Big Game Hunting photo

The bison wars in Montana continue, ad nauseum, as a big snowpack forces Yellowstone National Park bison from the high country, yet again, to what should be their historic winter range. AP reporter Matt Brown wrote this account of the newest skirmish between non-hunting wildlife advocates and the Montana Department of Livestock.

(Check out some of the comments on the story from those who seem to despise the buffalo- “its not 1850 anymore dude” – the same inane comment I’ve been hearing from gun control advocates lately. Whatever modern world these folks have in mind for us, I’m going to have to say no.)

As usual, the hunting community is absent from the debate. Absent, despite the fact that the buffalo could be drifting north across lands purchased with $13 million in public money from the Church Universal and Triumphant and on to the grasslands of the west side of the Paradise Valley, to some of the best winter range, and the best wildlife country left on the planet. And we could be hunting them there, on the high ridgelines of the Gallatins, Tom Miner Basin, Cinnabar Creek. Most of that is public land, wild and open, perfect for hunting buffalo.

To those who say that shooting a buffalo is like hunting a stalled pickup truck, I would say that you have not had the chance to hunt wild buffalo in the Gallatin National Forest yet, so how do you know? And if they do “just stand there,” so what? The only thing ugly about Montana’s buffalo hunts in the past has been the fact that, as a species, we’ve declared them livestock, and treated them like the red-haired stepchildren of wildlife, instead of honoring them as the icons of the American wild, which is what they really are. They are enormous, ancient, powerful (maybe between them and the grizz, they can scatter some of the wolves in that country) and they deserve better treatment than they have been getting from us.

We deserve better, too. Like a freezer full of buffalo meat, and money for big game habitat improvements and winter range protections. Until recently, Ted Turner’s flying D Ranch charged $995 to shoot a yearling buffalo, and up to $4,000 for a trophy bull. This year, according to Brown’s AP story, we taxpayers have already paid to corral 400 Yellowstone buffalo that have left the Park. Many of those will be slaughtered, and the hardest part of the winter lies ahead. The recent past shows how awful it can get–in 2008, livestock officials shipped off 1,400 wild bison to slaughter.

There is a bonanza for hunters waiting to happen, if those bison from the Park are allowed to roam north to all that public lands winter range. The main issue, brucellosis, seems to be moot. While some of the bison do indeed carry the bacterial disease (which can cause spontaneous abortions in cattle), there’s never been a confirmed case where bison passed brucellosis to cattle. Elk carry brucellosis, too, and they have, indeed, passed the disease to cows (most recently in Wyoming, where the practice of feeding wild elk rather than protecting winter range is causing the disease to become more prevalent in elk herds). But the elk have a constituency: hunters who love them and will fight for them.

So far, the buffalo just have the non-hunting wildlife advocates on their side, especially the so-called “buffalo hippies” of the tireless group Buffalo Field Campaign. I spent some time on the buffalo hunts in 2006, and met buffalo hunters, and buffalo hippies, and game wardens and buffalo, and reported on it for High Country News . What I learned is this: it is time for all of us to work together and figure out how to turn the wild buffalo of Yellowstone free on the public lands. If the hunting public from across the US–the people who own these public lands–get behind it, it can happen. The rewards, both for hunters and for the buffalo, will be huge.