Discovering Montana

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For Immediate Release



Let’s get one thing clear right off: Yellowstone National Park and every one of its wild creatures are national treasures for all Americans, not just those who live far away. Those who live next door to the Park value its beauty, wildness and diversity at least as much as those who choose to visit now and then.

Indeed, Montanans treasure those qualities so much they have over the years sacrificed opportunities and income to live in such a grand isolated place where wild creatures are everyday neighbors, outnumbering humans many times over. We really need no lectures about valuing wildlife; it was Montanans 60 years ago who saved grizzly bears when the federal policy was extinction.

I speak specifically now about the bison in Yellowstone National Park or, rather, the bison that are leaving Yellowstone National Park. Here’s the problem: Many are diseased, probably from the day their ancestors were herded into the park decades ago.

It does not matter how many are diseased or how they got sick because one branch of the federal government--the Department of Agriculture--has threatened to revoke Montana’s hard-won brucellosis-free status if we allow one such diseased creature into the state to potentially infect livestock. This--the infection or the revocation--could devastate a major industry and its many families.

Another branch of the federal government--the Park Service--is theoretically responsible for the Park’s bison. Unlike every other national park, however, Yellowstone refuses to manage its wildlife, specifically to control over-population and combat deadly diseases. This policy was instituted some 30 years ago but, unlike the previous policy of wildlife management, appears difficult to change.

This has resulted in a drastic over-population of bison which cannot find sufficient food in the Park. So they seek it elsewhere. Is this really the humane policy we want in force? To revere these animals so much that so many are kept in one place to starve or try to flee their alleged sanctuary?

What we have here are too many unmanaged, diseased bison leaving an overgrazed park to mingle with protected livestock in violation of an Agriculture Department ban. If any citizen tried to keep several thousand animals on land that might support 1,500, they would properly be in trouble with animal abuse officers. In fact, the Park’s chief bison researcher recently confirmed in a published report, “The drop in numbers is exactly what the system needs.”

Still, Montana is in the crossfire, in effect, left to manage its neighbor’s unmanaged herd of wild animals choosing to leave the park because there is nothing left to eat there. We have no desire to shoot some of these magnificent creatures, living symbols of our wild heritage and walking reminders of last century’s profligate slaughter. But, according to the other federal department, we cannot allow these diseased creatures in.

Feeding the bison in the park would be a shortterm solution. But that is not possible, according to “natural regulation” and could help spread the disease by encouraging mingling. Vaccination of healthy animals and removal of diseased ones would be a longterm solution. But that too would violate “natural regulation.” What about taking the animals away? That would violate disease control rules.

So Montana is left as the victimized neighbor to harvest the sick animals of one federal agency to protect the state’s largest industry, agriculture, against the sanctions of another federal agency. It is preposterous. And it is the hard, sad reality.

The answer is not to fan the flames of adverse public opinion to fuel emotional membership drives. Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have spent years working with federal authorities on a solution. It’s been eight years now since Yellowstone started the environmental impact statement. Still, none is in sight.

Our suggestion was for the federal government to establish a quarantine facility, ideally within the park or perhaps on a Montana Indian reservation. This would avoid interstate shipment of possibly diseased animals and provide needed economic development opportunities while diseased animals were removed and healthy ones inoculated.

We have written countless letters, attended countless meetings, even gone into federal court. We use noisemakers and helicopters to frighten the animals back. We will continue to try to stop this ridiculous--and expensive--spectacle of federal policy paralysis. Meanwhile, it seems to us that public criticism and threats might more appropriately and effectively be directed at the host agencies which refuse to address the real problem and not at the adjacent state that can only attempt to treat the symptoms.

Marc Racicot, the Republican Governor of Montana, was re-elected in November with 80 percent of the vote.


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