If a single common denominator emerged from state legislative sessions in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho this year — and let’s throw in Utah for good measure — it’s that radical lawmakers still dwell in a pre-Galilean world in which any science that doesn’t revolve around their narrow construct of reality is rejected.
With dozens of bills related to natural resource management before me now, including proposals to turn over federal lands that every American owns to states held captive to private special interests, I can find no evidence to disabuse me to the contrary.
In 2015 ignorance rules, though it’s unfair to pin the blame completely on elected officials, for it is voters who put them there.
One bright exception in our return to the Dark Ages is that Yellowstone National Park and the state of Montana have begun a two-year process of rewriting an antiquated bison management plan that went into effect 15 years ago. The notorious current plan, which has been explained as the National Park Service having a gun held to its head by livestock interests, resulted in thousands of park bison being needlessly slaughtered — 9,000 in all since the 1980s — each death premised on a myth.
The tall tale is that wild Yellowstone bison represent a serious imminent threat of passing brucellosis to cattle herds in our region. In fact, no such transmission has ever happened, and every case of transmission involving wildlife spreading brucellosis to livestock was linked to infected wild elk.
Management options on the table now range from maintaining the lethal status quo to allowing the Yellowstone bison herd to grow and range naturally outside the park, the same as elk (including brucellosis-infected wapiti) and every other large ungulate species are allowed to do.
Upholding the status quo means continuing to embrace politically driven intolerance toward a national icon. It means subjecting the animals, when they naturally cross Yellowstone’s invisible northern and western boundaries in Montana, to slaughter and some becoming guinea pig subjects in mad science experiments.
It also means misspending millions of tax dollars on disease eradication in Greater Yellowstone wildlife that every reputable expert says is logistically impossible to achieve, threatens huge harm for public wildlife and is certain to attract strong opposition from outraged citizens.
Some of the new options are informed by the best available science and represent a sharp departure from present so-called management. A few weeks ago a group of 14 conservation groups sent a letter to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock encouraging him to end the state’s enforced ignorance. It remains to be seen whether Bullock, a Democrat, will retain or swear off his current membership in the Flat Earth Society.
Three Montana state senators, all Republican ranchers, advanced several anti-bison bills in 2015, none of which has any scientific underpinning. Sens. John Brenden, of Scobey, Taylor Brown, of Huntley, and Eric Moore, of Miles City, were contacted by yours truly to explain their hostility to bison roaming in the state, given that their hard-line positions can’t be supported by any alleged threat of disease. Each was evasive when pressed to answer logical questions. Why is that?
In the case of Brenden, who has used bison as a grandstanding symbol to stir up anti-federal sentiment, numerous citizens in his state have branded him a hypocrite. According to the Environmental Working Group’s database, Brenden and family members received more than $500,000 in federal agriculture subsidies going back to the late 1990s.
By circumstance Brenden, Brown, Moore and Gov. Bullock now have an excellent opportunity to educate themselves. Hot off the presses is a new book, “Yellowstone Bison: Conserving An American Icon In Modern Society,” published by the Yellowstone Association and edited by Yellowstone biologists P.J. White and Rick L. Wallen and the park’s recently departed science chief, David E. Hallac.
A review will be forthcoming. What I can say about the book is that it’s the most comprehensive, scientifically informed narrative about Yellowstone bison management to date, and it directly challenges Montana’s draconian treatment of the species.
Best of all, readers here, for a limited time until the book is published in paper form, can download a free e-copy by going to NPS.gov/yell/learn/nature/upload/Yellowstone_Bison_Final_ForWeb.pdf.