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Know the West

A cheer for runaway bison and the Rocky Mountain Front


Anyone with a heart had to cheer the bison.

One recent snowy day in Great Falls, Mont., three of the half-ton creatures were being loaded off a truck into a slaughterhouse. One of the half-wild bovines busted through a five-foot timber corral and — bingo! — led a buffalo breakout. The three beasts stampeded through the busiest streets of this city of 57,000, their hooves slipping and sliding on the slushy asphalt.

In my imagination, the bison were heading for the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s what I would have done.

The Rocky Mountain Front, just north of Great Falls, is the dramatic landscape where the jagged limestone cliffs come crashing up over the Great Plains. When explorer Capt. Meriwether Lewis rode through in 1806, he estimated he could see 10,000 bison from one high knoll. Two hundred years later, the Front remains among the very best wildlife habitat in North America.

The Front is home to the largest herd of bighorn sheep in the United States and our second-largest herd of elk. It’s the only place in the United States where grizzly bears still venture out of the mountains, and onto the prairie.

The Front is nearly 500,000 acres of public land — mostly the Lewis and Clark National Forest, with some land under the Bureau of Land Management, and some owned by the state of Montana. It’s still sacred to many people of the Blackfeet Nation, who appropriately call it the "backbone of the world." I escape there myself, when the slaughterhouse of modern life seems to have me in a squeeze chute.

People like me go to the Front to hunt, to hike, to camp, and just to feel the power and drama of this place. No matter how many times I visit, the sweeping grandeur of the landscape makes me gasp. I love the Front so much I avoid writing about it, out of fear of attracting more people.

But the Front has a problem Americans deserve to know about, and that is the energy policy formulated by the Bush administration.

To put it simply, that policy moves energy extraction to the front of the line, when it comes to our public lands. I think of Blindhorse Drainage, a magnificent piece of habitat that the Bureau of Land Management considers an official "outstanding natural area." It is just that — outstanding and natural — and it’s clear to me the highest and best use is to keep it that way. But the Bush energy policy would put on the blinders and order: Drill it.

That galls me. It violates the will and determination of generations of Montanans who have worked hard to keep the Front the way we love it. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska may be getting most of the airtime in this debate, but the Front is equally at risk and equally valuable.

There is no place like the Rocky Mountain Front. But the West is scattered with special places to hunt, camp and explore. And many of them are also slated for energy extraction, no matter their higher values. The Washington Post reported that hunters around the nation — many of whom often vote Republican — are increasingly fed up with this notion that one industry has a new trump card on public lands.

Please understand that I drive a car and heat my house with fossil fuel. I agree that there are places on public land where it makes sense to extract energy. At the same time, it makes no sense to me that bulldozers, well pads and pipelines belong equally every place. In my book, the Front is one of those places where they do not belong, period.

All one has to do is travel north to Alberta, Canada, where the energy companies have been sucking wealth from under similar geology. Energy companies may profit handsomely, but the land, the locals and wildlife are poorer for it. The idea of replicating this industrial blight in Montana makes me shudder.

But what became of the bison streaking through the streets of Great Falls?

The hoof-race ended shortly. The animals caused a stir, got their photo in the local newspaper, but were shot down in a field and hauled back to the slaughterhouse. I suppose the owner was relieved to have them reduced to buffalo burger before they caused a traffic accident.

The bison, in the end, had nowhere left to go and be free. I hope Americans don’t find themselves someday in the same predicament.

Ben Long writes in Kalispell, Montana.