Buffalo once thundered across this vast river valley in southwest Montana but now the only evidence of the animal that symbolizes the untamed American West is its image on a national park sign.
WISDOM, Montana Buffalo once thundered across this vast river valley in southwest Montana but now the only evidence of the animal that symbolizes the untamed American West is its image on a national park sign.
By the late 19th century, the systematic hunting of American buffalo, or bison, had cut their numbers from the millions to the dozens. Today, domesticated buffalo are commercially ranched throughout the West, but the nation's only wild herd of purebred bison is at Yellowstone National Park.
Now the herd is again at the center of a controversy because it harbors brucellosis, a disease that can cause stillbirths in cows. Nearly one in five -- 947 -- of the bison herd were sent to slaughter this winter for fleeing Yellowstone's snow-covered high country for food outside the park in Montana where cattle graze.
Bison advocates are outraged by the slaughter, which is authorized under an agreement between Yellowstone National Park and Montana's Department of Livestock. But Montana ranchers say the buffalo endanger the state's prized brucellosis-free status, which allows producers to ship their cattle across state lines without testing.
Fresh on the heels of Montana's first bison hunt in 15 years, Gov. Brian Schweitzer has charged into the debate, aiming to broker a deal between ranchers and buffalo admirers.
Schweitzer wants to expand the range the herd may roam outside Yellowstone National Park and would pay ranchers not to graze their cattle on the same land. He also has proposed increasing hunting permits for buffalo to up to 500 annually from 50 to help cull a Yellowstone herd that last year numbered 4,900, a record high since it was established in the early 1900s.
"I'm trying to come up with a solution that actually makes sense," Schweitzer said.
The rancher-turned-governor is promoting his plan even as a government operation last week to push buffalo back into the park using a helicopter and ATVs stirred fresh discord.
COWBOYS VS NATURALISTS
There is no documented case of brucellosis transmission in the wild from bison to cattle, and most of the animals killed this winter were not tested for the disease. Elk in the Yellowstone area also carry brucellosis, but the popular game animal has not evoked the same ire in Montana's $1 billion livestock industry.
Ranchers want to see bison confined within Yellowstone's unfenced boundaries whatever the cost.
"We need to do whatever it takes in the state of Montana to make sure those (brucellosis) transmissions don't occur," said Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
By contrast, the activist Buffalo Field Campaign says Yellowstone's bison herd has already suffered "carnage."
"People should be very disturbed when the government comes in and starts executing wildlife," said Buffalo Field Campaign board member Scott Frazier.
The debate in America is mirrored in Canada, where officials are toying with killing off the 4,500 free-ranging bison at Wood Buffalo National Park because of the beef industry's fears about brucellosis.
Underlying the dispute about the Yellowstone herd is a perennial debate in the American West about public lands, pitting its cowboy culture against nature lovers.
The conflict is heightening even as tourism is eclipsing ranching as a leading economic engine and newcomers are flocking to the Big Sky State for its scenic beauty and abundant wildlife.
Cattle graze near Yellowstone mostly on federal acreage and Montana's ranchers fear the push to protect the park's bison is a thinly veiled attempt to drive them from that land.
"Some advocacy groups would like to see cattle off public lands and have it only used for wildlife," said Montana Department of Livestock Director Marc Bridges.
Bison advocates say the country's last wild herd cannot afford to be lost.
"But maybe the public would rather have snowmobiles in the park rather than bison," said wildlife biologist Mary Meagher, a critic of the bison-management plan who worked with the Yellowstone herd for 35 years.