grasslands all face similar issues and are similar ecotypes. We didn't want a fragmented approach."

A draft of the new management plan, released last year, drew 3,100 public comments. The Sierra Club helped to generate many of them, and administrators were taken aback when about half of the comments raised the bison issue.

"The dominant comment was to make the grasslands more buffalo-friendly," says David Cawrse, planning officer for the Northern Great Plains unit of the Nebraska National Forest, north of North Platte.

But even the Sierra Club isn't openly advocating that ranchers tear down fences and remove cattle. The group pushes for incentives to encourage ranchers to switch voluntarily to bison, and for federal range specialists to teach ranchers how to make the switch.

"Couple the economic incentives with the buffalo mystique and you've got a good recipe for success for all parties concerned," says Wayde Schafer of the Sierra Club's Dacotah Chapter. "We are asking the Forest Service to remove some of the obstacles if a public-lands rancher wants to raise bison."

Basically, the environmental group's public position is to help ranchers build higher, tougher fences, and to encourage the Forest Service to help pay for such fences through cost-sharing, as it does for cattle ranchers.

Meanwhile, in Montana where the idea originated, Jonkel believes the Big Open has partly come to life. Up to 50 percent of ranchers in the territory he defined as the Big Open have enrolled in Montana's "Block Management Program," run by the state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Under it, ranchers are paid to allow hunting on their land. "The state is slowly and quietly doing the same thing we tried to do," Jonkel says. "People out there want to see for themselves how a thing works. They don't want to be told by someone else."

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