Last week Montana’s Gov. Greg Gianforte, in a stunning display of historic ignorance and political arrogance, decided to unilaterally put an end to an effort allowing Yellowstone Park’s wandering bison to be distributed to Tribal Nations and federal lands in Montana.
While claiming he was “protecting Montana’s ranchers,” the real effect of his action was to foolishly throw more than 20 years of hard work by legislators, biologists, federal and state agencies, ranchers, conservationists and Tribal Nations in the garbage can — and undoubtedly returning Montana to national and worldwide scorn for its senseless and brutal attacks on the nation’s last wild bison.
Those Montanans who were here in the 80s — which Gianforte was not — will recall the shame that descended on our state when pictures of bloody bison slaughtered in the snow showed up on the front pages of papers around the world. They were mercilessly shot down for the great crime of simply wandering out of Yellowstone National Park in search of forage and less harsh calving grounds.
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The excuse used by the state to justify the slaughter was that the bison might be infected with brucellosis — a disease that can cause cattle to abort. Although it was originally the cattle that gave brucellosis to the bison, there has never been a confirmed case of brucellosis transfer from bison to cattle in the wild. But it’s theoretically possible and so the remnants of the millions of bison that once roamed the Great Plains were senselessly slaughtered, just like their ancestors.
The incredible blowback from the nation and world forced the development of a plan to deal with the wandering bison in a more humane manner than death at the end of a long rifle. To say it was an incredibly difficult challenge would be a great understatement. Nonetheless, after years of hard work the Interagency Bison Management Plan was finalized and put into place to coordinate federal and state actions.
Part of that plan included a complex, multimillion dollar operation to capture and quarantine Yellowstone’s wandering bison to ensure they were brucellosis free and then distribute them to Tribal Nations to restore the herds on their own lands.
It’s worth noting that plan was formalized into law while Republican majorities controlled both chambers of the legislature and Republicans Marc Racicot and then Judy Martz were governors. Moreover, it was Montana’s Republican Sen. Conrad Burns who stepped up to promise he would personally get the federal money to build and operate the capture and quarantine facilities.
It’s also worth noting that despite their concerns about disease transmission, many of the ranchers in the Montana legislature were well-versed in cattle genetics. That Yellowstone’s bison carried valuable genes passed down over millennia was something they could understand, as well as why Tribal Nations would want to preserve and breed those animals.
The plan — and the combined efforts of all involved — has been working for 20 years. Tribal Nations have received shipments of brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison, have invested in bison-proof fencing, and once again have bison — which have been integral to their people for cultural and spiritual purposes for thousands of years — roaming and reproducing on their own lands.
Yet now, with no replacement plan in hand, Gianforte has decided to foolishly — and without a shred of good cause — put an abrupt end to a working operation crafted, approved, and successfully implemented by members of his own political party. Shame on you, Gov. Gianforte, for your anti-bison, anti-Tribal, and anti-Montana decision halting the safe and humane transfer of disease-free Yellowstone bison for nothing more than cheap political theater.
George Ochenski writes from Helena.