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George Ochenski crop

The near-extermination of the millions of buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains remains one of the great tragedies accompanying the “settling” of the West. That a tiny handful of these iconic animals survived is in large part due to the efforts of Michel Pablo, whose own people – the Salish-Kootenai – had also been victims of western expansion. Confined within the borders of Yellowstone National Park, that remnant population of bison persisted, despite being herded, hunted and harassed for a century. Now, thanks to last week’s decision by Montana’s Gov. Steve Bullock, those bison will have a little more well-deserved and long-withheld elbow room to roam under our Big Sky.

Those who are familiar with the saga of the buffalo and the long battle to treat them as wildlife – not livestock – have good reason to celebrate going into 2016. For the first time since their near-extinction, bison will now be allowed to live outside the park boundaries in Montana without being slaughtered. That more than 8,000 were killed in just the last few decades for the great sin of following their genetic instincts to migrate to less snowy areas every spring during calving season stirred worldwide protest and brought Montana a global black eye for intolerance.

Ironically, that intolerance was fueled primarily by the cattle industry, which feared the bison would transmit brucellosis – a disease that can cause ungulates to abort – to their herds. Or at least that was the sorry excuse put forth to the public for all these years since there has never been a documented case of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle in the wild. Not one. All recent cattle brucellosis incidents are believed to have come from elk – which not surprisingly are now equally in the cattle industry’s crosshairs.

Even more ironically, it was the cattle who infected the bison with brucellosis in the first place, not the other way around. Prior to the introduction of cattle to replace the once-abundant bison, there is no record of brucellosis in bison. The cattlemen gave the disease to the bison – and then slaughtered them so the bison wouldn’t give them back their unwanted gift. Despite the lack of any evidence that bison transmit brucellosis to cattle, industry spokespersons continue to condemn any effort, including what Bullock calls a “modest expansion,” to allow these noble animals, who far pre-date recorded human history, to roam free on the native range they once dominated.

According to Bullock’s decision, bison will now be allowed to roam year-round on about an additional 400 square miles north and west of Yellowstone’s boundaries. Only bull bison will be allowed to live year-round in the Gardiner Basin to the north of the park, ostensibly because bull bison don’t produce afterbirth, which the cattle industry claims can transmit brucellosis to their cows.

To the west, Horse Butte near Hebgen Lake will finally be home to bison that have doggedly refused to leave their spring calving grounds, despite intensive hazing by Montana’s Department of Livestock using ATVs, horses and helicopters to drive the bison and their newborn calves back into the park boundary.

The Horse Butte expansion is particularly significant since many of the residents and property owners there have implored federal and state officials to allow the bison to remain on their private and public property. But as noted by the Buffalo Field Campaign: “Even the decision to grant buffalo year-round habitat on Horse Butte has its devilish details, mainly in the form of a population cap: during fall and winter approximately 450 buffalo will be allowed to live there; during the spring that number rises to 600, which is terrific timing since that’s when the large herds come to Horse Butte for calving season; but by July the government will allow only 250 buffalo to remain.”

Indeed, the livestock industry has far from accepted any recognition of buffalo as part of Montana’s incredible wildlife heritage. Hunting, hazing and harassment will continue, despite the range expansion and Bullock is still pressing for limiting the population of Yellowstone’s bison herds.

But for now, there’s reason to raise a holiday toast to a small victory in a long-fought battle. Someday wild bison may once again thunder across the Great Plains in their eons-old hereditary habitat. That day is not yet come, but 2016 marks a tiny but significant step in the right direction, and for that, it’ll be a lot happier New Year for bison and their many, many supporters in Montana and worldwide.

George Ochenski's column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. Contact him at oped@missoulian.com.

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