Political war continues over bison herd


All is quiet on the western front of Yellowstone National Park. As 50 bison graze within a few miles of the park border near West Yellowstone. So far this winter the animals have had no reason to cross the park line; mild weather has made foraging easy.

Outside that boundary, in what has become an annual war between the cattle industry and bison advocates, the state of Montana killed nearly 3,000 bison between 1989 and 1999. Montana ranchers fear that bison could spread brucellosis to cattle, though that has never been documented in the wild (HCN, 12/22/97). But so far this season, the body count remains at zero, to everyone's relief.

Though the guns are silent, the fighting rages on in the political realm, with state and federal agencies at each other's throats. Since 1995, the federal departments of Interior and Agriculture had been working with Montana to develop a management plan that would satisfy the state's concerns, yet do away with unnecessary killing. Last spring, they released a draft environmental impact statement that would allow the bison some room to roam outside the park, keep bison and cattle separate, and kill those bison who stray too far at the wrong time of year. The plan also included assurances of help for Montana ranchers, should other states threaten to boycott Big Sky beef.

But state officials refused to budge from their zero-tolerance policy, and the partnership fell apart. Frustrated, the federal agencies sent a stern 14-page letter to Montana Gov. Marc Racicot Dec. 13, calling the state's position on bison "unreasonable," "unwarranted" and "without scientific foundation." The feds said they would craft a final management plan on their own; Montana could consider itself out of the loop.

The state responded by filing a motion in federal court to prevent Interior and Agriculture's end-run. "Whatever conclusions the federal agencies unilaterally draw will not be binding on the state of Montana," Gov. Racicot warned.

Indians want a seat at the table

"We believe the state of Montana had taken the National Park Service hostage," says Tim Wapato, executive director of the South Dakota-based InterTribal Bison Cooperative, which represents 48 tribes.

"They wouldn't agree to any sort of reasonable solution or proposal. They just wouldn't move. Their solution is to kill the critters."

The cooperative wants the slaughter stopped, and has crafted an alternative for managing park bison which was not included in the draft environmental impact statement. The proposal includes herding bison back into the park in spring and replacing the state's capture-test-and-slaughter pens with quarantine facilities. The bison herd would only be allowed to grow to a certain "carrying capacity," while extra animals would go to tribes to bolster herds on reservations.

"Involvement of the tribes can be institutionalized in the management structure" of the park, says Wapato. There are seven or eight tribes with treaty rights to areas in and around the park, he says, and another 29 tribes that have used the area historically.

In the future, the cooperative would like to see Indians hunting bison in Yellowstone. "At some stage, when the size and health of the herd permits it, we've talked about having ceremonial hunts," says Wapato. "We're not saying we want the feds to stop the slaughter so we can kill them ourselves. The bison and Indian are tied culturally, traditionally and religiously, and keeping that culture alive from the 20th to the 21st century is very valuable."

No end in sight

Cultural ties notwithstanding, Mike Mease, founder of the activist group Buffalo Field Campaign (formerly Buffalo Nations), says the tribes' vision is too agrarian. A hunt? Maybe someday, he allows. But Mease says herding the animals back and forth with the seasons is too heavy-handed.

"I don't believe we need to domesticate the last wild herds of buffalo," he says. "They should have the same rights as all other wild animals, be able to wander freely in the national forests."

Mease and other volunteers - nicknamed "buffalo hippies" by an antagonistic Bozeman lawyer - are spending their third winter near West Yellowstone, poised to haze bison away from government sharpshooters and into the safety of the park.

Meanwhile, federal Judge Charles Lovell has stepped into the fray, ordering the agencies and the state to send representatives to a closed hearing set for Feb. 4. "Because the Yellowstone National Park bison freely roam from time to time across the jurisdiction of both parties," he wrote, "any lasting solution to the management of this herd seemingly requires the participation of both parties."

Andrea Barnett writes from the Paradise Valley north of Gardiner, Montana.

You can contact ...

* Yellowstone National Park at 307/344-2015;

* The Montana Department of Livestock at 406/444-2023;

* The office of Montana Gov. Mark Racicot at 406/444-3111;

* Tim Wapato with the InterTribal Bison Cooperative at 605/394-9730;

* Mike Mease with the Buffalo Field Campaign at 406/646-0070.

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