# (A Sad) MontanaMoment

If you’re in Seattle you’ve probably seen billboard advertisements highlighting the beauty of Montana, with a #MontanaMoment.. One billboard shows a herd of bison roaming a Yellowstone landscape. Ironically, bison don’t really roam free as the advertisement suggests.

Let Bison Roam

In response, our campaign, alongside the Gallatin Wildlife Association authored an op-ed in the Seattle Times. We argue how “Science, economics, public opinion and common sense make clear that opening up significant year-round bison habitat in areas without livestock conflicts is the logical path forward. Doing so would give the state more management options and flexibility. More fair-chase hunting opportunities would be created. Fewer taxpayer dollars would be wasted on unnecessary hazing, capture and slaughter. Wild bison would finally be allowed to roam portions of Montana, bringing ecological and economic benefits and sharing the landscape with all of the other wild animals that call Montana home.”

Tourism is the money maker in Montana, representing 70% of the State’s revenue (Lamar Advertising). It makes sense that the State is targeting cities with residents who would be enticed by beautiful landscapes and scenes of wildlife. What doesn’t make sense is the State’s treatment of bison.

Governor Steve Bullock has the authority to allow the bison to roam. So why hasn’t he yet?



Kiersten Iwai is the Sierra Club’s GYE campaign’s newest organizer. Questions, comments, want to help out? Contact her at




Categories: bison | 1 Comment

It’s just an outdated Board of Livestock…

When I was sixteen, my family took a road trip to Yellowstone National Park. I watched in awe at the herds of bison roaming the fields and creating traffic jams in the roads.I didn’t realize that six years later i’d return, not as a visitor, but as an organizer for the Sierra Club, working as a bison advocate. I moved to Bozeman, MT mid-April, from San Diego, CA. In the past month-and-half I’ve been here, I’ve visited the Park a few times. And each time i’m greeted by bison, and their bison calves feeding, playing, and sleeping.


To a Park visitor, bison represent iconic wildlife to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; but to some southwest Montana residents, bison represent the contentious politics of the region. Such contention of this magnificent creature has led to the federal and state agency slaughter and hazing of bison, with hundreds killed each year. Even helicopters are used to chase the bison back into the Park. Before I started working here, I never knew any of this. My ignorance led me to believe that of course the bison must be protected. After all, they do live in Yellowstone National Park, and what’s more protected than a national park? And I don’t think i’m alone in this line of thinking.

And while this issue has been nationalized in the past, the bison fight has gone on for too long. I find that many people are tired of hearing about bison and frustrated by the inaction and lack of state leadership. The deeper you dig into the politics and history of bison management in the region, the more twisted and counter-intuitive it all gets.

A couple weeks ago I attended a Board of Livestock meeting. At this meeting, the Board was supposed to vote on expanded bison habitat, with a “compromise” of a decreased number of bison. Instead, they chose to indefinitely postpone the vote. The livestock industry representatives bashed on bison with complete hatred, and fear, for the animal.

Despite this, there’s been progress. The proposal for expanded habitat only arose because of a citizens working group that achieved what was thought to be impossible – consensus base recommendations. The group consisted of both wildlife advocates, and representatives from the Stockgrowers Association. Furthermore, we are working with other NGOs on a coexistence fencing project to build bison tolerance with landowners surrounding the Park. And after the Board’s vote, Governor Bullock mandated that the hazing of bison can occur on private property only if there’s landowner permission.

And this is where we are. It’s 2014, with new science and knowledge surrounding brucellosis and bison, but with an outdated law and an outdated Board of Livestock. To the Park visitor this summer, I hope you respect the bison’s boundaries, and understand that after enduring a harsh winter, they have to endure a harsh haze back into the Park. To the local residents, I hope you join me, and others, in building bison tolerance, in raising awareness, and in advocating for expanded bison habitat. Just because the Board of Livestock remains inactive, doesn’t mean that we have to. Call Governor Bullock TODAY at (406) 444-3111. Urge him to take strong leadership on expanded bison habitat.

Stay tuned for future posts of this bison installment.


Kiersten Iwai is the Sierra Club’s GYE campaign’s newest organizer. Questions, comments, want to help out? Contact her at


Categories: bison | Leave a comment

Tribes, wildlife advocates rally for bison



HELENA – Kill the bills, not the buffalo.

That was the message of many Native American leaders who spoke at the Rally for the Future of Montana’s Buffalo, held Tuesday in the Capitol rotunda.

During this session, legislators have proposed a dozen bills that would affect bison in varying degrees, from allowing people to shoot them on sight if they stepped outside Yellowstone National Park to allowing wardens to tell hunters the location of bison.

Only five bills remain alive, but Montana’s tribal councils said that’s still too many.

“All these bills are going to create conflict between the tribes and the rest of Montana,” said Ken Ryan of the Fort Peck Assiniboine tribe. “But we’re all Montanans and we want peace; we want friendship.”

Ryan then sang a solemn Assiniboine song that calls the bison. Then he led a peace-pipe ceremony on a bison hide in the center of the rotunda, sharing with nine leaders from the four reservations and five tribes in attendance.

More than 80 observers, around half of which were Native American, watched the smoke curl through the crowd as Ryan sang, offering the pipe to each leader.

Host Thomas Christian of the Fort Peck said the sacred ceremony was appropriate because bison are spiritually symbolic to First Nations people.

The five speakers who followed Ryan also highlighted the spiritual connection with bison as justification for anger over bills that they perceive as being slightly racist.

Fort Belknap Reservation president Tracy King said he believed the anti-bison bills are unconstitutional because they impinge his religious beliefs by restricting his access to wild bison.

“When I face racism, I know it. It’s like a cold wind: You can’t see it, but you can feel it,” King said. “Don’t destroy our culture.”

The Fort Belknap reservation has managed a bison herd for years, but wants more Yellowstone bison, which are most closely related to the historic plains bison.

“These bills almost feel anti-Indian. Let’s find a better way,” said Intertribal Buffalo Council President Ervin Carlson.

After the rally, the tribal elders took their case to Gov. Steve Bullock.

Of the five bills that are still alive, lobbyists expect that two are the most likely to make it to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 305 changes the definition of “wild buffalo” to an animal that has never been in captivity or owned by a person. It will be heard in the House Agriculture committee on March 21.

Some oppose this definition because it would mean that Yellowstone bison held for even a short time would become livestock.

House Bill 396 would require county commission approval before bison could be transplanted into an area. This would affect the tribes because it could eliminate the possibility for augmentation or initiation of their herds.

Elizabeth Azure of the Fort Belknap Reservation said the Blaine County commissioners usually defend farmers’ interests so they probably would block bison transplants.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Azure said. “We have two people on the commission who are trying to help, but when election time comes, it’s hard to say if they’ll still be there.”

HB 396 will be heard in the Senate Fish and Game committee next Tuesday.

Wildlife advocates traveled from around the state to attend the rally, including several Bozeman representatives of the Sierra Club, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and the National Resources Defense Council.

Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Jonathan Proctor said they were mainly showing support.

“This affects the tribes more than anyone,” Proctor said. “Not many legislators came to watch, but I’m sure they heard it.”

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said the 2011 Legislature already hammered out a law to allow Fish, Wildlife & Parks to take a serious look at the potential to have bison on public lands. So bills like HB 396 that would allow other agencies to step in should be tabled, Gevock said.

“The 2013 Legislature should honor that compromise and let it move forward,” Gevock said.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or Follow her on Twitter at @llundquist.

Categories: bison | Leave a comment

Will Montana finally accept the gift of wild bison?

Migrating wild bison are “hazed” back into Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Field Campaign, .

When the heavy snows of winter descend upon Yellowstone National Park each year, some of the world’s last remaining wild bison begin an ancient migration out of the high plateau of the park to lower elevations in search of forage and spring calving grounds.   Unfortunately for the hungry bison, they are not welcome in the State of Montana due to concerns that they’ll transmit a disease called brucellosis to the state’s domestic cattle.  Bison that migrate onto Gallatin National Forest lands adjacent to Yellowstone National Park are “hazed” back into the park.

In a remarkable show of force, approximately $3 million taxpayer dollars are spent each year to pay for helicopters, ATV’s, horses, and personnel to separate a few wild bison from a few cattle– a mere 2,000 trucked each spring onto grasslands outside the park near Gardiner and West Yellowstone.   Montana’s Department of Livestock argues that these strict measures are needed to protect the state’s livestock industry from the economic threat of brucellosis, while others argue that the draconian measures are based on bad politics rather than sound science.

Setting the stage for the return of wild bison

While the debate continues, much has changed in recent years, setting the stage for the possible return of wild bison to public lands in Montana.  For starters, many grazing allotments on Gallatin National Forest lands have been retired, creating a much larger area of minimal conflict land for bison to use.  Additionally, in 2010 a significant relaxation of federal brucellosis regulations has greatly diminished the economic threat that brucellosis presents to stock growers.  Under the new regulations, ranchers that experience a case of brucellosis only have to removed infected animals rather than depopulate the entire herd.  We also now know that elk are the main vectors for brucellosis in Greater Yellowstone.  While there has never been a case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle in the wild, elk have spread the disease to Montana’s cattle numerous times.  This raises an important question: If elk and bison both carry brucellosis, why are bison confined to the park while elk are allowed to roam and managed as valued native wildlife?

It’s a good question, and the answer lies in the understanding that brucellosis is a political front for an issue that runs much deeper than matters of sound disease management.   It’s a battle as old as survival itself: Whose land is this and who controls it?  Bison and cattle are in direct competition for grass, and many ranchers will tell you that like wolves, bison were exterminated from the landscape for good reason.

The good news is that despite many years of controversy, Montana’s Livestock industry remains as vibrant as ever, and Montana is finally on the verge of accepting the gift of wild bison that Yellowstone Park offers up every winter.

In 2008 the Government Accountability Office recommended that the state and federal agencies responsible for coordinating management of Yellowstone’s wild bison seek more public participation in management decisions.  In an effort to comply with this recommendation, the state provided funding for a diverse group of ranchers, conservationists, wildlife advocates, residents of Yellowstone’s gateway communities, and other interested to take a look at areas where management of Yellowstone bison can be improved.  After meeting for near a year, the diverse bison citizens working group (CWG) passed historic consensus recommendations calling for the State of Montana to begin a public process to consider, among other things, opportunities for designating the first year-round habitat in Montana.

This public process is well underway and the state is likely to release an official proposal for year-round habitat in December of 2012 or January of 2013.

How you can help

Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone campaign supports Montana’s proposal to give Yellowstone’s wild bison more room to roam, and we encourage our members and supporters to speak up in support of year-round bison habitat in Montana.  Please send a message of support to MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks Region 3 Supervisor, Pat Flowers, at   For more detailed talking points contact Zack Waterman at ‘

With your help we can ensure the return of wild migrating bison to Montana’s public lands.

Categories: bison | Leave a comment

Wild Bison Facing the Storm

Their Ice-age origins have given us bison well suited for “facing the storm”.  During severe weather, bison face, and travel, into the wind.  Their frontal anatomy is well-suited for this strategy and they travel out of, not along with, the storm.  However, the greatest threat to today’s bison is domestication.  Bison are intensively managed, even in our so-called “conservation” herds.  This “storm” of domestication is replacing the wild bison we have known.  —  We do not pass bison on to our grandchildren.  We pass along the bison genome, the genome we are domesticating.  To save wild bison, we must rewild the species in some large reserves of wild land.

Guest submission courtesy of Jim Bailey of Belgrade, MT.

Categories: bison | 2 Comments

Killing bison’s migratory instinct

Great opinion piece on management of our last wild bison in the Great Falls Tribune:

It is summer in Yellowstone National Park. Some visitors are busy photographing bison and elk grazing together near a multi-colored thermal pool. But their cameras do not record these two ungulates’ radically divergent lives.

Many of the bison have gone through a hazing operation this spring. In the middle of calving season they have been forced back into the park, driven from their historic birthing grounds just outside the park by a coalition of government agents. Every year they converge on horseback and in pick-ups, squad cars and helicopters. Calves are often injured. Uncooperative bison are shot.

Elk on the other hand are left alone to calve and migrate where they please.

These annual operations are conducted by agents from the Montana Department of Livestock, National Park Service, Forest Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

It is worse for bison in winter. Much worse. As snow deepens high in the park, bison often descend to find forage and protection from sub-zero temperatures. Waiting for them in ambush is this same coalition of government agents stationed along their migratory routes.

But instead of hazing them back onto park land, agents herd them into a stockyard in the park and ship them to a slaughterhouse. Hundreds are destroyed annually. In 2008, a total of 1,600 were killed.

Following the harsh winter of 1996-97 when more than 1,000 bison were slaughtered trying to leave the park, Mike Finley, the park’s superintendent, expressed shock at what he witnessed:

“When people describe what’s happening here as a national tragedy, I don’t disagree with them. … We are participating in something that is totally unpalatable to the American people, and it’s something we are not convinced that science justifies,” he said.

Why is this being done to wild bison, the animal Congress is considering as America’s “national mammal”? It is a story of bad law, bad science, bad economics and bad wildlife management.

During the seven years spanning 2002 to 2007, the government spent $16 million, $2.7 million annually, to keep wild bison separate from a few cattle — a mere 2,000 trucked each spring onto grasslands outside the park near Gardiner and West Yellowstone. These grasslands where bison calve are public, divided into allotments. Cattlemen prize them because the grazing fees are much lower than those charged for private land.

This means government is spending $1,350 a head to keep bison away from a few cattle so a few cattlemen can make a profit of $50 a head in a good year and use as a tax write-off in a bad year.

Yellowstone’s wild bison are the descendants of 23 bison that hid out in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley at the end of the 1800s, escaping the slaughter that wiped from their original habitat all other wild bison in the United States, which once numbered 30 million.

Now numbering about 3,500 animals, this is the only herd in America that has not been extirpated — the only herd that has remained continuously wild and unfenced — coming here from the Old World 10,000 years ago across the Bering Land Bridge.

Now, like animals in a zoo, they are captives of the park.

The ostensible reason for this discrimination is the claim that some wild bison have brucellosis and might transmit it to cattle. But an equal percentage of elk have the disease and pose an identical transmission risk.

Brucellosis causes a heifer to abort. Under federal rules, if a cow contracts brucellosis it must be slaughtered and the herd temporarily quarantined.

However, there is no record of bison ever infecting cattle in the wild. Transmission has only occurred in the laboratory. Researchers at Texas A&M penned several disease-free pregnant heifers with several artificially-infected pregnant bison. Half the heifers contracted brucellosis.

Based on this experiment, Montana, on behalf of the cattlemen, sued two federal agencies, resulting in a settlement outlawing wild bison from their state and subjecting trespassers to “lethal removal” and what might be called species profiling.

Thousands objected to the settlement terms, but the government responded in its environmental impact study that while “evidence indicates the risk of transmission under natural field conditions is extremely low,” they must persist because the risk is “not zero.”

Never mind that risk of transmission between elk and cattle is also “not zero.” Never mind that a similar experiment with elk demonstrated that in crowded facilities, elk can also infect cattle with the disease.

Never mind that the experiments actually demonstrate crowding species together promotes disease transmission.

Never mind that because only bison having the migratory instinct are killed, virtually the only bison that now survive are those that stay behind.

The government has been doing this for 20 years. Someday, no bison may be left that know how to migrate, the pool of genes prompting migration rotting on the floor of the slaughterhouse. When a severe winter comes, the remaining bison may not migrate and die together inside the very park established to protect them.

Research suggests that allowing bison to go beyond the park is the only way to avoid large-scale lethal reductions.

How can this be done? Since Montana insists on zero risk of transmission, create cattle-free zones where bison can migrate and calve just outside the park. This would save millions of dollars as well as the nation’s only continuously wild bison from extinction.

James Horsley is the author of a petition submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Feb. 11, 1999, to list the Yellowstone National Park bison herd as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Horsley, an opinion poll researcher and a former speechwriter and college English instructor, is the publisher of the webzine “The Buffalo People” at

Categories: bison | 21 Comments

Blog at The Adventure Journal Theme.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers