In the May 13 Great Falls Tribune, Tom France wrote, “The million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, ideal native prairie bison habitat ... likely will emerge as the best possible site – and perhaps the only viable location – for restoring an ecologically significant bison herd” and “the vast majority of Montanans ... believe our vast grasslands retain space for wild bison.” These are understandable, but dangerous misconceptions.
Northeastern Montana prairies (the CMR is a lake, not a prairie) historically are high quality habitat. Their health depends upon humans managing herds of large herbivores. The humans have two duties: controlling population sizes and moving the herds across the landscape. If the herds stay in one place, plants die of overgrazing. If areas are left ungrazed, grass is smothered to death by last year's dead stems and killed by the resulting devastating fires. In ancient times, Northeastern Montana was cared for by Pikuni (Blackfeet) and other peoples managing herds of bison. Today, private ranchers and the federal government have worked together for decades learning to mimic this ancient management using cattle.
Unfortunately, in recent times, the government has come under extreme pressure to manage according to the urban fad of unnatural neglect. In Montana, this pressure has been particularly directed toward Yellowstone bison and the CMR. The urban management approach leads to starving, overpopulated animals, noxious weeds, and rank, low-quality forage that encourages wildlife to migrate to more naturally managed, privately owned landscapes.
The CMR is 1.1 million acres, and that does sound like a lot. However, it is a narrow strip of land stretched across six large Montana counties. Almost a quarter of the 1.1 million acres is under water. Large tracts are treacherous, boggy lakeshore with few plants. I couldn’t find any place where the CMR was more than 8 miles wide, and most of it is much, much narrower. Color coded ownership maps show that much of the CMR is surrounded by private land.
In the Henry Mountains, bison initially migrated 40 miles from their introduction site and now range over an area 15 by 10 miles. If introduced into the lake, the bison will leave for the prairies. Eastern Montanans understand that bison introduced to the CMR means bison in Glasgow, Frazer, Fort Peck, Nashua, Brusett, Zortman, Sun Prairie and Landusky, all of which are within 15 miles of the CMR. The 40-mile radius absorbs another 23 communities, including county seats Circle, Jordan and Winnett.
Where I live, the CMR averages 1.5 miles wide. Much of that one and a half mile strip is lakeshore bog colonized by inedible salt cedar, knapweed and low-quality over-rested forage. Our range is just 6 short miles to the north. We are very proud of our range. It is beautiful and healthy, rich with wildlife and native plants. We use cows to keep it that way. In the old days, the First Peoples did the same with bison. But Fish, Wildlife and Parks will not give us access to the tools we would need to manage these bison. The result will be exactly the same as if the FWP forced a herd of feral cattle into the range of a managed herd of tribal bison.
Most frightening is the assumption that if Mr. France wants bison on the CMR, they are welcome on the CMR. The CMR stretches across six counties, one of which is Valley County. In 2010, 200 randomly selected Valley County residents from the hospital, restaurants, motels, churches, schools, fabric stores, auto dealerships, and more were surveyed. (Only 10 percent were ranchers.) These are the people that would have to live with the bison Mr. France wants to put on the CMR. A mere 6 percent said they wanted wild, free-roaming bison in their county. And 79 percent objected. Should the citizens of New York dictate conditions in Missoula over the objection of 80 percent of the locals? Would it be acceptable to treat people in South America or Africa in that way?
In Phillips County, also on the CMR, 42.2 percent of registered active voters signed a petition opposing a wild, free-roaming bison herd in their county. (Petitioning a constitutional amendment requires only 10 percent of voters). Later petitions in the CMR-neighbor counties of McCone and Petroleum had 29.7 percent of registered voters and about half the adult residents, respectively, soon after starting their signature drives. McCone County voters passed a measure prohibiting unmanaged bison in their county.
There are 5,662 adults in Valley County. Assume we decide to finish the "extraordinary job of restoring the state’s magnificent wildlife" by introducing mammoths into Mr. France’s house and assume he objects. There are 5,662 times as many of us as there are of Mr. France. Isn’t something preferred by 5,662 times as many people the obvious democratic choice? The logical fallacy here is that it doesn’t matter if the voter will be affected or not. We in Valley County would not be impacted by mammoths in a living room in faraway Missoula. We would suffer no consequences; our lives would be unchanged. The only result for us would be the fulfillment of an emotional fantasy about “the state’s magnificent wildlife.” In true democracy, the majority of those most impacted must rule. Otherwise, majority rule can be used to justify not only dumping bison into other people’s yards, but also tribal displacements, slavery and The Final Solution, so long as the affected people are a minority. It is a slippery slope, and true evil lurks at the bottom. I’m glad our legislature did not fall victim to this fallacy and am sorry that our governor did.
Mr. France’s “vast majority of Montanans” refers to a National Wildlife Federation telephone survey. This was a random survey of all Montanans, so only 2 percent of respondents were from CMR-counties and directly affected. Of the other 98 percent, 71 percent effectively responded, “Sure, I don’t care if you put bison somewhere that I don’t live.” Not even Mr. France wants to live with wild bison. He calls the CMR “the only viable location.” He doesn’t want wild bison within 200 miles of his home, but is enthusiastic to put them in the backyards and wheat fields of Eastern Montana. A more accurate survey is a nonrandom Internet survey conducted by the Helena Independent Reporter. This required people to care enough about bison to actively seek out the survey, which meant that mostly people directly impacted responded. As of May 23, 63.2 percent of respondents opposed wild bison releases in Eastern Montana.
Mr. France believes that the residents of Northeast Montana should have no meaningful voice in determining their futures, because compared to the population of Missoula (or New York or the world), they are a minority. When I did my Ph.D. work in the Czech Republic, I witnessed the scars to human and natural communities left by that same logic. The greater good sounds fine, but all of us belong to some minority. Taking the freedom of minorities, whether in the name of Democracy or of Communism, ultimately leaves each and every one of us enslaved.
If Mr. France and a majority of his neighbors want to introduce bison onto Mount Jumbo, I would applaud their attempt to finish the "extraordinary job of restoring the state’s magnificent wildlife." I’m sure I could collect over a thousand signatures in support of that proposal.
Sierra Dawn Stoneberg-Holt lives in southwest Valley County.