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A View From The Overlook: Montana Wowsers!


Editor's note: To bring you an additional perspective to life in the National Park System, we're happy to welcome occasional musings and insights from PJ Ryan to the Traveler. Though he's retired from a 30-year Park Service career that landed him assignments at places such as Jewel Cave National Monument, Joshua Tree National Park, and even the Washington, D.C., headquarters, PJ hasn't lost interest in observing the world of the national parks. For a more regular dose of his observations, be sure to read Thunderbear.
It seems that the Yellowstone bison herd is the most genetically pure in the United States.

It is also one of the most prolific.

Therefore, when several Montana Plains Indian tribes voiced an interest in acquiring Yellowstone bison to reestablish or replenish tribal herds, it looked like a win-win, no brainer solution to a perennial NPS problem, too many bison in the park.

The bison would be taken from a quarantine facility just outside Yellowstone where they had been detained after voluntarily leaving the park. Once tested for brucellosis and found free of that disease (which can cause livestock to abort their fetuses), they would be loaded onto reinforced stock trucks and driven to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and later, to the Fort Belknap Reservation, both in northeastern Montana.

As bison are rather famous for going where they want to go, the tribal governments and Secretary of the Interior Salazar agreed to build expensive bison-proof fencing to keep them in their new home.

The governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, thought this was a peach of an idea, as did the Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks, which looked forward to new big game hunting venues in a neglected part of the state.

It looked like a slam-dunk.  A win-win situation.  The tribal council in their tribal regalia would be photographed smiling and shaking hands with the Yellowstone superintendent and the chief of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in their federal and state tribal regalia as they released the bison.

Who could possibly object?

Well, the Montana Wowsers for one thing.  (WOWSER is an Australian slang term for a narrow-minded busybody “who sees the whole world as a penitentiary and themselves as the warden.”)

The Montana Wowsers, in this case are an outfit called CITIZENS FOR BALANCED USE, an outfit that, according to their press release, “works to protect public land from closure or mismanagement.”  (Those familiar with Orwellian reactionary Republican doublespeak will recognize that such “protection” soon results in de facto privatization)

CBU has secured a court injunction to stop further shipments of Yellowstone bison to the reservations; the rationale being that bison (a) damage fences, (b) eat hay meant for cattle, and (c) potentially spread disease.

Montana’s feisty Democratic governor pointed out that the tribal bison would be behind a “world-class bison fence" and that, “They’re the most tested, brucellosis-free animals in Montana.”

So what’s the beef?

According to the Fort Belknap Tribal President Tracy King, quoted in the March 21 issue of the Great Falls Tribune,  “Most of the criticism about the transport of the Yellowstone buffalo reeks of racism."

Now neighbors, I am shocked -- shocked! -- that anyone could imply that there is anti-Indian racism in rural Montana!  This can’t be true!

However, it is a great mystery why CITIZENS FOR BALANCED USE would want to cruelly bully a couple of impoverished Indian tribes over a cultural icon like the American bison.

Since the governor of Montana has refuted the fence and disease arguments, and since white Montanans deny being racist, there must be another reason why CBU is against the transfer of Yellowstone bison.

I think we may have a clue, neighbors!

A Mr. Gary Swanson, attorney for the Montana landowners, is quoted as saying:

“We think the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks move is just the beginning of a full-scale, full-court press for putting a large, wild, free-ranging bison herd in a huge part of northeastern Montana."

You know, Gary, that’s not a bad idea!  (I take back all the things I said about lawyers having no soul!)

What Gary Swanson is referring to is the painter George Catlin’s 1832 proposal for a vast national park that would take in much of the Great Plains.

According to Catlin: “They (The Great Plains) might in the future be seen by some great protecting policy of government, preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness in a magnificent park where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, shield, and lance among the fleeing herds of elk and buffalo."

What a beautiful and thrilling spectacle for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world in future ages: "a Nation’s Park containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of Nature’s beauty!”

Well said, George!  

Remember, this was written 180 years ago. The guy did everything but write the NPS Organic Act!   Readers will note that Catlin incorporates the very 21st-century idea of national parks with the local people also on board.

I can see why CITIZENS FOR BALANCED USE would want to nip Catlin’s idea in the bud.  It’s positively brilliant!

We’ll have to talk some more about this.

PJ Ryan is a retired 30-year NPS veteran having served at Jewel Cave National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Navajo National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Joshua Tree National monument, John Muir NHS, Jean Lafitte NHP and the Washington Office of the NPS.

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I always enjoy Thunderbear and I'll look forward to reading more of your writings here in Traveler as well. The world needs more thoughtful, experienced, and acerbic examination.

CBU? In these cases when you just can't understand how people got so cranal-rectal inverted, follow the money. Find out who profits, and you'll understand motivations. This bison transfer makes so much sense for so many that treading on someone else's profits are the only reason to fight it.

Wonderful!  And as usual some of PJ's incredibly fair and balanced and not at all biased reporting.

PJ, you is great.  We need a lot more like you.

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