Before we get started, let's quickly talk about why some call them buffalo and others call them bison?
Early American settlers called bison "bufello," and the name "buffalo" stuck for the American variety.
Though it might be technically wrong, most know the beautiful animals as buffalo and not bison. And yes, for that reason, in this article, we will use the common term buffalo as often as possible.
And yes, I'll come right out and say, though I love the sight of buffalo, American bison, I'm against them roaming wild on public-lands.
But first, before I get into my reasoning why I think its a bad idea, let's hear from those who are in favor of allowing buffalo to roam wild.
One group who advocates the reintroduction states, "In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and others, Posewitz says bison should be returned to the 1.1 million acre Charlie M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge."
In the editorial below, The Great Falls Tribune allowed advocate Jim Posewitz to write a guest op-ed in which he voices his support for allowing the unrestricted reintroduction of bison in wilds of Montana:
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks scheduled a public meeting in Lewistown for mid-April to address the restoration of wild buffalo. The meeting was canceled due to public dissatisfaction over its structure. That was indeed unfortunate, since Lewistown, the geographic center of Montana and the hub of the Judith Basin, was the perfect site for a wild buffalo restoration conversation.
Pioneer rancher and statesman Granville Stuart left a vivid account of the change that swept Judith Basin late in the 19th century: “It would be impossible to make persons not present … realize the rapid change that took place…. In 1880, the country was practically uninhabited. … Thousands of buffalo darkened the rolling plains. There were deer, antelope, elk, wolves and coyotes on every hill and in every ravine and thicket. ...
“In the fall of 1883 there was not one buffalo remaining…and the antelope, elk, and deer were indeed scarce.”
Others noticed as well. Theodore Roosevelt, who was hunting and ranching near Medora, N.D., wrote in 1885: “A ranchman who ... made a journey of a thousand miles across Northern Montana, along the Milk River … during the whole distance he was never out of sight of a dead buffalo, and never in sight of a live one.” What happened on our Montana landscape was one of the most shameful destructions of wildlife in human history — we had become the bone-yard of a continent.
One witness to the shameful wildlife slaughter in the Judith Basin was a 16-year-old youth from Missouri, who like Stuart arrived there in 1880 — Charles M. Russell. A fellow cowboy, Wallace Coburn, described Charlie: “Barbed wire fences. Sheep, and the gradual settling up of the country are sources of sorrow to the cowboy artist, and he longs for the days … when you could ride straight across country to the music of the buffalo, wolves,and the tom-tom of the Indian sun dance with nothing but nature’s handiwork to attract the eye and tickle the heartstrings.” Charlie saw a good part of it go and then said: “The West is dead! You may lose a sweetheart, but you won’t forget her.”
Well, with a photographic memory and artistic genius, Charlie would not let us forget. Among the images he blessed us with was a masterpiece that pictured buffalo crossing the Missouri and climbing out on the ‘breaks.’ He called it “When the Land Belonged to God.”
Today, we observe the 150th anniversary of both Charlie’s birth, and Montana’s birth as a territory. We also live with a restored wildlife abundance that is by any measure among the greatest environmental achievements in human history. Everything Charlie painted is back out there in the wild — except one species.
Today, nothing prevents us from finishing the saga of wildlife restoration — except the cultural will to just simply do it. We have the animals and we have a place for them. In addition, we have a moral responsibility to the buffalo. It has endured more abuse historically and in contemporary times, from what we call civilization, than any other species.
What Charlie put on canvas we now are capable of putting out on the landscape. It is time to return buffalo to the wild and to do it with pride and with dignity. Let’s do it!
Jim Posewitz of Helena spent 32 years with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, leading the agency’s ecological program for 15 years. He then founded Orion the Hunter’s Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of ethical hunting and wildlife group.
-- the above is by Jim Posewitz, Great Falls Tribune guest editorial.
So OK, I get it, buffalo need to return to their former numbers to right the wrongs committed almost 150 years ago -- and yes, supposedly famed Western artist Charlie Russell would like that.
Let's take the buffalo re-introduction problem first.
Yes, it is a fact that some 60 million American buffalo once thundered across North America.
By the 1890s there were less than 1,000 known head of buffalo, American bison, left in the Great Plains of America.
Today by some accounts there are about 500,000 bison in private hands. Yes, today there are about half-a-million plains buffalo in commercial populations on about 4,000 privately owned ranches.
And yes, there are approximately 30,000 animals on environmental and government preserves. Of that, about 15,000 are considered wild buffalo living on the natural range within North America as defined as free-ranging and not confined primarily by fencing.
These massive animals have long shaggy brown coats, acute hearing, an excellent sense of smell, but poor eyesight. For their massive size, believe it or not, they can jump 6 feet vertically and run at speeds of between 35 to 40 mph when agitated.
This agility and speed, combined with their great size and weight, make buffalo herds difficult to confine as they can easily escape or destroy most fencing systems -- including modern razor wire fencing.
And yes, there's part of the problem. It's their inability to be confined by fences.
Like me, others in opposition to the reintroduction mostly centers on worries that buffalo will destroy fences and other property -- and of course, will compete with cattle for grazing grass and space on an arid landscape that can only support just so many animals.
"They want them to roam like elk and antelope," said Vicki Olson, a rancher south of Malta, Montana. "I have those elk and antelope on my ranch and live with them, but I don't think I can live with bison."
Where there was buffalo, there is now cattle. So why should we turn back the clock and try to have cattle compete with bison for the little grass that is out there as sparse as it is in many areas of public-lands?
American bison, buffalo, are migratory and herd migrations can have daily movements between foraging sites sometimes moving 2 to 3 miles a day.
The summer ranges of buffalo appear to be influenced by many factors including seasonal vegetation changes, interspersion and size of foraging sites, the rut, and the number of biting insects. The size of preserve and availability of water may also be a factor.
Like cattle, buffalo are largely grazers, eating primarily grasses and sedges. On short grass pasture, buffalo predominately consume warm season grasses.
On mixed prairie, it appears that cool season grasses, including some sedges, compose 79–96% of their diet. In some areas, sedges are selected throughout the year.
Like cattle, buffalo also drink water and also consume snow on a daily basis.
It is important to note that within the last few weeks, Americans have all seen the BLM surround a rancher in Nevada and confiscate his cattle for "trespassing on public-lands."
Now you're wondering what does Cliven Bundy's cattle on public-lands have to do with buffalo roaming wild on public-lands?
Well during the standoff, Environmentalists and the BLM tried to tell the public that his cattle were damaging the land -- an implausible reasoning that most saw through in a second since buffalo roamed on the same ground for thousands of years with the same typs of hooves, yet did not cause the kind of damage Environmentalists are concerned about.
The BLM tried to say that the cattle removal was being done for the good of the public-lands.
They had the nerve to try to deceive the American public and say that Bundy's cattle were a detriment to the land because they were destroying the delicate ecosystem of the 186,909 acres of land put aside for a desert tortoise.
Friends, historically the American bison, those massive herd of buffalo, played an essential role in shaping the ecology of the Great Plains -- which by the way would have included all of the area now set aside for a tortoise which is not endangered.
Just as with cattle do today, buffalo had historically grazed heavily on the same native grasses.
And yes, buffalo demonstrate the exact same behavior that cattle do when they "disturb the soil with their hooves, allowing many plant and animal species to flourish."
All of the very same things which the Environmentalist are saying that ranch cattle should not be doing to the land -- they say is OK for the bison to do.
Cattlemen brought in cattle and they replaced the almost exterminated buffalo on the Great Plains a hundred years ago, and because cattle replaced the buffalo -- the land has benefited.
Just as when buffalo grazed the land, prairie dogs prefer areas grazed by cattle where the grass is short so they can keep a lookout for hungry predators.
Today with the reintroduction of wolves, wolves that once relied on buffalo herds as a major food source -- today see cattle as their target.
I find hypocritical Environmentalist laughable when they try to tell us that what cattle do to the land is bad -- yet what buffalo do to the land is good.
But then again, that should not surprise me.
In fact, being very frank with you, I really believe that they want ranchers to remove their cattle from public-lands so that they can replace the cattle with American bison.
And yes, I really believe that those in favor of reintroduction of American bison, buffalo, don't care one bit about any sort of hardship, financial or otherwise, that their planned reintroduction would mean to ranchers.
Frankly, I just don't think they give a damn!
They always want more!
Bison advocates say "wild bison" are making a small comeback in a few scattered places but they need more room to roam.
No, their comeback is not good enough for Environmentalists -- they always want more.
And yes, the land they want more of is the same public-lands that Environmentalists and the BLM are saying the cattle are destroying.
Does the hypocrisy make sense to you? Well, me neither!
It is important to note a small fact that Environmentalist don't like to mention, officially the "American buffalo," yes the "American Buffalo," is classified by the United States government as a type of cattle.
In fact, the government allows private herds to be managed as such. This is a reflection of the characteristics that buffalo share with cattle.
But please don't tell that to Environmentalists who will not accept the obvious truth of the matter: bovine herds, either cattle or buffalo, can not exist on any piece of land that does not have enough resources to keep them alive.
It is common sense in ranching: the bigger the herd, the more they eat and water they drink.
To reintroduce buffalo is not fair on ranchers who right now limit their herd size just because of the reason that the land can only accommodate just so many cattle.
Just as a life raft can only hold just so many people, grazing land can only sustain just so many animals before it is worthless and inefficient.
While Posewitz and others may be all for the reintroduction of buffalo to roam wild in Montana in a desire to somehow turn the clock back to when buffalo were everywhere, many in Montana are not happy with the prospect because of the issues of damage and competition for limited grazing lands.
That is the reason that expectations for a statewide bison-conservation plan was scaled back by Montana's top wildlife official recently following backlash from ranchers opposed to restoring the animals to parts of their historical habitat.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Jeff Hagener said in an interview with The Associated Press that it was no longer considered viable to establish a herd of free-roaming bison without any fencing or other limitations on where they can go.
There has to be limitations
I understand that heart strings can be pulled like in the op-ed article above. I understand the want to bring back the past and the nostalgia of seeing herds upon herds of buffalo -- I mean bison.
I absolutely love seeing those majestic animals in Yellowstone National Park or about 4 miles from where I now sit right here in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
Sure its a private buffalo herd, but I love seeing them -- especially contained the way they are kept away from cattle.
Up in Montana, Jeff Hagener said, a pilot project to restore a small herd of 50 to 100 bison is a potential first step in the conservation plan. But that's a far more modest goal than one earlier proposal to create a new herd of roughly 1,000 buffalo somewhere in Montana.
Jeff Hagener said he hopes to compile a range of new alternatives before the Legislature meets in January of 2015.
Timing on a final decision is uncertain. State officials originally hoped to have a plan in place by the end of this year.
"Free-roaming is unrealistic," said Jeff Hagener. "There's going to have to be some level of containment."
State officials last week cancelled a long-scheduled, two-day meeting on bison that was planned in Lewistown. The move came after ranchers pledged to protest the event.
Those involved in the meeting decided it would be counter-productive given the strong antipathy to the animals that's emerged in many eastern Montana ranching communities, said Hagener.
Montana's top wildlife officials on April 23, 2014, sought to scale back expectations for a state-wide buffalo conservation plan following a backlash from ranchers opposed to restoring the animals to their historical habitat and historic levels.
Restoration of the animals in Montana would rely on surplus buffalo from Yellowstone National Park, which has the largest surviving wild buffalo herd of genetically pure animals.
The park has struggled to keep the population in check as required under a federal-state agreement intended to prevent the spread of a disease that can spread to livestock.
About 60 buffalo captured from the park were relocated beginning in 2012 to Montana's Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.
The animals had gone through a lengthy quarantine to ensure they were disease-free, yet the move was widely condemned by ranchers and some state lawmakers.
An additional group of about 135 to 150 quarantined buffalo are being held on a ranch near Bozeman owned by Billionaire reintroduction advocate Ted Turner.
the reason for the quarantine is Brucellosis, or Bang's Disease, is commonly found in buffalo, and is transmittable to domestic cattle.
Cattle, specifically cows, are most susceptible to the disease and its effects however, and are prone to abortions, low milk production and even infertility when infected.
This can mean financial ruin for ranchers barely holding their own against government over-regulations, higher and higher grazing fees, and soaring operational, feed, and fuel costs.
Brucellosis is spread through contact with reproductive fluids or grass that is wet with such fluids. It is very difficult to detect and even more difficult to prevent through inoculation.
This particularly a threat from wild free-roaming Yellowstone buffalo which stray outside the park.
I believe it is still currently the policy of the state of Montana, in conjunction with the federal government, to kill Yellowstone buffalo which may wander outside the boundaries of the national park.
This policy was established many years ago to keep brucellosis in check, the practice of killing these roaming buffalo has sparked great controversy in recent years.
Thankfully the scheduled move of the quarantined buffalo, and the prospects of the animals ending up on public-lands appear increasingly slim given the delays in the statewide conservation plan.
But those animals could end up on tribal land or under the care of a private conservation group at least temporarily until the plan is finalized, said Hagener.
I find it interesting that despite being the closest relatives of domestic cattle native to North America, that buffalo were never domesticated by any of the many American Indian tribes.
Maybe it was because the American Buffalo has been described as having a wild and unmanageable temper?
For Yellowstone National Park, buffalo are among the most dangerous animals encountered by visitors there.
There are signs everywhere warning the public to stay away from the buffalo, and for good reason: Buffalo will attack humans if you get too close.
And don't kid yourself, these big animals might look like slow moving beasts -- but they can easily outrun humans.
To justify their reintroduction simply solely because there was once 60 million plains buffalo roaming much of North America before the over hunting drove them nearly to extinction in the late 1800s is being purely unrealistic.
All in all, this situation seem very typical of those folks who want what they want and do not care about anyone else. It appears these bison advocates want to implement their solution no matter how it hurts others.
In this case the others are ranchers who also have rights as land owners. Ranchers who will be financially responsible for extra feed, extra labor, extra inoculations, extra maintenance, and of course extra cost that is only theirs to shoulder.
Isn't it great to see people wanting to do something deemed noble, something that someone thinks artist Charlie Russell would be proud of, when it doesn't cost them a dime -- but will burden others.
Yes, in this case ranchers.
But frankly, as I stated before, I don't think the hardships of other people matter to those who advocate the reintroduction of bison in the wild to roam free and possibly causing havoc.
As I said before, I really believe that Environmentalists and these advocates want ranchers to remove their cattle from public-lands so that they in turn can replace the cattle with buffalo.
As former state wildlife commissioner Ron Moody said, there's been a tendency to disregard the fact that Olson and other ranchers now occupy the landscape.
"That's been a fatal flaw of the advocacy for the reintroduction of bison. Yes, we would like an opportunity to hunt bison some place out on the plains in eastern Montana, but we don't want to do that as adversaries of ranchers."
While there are those like I who respect the property rights of the ranchers, the bison advocates don't seem to understand that those ranchers do have rights.
Especially against special interests groups who are trying to force others to live life by their demands.
While this is just my opinion, I feel the Environmentalist groups who are pushing for the restoration the vast herds of yesteryear are not considering the hardships of others at all.
Now let's talk for a moment about Charlie Russell.
You see, I too admire artist Charlie Russell. He is one of my favorite Old West artist.
But frankly, the land is no longer as it was in 1880 when he Charlie Russell for arrived in Montana at the age of 16.
Fact is, 12 years after his arrival, Charlie Russell left where he was living in Montana because it was no longer the same as when he arrived in Judith Basin.
To him, Judith Basin was getting too crowded with settlers, so he settled in Cascade in 1892.
At age 33, with an 19 year old wife, from Cascade they moved to the bustling county seat of Great Falls in 1897.
The West of ills and heartache of those days long ago when only one in three settlers made it the required 3 years to claim ownership of their land is now thankfully gone.
The land and the times of the 1890s were hard and cruel. No matter how much people want to romanticize about it today, it was cruel and unforgiving.
It should be noted that Charlie Russell worked as a cowboy for a number of outfits for about 12 years.
He got his start as an artist when he documented the harsh winter of 1886-1887 in a picture.
It was a time when cattle still competed with buffalo for grass. And yes, it was the time during the great slaughter of the late 1880s, and many of both starved in the process because the land could not sustain both cattle and buffalo.
The ranch foreman received a letter from the owner, asking how the cattle herd had weathered the winter.
Instead of a letter, the ranch foreman sent a postcard-sized watercolor which Charlie Russell had painted showing the horrible condition of the cattle.
The picture was of bony starving steer being watched by wolves under a gray winter sky.
And no, I really don't think Charlie Russell was all too happy while watching helplessly as cattle starved because of too little grass.
When many cowboys were unemployed during the winter, Charlie Russell would leave Judith Basin and live in various towns. There he is said to have painted pictures to pay for his food and lodging.
It's said that his paintings express Charlie Russell's melancholy attachment to what was termed "the unspoiled West."
Supposedly, as he traveled to England and places such as New York City to sell his paintings, he disliked "progress" and what had become the plowed under Great Plains and the fenced in open range.
Yes, it sounds like he was not a man who liked fences.
It is ironic that his paintings, which waxed nostalgic about the West, played a huge part in getting more people to move West -- and subsequently changing it even more.
In some ways, those who popularized and romanticized the Old West were very responsible for fencing in of the open range. They advertised it as being a place to go to -- and people went there.
While I love the sight of buffalo and love Old West history, I thank God that today is not the 1880s. After all, there are reasons that things evolve and times change.
Plains Buffalo were replaced with cattle, and now reintroduction advocates want to return to the days of slim pickings on a range that really can't support both simultaneously.
If people really want to do something "noble" that artist Charlie Russell would appreciate, then maybe they should come to the aid of American ranchers who are fighting a two front war these days.
On one front, American ranchers are fighting to keep their ranches in their families and out of the hands of land developers; and on the other front, they fight lunatics trying to turn back a clock by putting them out of business.
In old age, Charlie Russell was said to be quite the feisty curmudgeon. It's said that he embodied the Western spirit through his fierce sense of independence.
I just can't imagine him standing still while the government or some environmentalist group tried to force him to accept unreasonable proposals.
That's just the way I see it.