Bison in the Neighborhood

Photo by Bruce Gourley.

Photo by Bruce Gourley.

Large, wild animals often land on the front page of the Bozeman Chronicle. Grizzlies, wolves, elk, moose and bison — all live nearby, sharing the land with neighboring humans, locals and tourists alike.

Grizzlies are quite likely to be spotted on the front page of the paper. The bear headline of any given day may be about hibernation (going to sleep in the fall, waking up in the spring), problems with cattle kills, a human encounter (most are not deadly, by the way), or the ongoing controversy over whether or not grizzlies should be taken off the endangered species list.

Wolves, too, are a popular subject on the front page. Fascinating social creatures who are  predators of keen intelligence, the wolves of Yellowstone National Park attract visitors from the world over. Many locals love then as well, but ranchers tend to view wolves as a nuisance. Although few livestock kills are committed by wolves, and wolves very rarely attack humans, the creatures have an aura that generates mystique and fear among some humans.

In the summer tourists and locals love to see herds of elk, and during hunting season the ungulates receive a lot of front page attention. No surprise there.

Moose show up in the news periodically. The occasional critter wandering through town,  cute baby moose in the spring, the publication of a new study, the rare attack on a human are all newsworthy.

And then there are the bison. Fear-inspiring creatures they are not, unless you get too close to one (as quite a few tourists to Yellowstone have learned this year). Less numerous than elk, they are far more visible than moose. Yet these iconic symbol of the American West, once hunted to the brink of extinction but saved in the early 20th century, often dominate the critter headlines in Montana.

Many ranchers (with notable exceptions like Ted Turner, who has a large bison ranch just south of here) complain that bison could infect their cattle with the disease brucellosis (I am not making up that name). Yet in nearly a century of studies, there is no known case of wild bison transmitting the disease to domestic cattle. (Although elk do transmit brucellosis to cattle, ranchers like elk for the hunting income they generate). In reality, opposition to bison is often a matter of turf: certain ranchers, including many who lease federal range land for pennies on the market value dollar, see bison as competition for grazing lands. And it doesn’t help matters that bison are rather ambivalent about fences.

Bison are large animals, some bulls the size of a Volkswagen. Pity the Mazda Miata caught up in a roadway bison jam in Yellowstone, the occupants staring up at the huge, shaggy creatures lumbering by inches from their car. Photos of bison jams occasionally appear on the newspaper’s front page.

However, perhaps all of us, from time to time, could welcome a few bison in our neighborhoods.

After all, tearing down unnecessary fences could be a good thing. Re-assessing meaningless turf wars in our lives might be helpful. Perhaps, even, the occasional roadway bison jam would serve to slow down the frenetic pace of our lives.


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