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for people who care about the West

Let’s hunt wild bison instead of plugging them where they stand


I’m a hunter, and I believe that the recent decision by Montana’s officials to postpone a bison hunt near Yellowstone was a stroke of bold leadership. It was also downright gutsy and the right thing to do.

It earned Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the state game commission a lot of uninformed criticism. They’ve been charged with knuckling under to animal rights groups from out of state and with "alienating hunters" who dearly wanted to bag a bison.

That’s not what’s going on. At the game commission hearing where the decision was made by a 4-1 vote, hunter after hunter from Montana — including Joe Gutkoski of Bozeman, who was once featured in Field & Stream magazine as "The Toughest Man in the Rockies" — spoke out against the proposed hunt and urged a postponement. I did the same.

Why? Because I want to hunt truly wild bison someday, and I want my son to hunt wild bison someday. But that won’t happen overnight.

As nearly all the hunters speaking at the commission meeting pointed out, before we can have a fair-chase hunt for bison, the magnificent animals need to be managed as free-ranging animals and given room to roam. Management of bison needs to be transferred from the Department of Livestock, where the animals don’t belong, and turned over to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Bison are wildlife, and they need to be allowed to migrate out of Yellowstone National Park to their traditional winter range.

When they try to cross the park boundary now, state agents haze them back or shoot them. Sometimes, the slaughter is horrendous — 1,100 animals during the winter of 1996-97. This year, only three have been killed, yet this is no way to treat a magnificent wild animal.

Killing bison that stand their ground with docile dignity and calling that a hunt would once again bring an outcry from the public. That’s what happened in 1991, and the national protest then caused Gov. Mark Racicot to bow to pressure and cancel a bison hunt.

As State Game Commissioner Tim Mulligan said at the recent hearing on this year’s proposed hunt: "This wouldn’t be a slow beginning to bison hunting; it would be a swift end."

What really chafes hunters isn’t Gov. Schweitzer or the commission, but some people in the livestock industry. Steve Pilcher, director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said he’d like to see a "free-ranging bison hunt." But as long as bison might carry a disease — brucellosis — that threatens Montana’s cattle economy, he added, he’s against it.

This, even though there is no known case of bison transmitting disease to cattle in the wild. Paradoxically, the livestock industry also continues to support game farming where the spread of disease is prevalent. What Pilcher really reveals is that no fair-chase hunt will come into being as long as the Department of Livestock and the cattle industry maintain control over the fate of 4,000 bison.

A bill before the state Legislature called the Montana Wild Buffalo Recovery and Conservation Act, would help create a long-term, sustainable hunt. Backed by the Montana hunters of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, the legislation would classify wild bison as "valued native wildlife," turn management over to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and protect private property rights and the cattle industry’s disease-free status through cooperation with the Department of Livestock under existing law.

Best of all, bison would be allowed to roam onto their winter range, and hunters would be able to hunt bison that get to behave like wild creatures.

One of the most encouraging things to emerge from the recent commission meeting was the mostly high level of debate. Hunters emphasized not only their concern for wildlife, but also for the manner in which they pursue prey. Of course, there were those still entrenched in the "old ways," who took the opportunity to take verbal potshots at others.

One commissioner — the only one opposed to postponing the hunt — managed to bring New York City, Hitler and Nazis into the discussion. However, most everyone else seemed to have in-depth knowledge of the issues and wanted to find real solutions, such as creating a larger area for bison to roam and instituting a full public hunting season. It’s not here yet, but as Gov. Schweitzer likes to say, we’re closer to "a new day in Montana."

David Stalling is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He lives is the president of the Montana Wildlife Federation and lives 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 [email protected].