The West’s bison have endured enough

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The Montana House passed a resolution (HJR 28) aimed at frustrating efforts to restore bison to the Great Plains. The resolution asks that Bureau of Land Management deny American Prairie Reserve’s request to graze public lands adjacent to lands they acquired. Grazing privileges on these lands have traditionally transferred to new owners.

One feature making our democracy great is the fact that wildlife in America is a public resource managed by the states for the public. Montana has done pretty well with the restoration of elk, deer, moose and all other large game, however, when it came to bison restoration, neither the state nor the federal government can generate the will to do it. Fortunately, American Prairie Reserve does have the will. People in our democracy have often taken that step on behalf of wildlife when the “trustee” faltered. The Boone and Crockett Club did it in 1887; Ducks Unlimited did it; the National and State Wildlife Federations formed; and recently the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Now comes one of the final steps – restoring wild bison – declared our national mammal on April 27, 2016 by the U.S. Congress and president of the United States. In Montana, official holders of the public trust stand silent while the Montana Legislature quivers in fear of adding this final piece to the wildlife restoration saga. For a state that has been the leader of wildlife restoration, this is an epic embarrassment to endure as this American saga nears the finish line.

In 1876, 80,000 buffalo hides were shipped downriver from Fort Benton alone. Theodore Roosevelt, who was hunting and ranching in the West, wrote in 1885: “A ranchman who … had made a journey of a thousand miles across Northern Montana, along the Milk River, told me that … during the whole distance he was never out of sight of a dead buffalo, and never in sight of a live one.” A year after Roosevelt’s publication, the U. S. Cavalry rode into Yellowstone National Park to prevent the last handful of wild bison from being poached into extinction.

Our national mammal has been through a lot. In the 1980s game wardens and park rangers led shooters to kill every bison that set a hoof into Montana. While that practice was mercifully terminated, bison can still lay claim as the most harassed public wildlife on earth. They are currently subjected to hazing, chasing, herding, prodding, poking, penning and sent to slaughter houses.

The irony is that this treatment it being delivered by agencies created to be the custodian of our precious wildlife resources. The bison has endured enough. This is an animal that is the Department of Interior’s mascot (since 1849), on the National Park Service’s logo (since 1951), the national mammal (2016), and whose skull was engraved on the official Montana quarter in 2007. It is time to do the right thing for the bison.

Jim Posewitz lives in Helena

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