Guest opinion: Russell refuge can give bison a place to roam

2012-05-19T00:10:00Z Guest opinion: Russell refuge can give bison a place to roamBy DON WOERNER The Billings Gazette
May 19, 2012 12:10 am  • 

Some legislators last year introduced several bills hostile to the future of wild bison. Some tried to keep this animal completely off public lands. Others would classify wild bison and even elk as livestock. Thankfully, most of these restrictive and selfish bills died, suffered defeat or were flamboyantly vetoed by our governor.

Many members of the 2011 Legislature overreacted because of fear and misinformation. All citizens must retain freedom to openly discuss and decide the fate of wildlife resources including wild bison. We must learn to share our planet with other living creatures.

We can free wildlife from the grip of livestock diseases and manage them on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all citizens. Now is the time for Montana and our nation to invest in a proper home for wild American buffalo. That home can become a reality in our lifetime. The home can be here in Montana.

As a practicing large animal veterinarian for over 40 years, I understand and favor a healthy, vibrant, and family-oriented livestock industry. Wildlife and ranching are compatible. Both can prosper together.

In the 17th century, the bison was North America’s most abundant large mammal. Montana Territory eventually became the last stronghold for the northern buffalo herd. Years of indiscriminate slaughter caused the population to crash in the mid-1880s.

We can bring bison back. It is within our grasp to start the process of setting aside lands dedicated as range for wild buffalo. We can “repatriate” this animal to its proper home on the prairie. Two Montana tribes at Fort Belknap and Fort Peck are doing a fine job of leading the way.

Montana artist Charlie Russell once wrote of the wild buffalo:

“The Rocky Mountains would have been hard to reach without him ... he fed the explorer ... the great fur trade wagon tranes felt safe when they reached his range ... he fed the men that layed the first ties across the great west ... Thair is no day set aside where he is an emblem ... the nickel weares his picture ... dam small money for so much meat ... he was one of natures biggest gifts and this country owes him thanks.”

I share Charlie’s obvious love for wild buffalo in Montana. The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is a huge swath of public lands is already dedicated for wildlife. It would be nearly perfect for a year-around home.

Don Woerner, DVM, lives in Laurel.

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