That Montanans subsidize the ranching industry with millions of public dollars annually is no great secret. But a recent proposal by ranchers in the Paradise Valley to require the use of hunter license fees to fence their lands and extend the season on lethal elk control measures is an over-the-top bad idea.
That Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is even considering it shows how defunct the agency is in conducting its real business, which is protecting and enhancing our publicly owned wildlife, not subsidizing ranchers who are enjoying record high prices for their cattle right now.
The issue, like the ongoing bison slaughter, is inherently connected to the disease brucellosis, which can cause ungulates to abort. It is a disease that was brought to the state by cattle ranchers, whose livestock then transmitted it to our wildlife. For decades, the ranching industry demanded that Yellowstone National Park’s wild bison be slaughtered en masse if and when they left the boundaries of the park.
Since the ’80s, an estimated 7,500 bison have been sacrificed on the altar of the sacred cow. Their only sin was following their hereditary migration routes to lower elevations when deep snows covered Yellowstone. But merely the process of seeking food brought the last remnants of the millions of bison that once thundered across the Great Plains into contact – and competition – with domestic cattle. Their sentence for that great transgression was death, carried out mercilessly, indiscriminately, and to the great discredit of Montana in the eyes of the nation and world.
That the park is now planning on killing 600-800 more migrating bison this year is unforgivable. But that’s not enough to satisfy the cattle ranchers. Now they want to treat elk the way they have treated bison, killing them indiscriminately because of the mere potential that they might transmit brucellosis to cattle.
Having successfully contained bison, ranchers in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park were caught by surprise when some of their herds that had not been in contact or even near bison showed up with brucellosis. The only place they might have gotten the disease, so their reasoning goes, is from wild elk. But as everyone knows, elk are not bison, and are not so easy to find, herd, corral, vaccinate or quarantine.
And so, reason the ranchers, the best and easiest thing to do is kill them or, in their vernacular, exert “lethal control.” In the meantime, they’re holding out their hands seeking funding from hunter license fees for fencing their private property to keep the elk out of their feeding and calving areas.
Although it is illegal for the general populace to harass wildlife, Fish, Wildlife and Parks already allows ranchers to haze and kill elk until the end of April. But now, they want to extend that to mid-May, well into elk calving season.
It’s worth noting that cattle are now bringing record high prices of $1.42 a pound on the commodity market. That means every one of those cows dotting the landscape is worth somewhere between $1,000 to $2,000 depending on their weight. Is there some reason that ranchers, like most other businesses, can’t afford to take care of their own lands given the enormous windfall these high prices are reaping for their industry? And what could possibly be the reason they think hunters, who actually help control elk populations, should be the ones to pay?
Even more ironic is that wolf opponents claim wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone “decimated” the Paradise Valley elk herd from its high of 19,000 animals. But apparently that’s still not good enough for the ranchers, who want to kill even more elk because of the mere threat of disease transmission.
But here’s the rub: while there is clear statutory authority to kill and haze elk under Montana’s game damage laws, there is no specific statutory authority for Fish, Wildlife and Parks to haze, harass or kill elk simply for the threat of transmitting disease to domestic livestock. In other words, Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is now contemplating spending hunter license fees – and harassing and killing public wildlife – without specific legal authority to do so.
The time has finally come for Montana’s hunting and wildlife community to finally just say “no” to more ranching subsidies and the slaughter of public wildlife. You can do so by submitting comments online at fwp.mt.gov or in writing to FWP Wildlife Bureau at PO Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701.
George Ochenski writes a weekly column for the Missoulian’s Monday Opinion page. He can be reached at email@example.com.