A Montana legislator attracted national attention recently by placing bison at the center of an elaborate conspiracy to “bring our populace into perfect dependence on big government” and drive the price of gasoline to $25 a gallon.
Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, made that claim in a widely circulated blog, drawing national coverage by Huffington Post. In his dispatch, Kerns proclaimed bison the agents of Karl Marx and efforts to restore some of the animals to native prairie habitat in eastern Montana a leftist plot to stop oil production.
Welcome to Montana’s lively debate over bison.
If you’re just tuning in, Kerns’ musings might strike you as surprising. It’s crazy talk, of course. But extremist rhetoric figures prominently in public discourse as the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks embarks on a two-year analysis of the pros and cons of restoring one or more modest herds of wild bison somewhere in the state.
FWP has just begun work on an environmental impact statement and draft statewide bison-management plan. Decisions are years away, but merely examining the issue of restoring some bison as wildlife has sent some folks over the rhetorical pishkun.
Not all opponents are as fanciful as Rep. Kerns, but many ranchers describe doomsday scenarios for their industry. They see bison as possible carriers of disease, destroyers of fences and competitors for grass that could feed cattle. In a statewide series of meetings FWP held in May, opponents predicted economic ruination for rural Montana, backyard gardens torn up by bison, mayhem on the highways and a grave risk of goring for people wandering afield. Some predicted bison would prove harmful to the environment. More than one critic linked bison restoration to a United Nations conspiracy, code-word: “Agenda 21.”
Psychologists describe such talk as “catastrophizing” – the failure to see anything but the worst possible outcome. It’s not healthy.
In reality, bison restoration is an interesting possibility in which we Montanans can control the outcome. Restoration is not without challenges but it’s full of opportunities. Most Montanans will see that the opportunities are attractive, the challenges solvable.
One thing is certain: The worst fears of Rep. Kerns and other catastrophizers will never materialize. Nobody’s talking about bringing back millions of bison or letting them roam wherever they please, much less sacrificing our oil economy for them.
We have only a few undeveloped landscapes large enough and otherwise suitable for wide-ranging wild bison. The most likely prospect is the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, straddling the Missouri River Breaks and Fort Peck Lake, in northeastern Montana. The refuge has 1.1 million acres dedicated to native wildlife conservation. Some Indian reservations also have space and habitat for modest herds. The Fort Peck Tribes recently accepted 61 Yellowstone bison from the state as a start on a new herd on their reservation. Perhaps FWP’s study will identify other potential places for bison, but the list of sites won’t be long.
In restoring bison, Montanans can start with genetically pure, disease-free animals, placing them in ideal habitat and managing them to reduce or resolve conflicts with ranchers. Since 1941, Utah has successfully managed a herd of some 400 wild bison in the Henry Mountains, where they coexist with cattle. If Utah did it, Montana can do it.
Ranchers in immediate proximity to a wild bison herd have legitimate concerns about damage to fences and the potential for bison to stray onto and damage private property. Ranchers have good reason to insist a new herd of bison is disease-free. Their valid concerns must be adequately addressed – just as they are regarding other wildlife.
The point is that those concerns can be addressed. We can do this. People like Rep. Kerns who fear the worst possible outcome from bison restoration are in for a pleasant surprise.
Working together, Montanans can figure it out, as we’ve done in restoring elk, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep and all our other once-depleted wildlife. A herd of bison in, say, the CMR would become a tremendous asset to Montana – a tourist attraction, hunting opportunity, cultural touchstone and great source of identity and pride. Bison are part of Montana’s rich wildlife heritage, not some communist plot.
Steve Woodruff is a writer and former newspaperman in Missoula working with the National Wildlife Federation to restore bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.