No one better captured Montana’s quintessential spirit at the close of the frontier period than American painter and writer, Charles Marion Russell. “Charlie” Russell’s depictions of life on the range, as exemplified in “Judith Basin Roundup” helped romanticize and mythologize the “cowboy roundup” in American culture.
Sadly, today a wildlife “roundup” is taking place in the Gardiner Basin north of Yellowstone National Park, and there is nothing sentimental about it.
Yellowstone’s roaming wild bison, as iconic to western America as any portrait painted by Russell, are being driven into chutes and pens to be later trucked to slaughter houses. This tragic state of affairs is largely to blame on Montana’s Department of Livestock (DOL), which clings to an outdated view of livestock management not embraced by many progressive ranchers. The result of appealing to the base fears of some livestock grazers and stirring controversy has led to decades of stalemate over the fate of bison that leave the narrow confines of the Park, and seemingly unending conflict.
In its efforts to promote the interests of the less progressive wing of its industry, the DOL continues to promote a “bison as livestock” management model, complete with the obligatory roundup and handling of these wild animals… a “solution” devised to solve a problem defined mostly by the still unfounded fear that bison will spread a disease called brucellosis to cattle, and that this will devastate the cattle industry in Montana as we know it.
The DOL continues to perpetuate this myth and the overblown reactionary response with the intention of frightening politicians and the public, and to pressure the National Park Service and others to conform to its “bison as livestock” management model. Indeed, DOL wants the public and agency officials to believe that bison leaving Yellowstone National Park in winter – which they do to naturally avoid the deep snows of the Park – are a threat to the livestock industry through potential transmission of brucellosis to livestock, though there is no documented case of this occurring.
In truth, some traditionalists in the livestock industry have had little tolerance for any wildlife competition with cattle…and the DOL’s efforts to do whatever it takes to keep wild bison out of the state seem to align with that group.
But apart from their overzealous and misplaced fear of bison, there is no rational need for this slaughter, and a lot of Montana landowners know it. Defenders believes it is long past time to stop shipping bison to slaughter; there are much better ways to manage Montana’s bison population and the valuable genetics of the Yellowstone herd. Working with several local coalition members, Defenders has pioneered practical coexistence solutions with landowners around Yellowstone National Park that have proven effective in increasing social tolerance for the species. This coalition gives landowners near Yellowstone National Park financial and technical assistance to keep roaming bison out of gardens, landscaping, yards or livestock pastures. This program has been incredibly successful in helping local communities adapt to roaming bison on the landscape. Because of the success of the Yellowstone program, eight more projects are already lined up for completion this year, with more likely to come.
As Charlie Russell himself wrote to a friend in 1926,
“.. the west… owes much to the humped back beef in the sketch above (his sketch of a bison). The Rocky Mountains would have been hard to reach without him….he fed the explorer…the great fur trade wagon tranes (sic) felt safe when they reached his range….he fed the men that layed (sic) the first ties across the great wes ….the nickel weares (sic) his picture….dam small money for so much meat….he was one of nature’s biggest (sic) gifts and this country owes him thanks…..”
Let’s give the bison the respect and space they need. Defenders is calling on Governor Steve Bullock to use his authority to move forward a process to expand the tolerance zone outside the Park and to halt this slaughter. As of last week, more than 56,000 Defenders members contacted Governor Bullock requesting that he put an immediate stop to these killings. Progressive livestock managers recognize the value of wildlife. Click here to urge Governor Bullock to do the same, and to take a leadership role in finally resolving the Yellowstone bison issue!
— Steve Forrest, Rockies & Plains Senior Representative