Guest opinion: Bison critics can calm their fanciful fears

2012-07-14T00:05:00Z Guest opinion: Bison critics can calm their fanciful fearsBy STEVE WOODRUFF The Billings Gazette
July 14, 2012 12:05 am  • 

A Montana legislator attracted national attention recently by placing bison at the center of a conspiracy to promote big government and drive the price of gasoline to $25 a gallon.

Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, made that claim in a widely circulated blog, drawing national coverage by the Huffington Post. Kerns proclaimed bison the agents of Karl Marx and efforts to restore some of the animals to prairie habitat a plot to stop oil production.

Welcome to Montana’s lively debate over bison.

If you’re just tuning in, Kerns’ musings might strike you as surprising. But extremist rhetoric figures prominently in public discourse as the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks embarks on an analysis of the pros and cons of managing bison as wildlife.

FWP has just begun work on an environmental impact statement and bison management plan. Decisions are years away, but merely examining the issue has sent some folks over the rhetorical pishkun.

Not all opponents are as fanciful as Kerns, but many ranchers describe doomsday scenarios. They see bison as possible carriers of disease, destroyers of fences and competitors for grass that could feed cattle. In a series of meetings FWP held in May, opponents predicted economic ruination for rural Montana, backyard gardens torn up by bison, mayhem on highways and a grave risk of goring for people wandering afield. More than one critic linked bison restoration to a United Nations conspiracy, code-word: “Agenda 21.”

Psychologists describe such talk as “catastrophizing” — the failure to see anything but the worst possible outcome. It’s not healthy.

In reality, bison restoration is an interesting possibility in which we Montanans can control the outcome. Restoration is not without challenges, but it’s full of opportunities. Most Montanans will see that the opportunities are attractive, the challenges solvable.

The worst fears of catastrophizers will never materialize. Nobody’s talking about bringing back millions of bison or letting them roam wherever they please, much less sacrificing our oil economy.

We have only a few landscapes suitable for wide-ranging wild bison. The best prospect is the million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Some Indian reservations also have habitat for modest herds. The Fort Peck Tribes recently accepted 61 Yellowstone bison from the state as a start on a new herd on their reservation. Perhaps FWP’s study will identify other potential places, but the list of sites won’t be long.

In restoring bison, Montanans can start with disease-free animals, placing them in ideal habitat and managing them to reduce or resolve conflicts with ranchers. Since 1941, Utah has successfully managed a herd of some 400 wild bison in the Henry Mountains, where they coexist with cattle. Montana can do it too.

Ranchers in proximity to a wild bison herd have legitimate concerns about damage to fences and the potential for bison to stray onto and damage private property. Ranchers have good reason to insist that a new herd of bison is disease-free. Their valid concerns must be adequately addressed — just as they are regarding other wildlife.

The point is that those concerns can be addressed. We can do this. A herd of bison in, say, the CMR would become a tremendous asset to Montana — a tourist attraction, hunting opportunity, cultural touchstone and great source of identity and pride. Bison are part of Montana’s rich wildlife heritage, not some communist plot.

Steve Woodruff of Missoula works with the National Wildlife Federation to restore bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

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