by George Ochenski
How much longer will we haze bison with helicopters?
It’s springtime in the Rockies and that means the brutal practice of hazing bison off federal lands to make room for cattle is once again in full swing, as state and federal agents seek to drive wandering bison back into Yellowstone National Park. But this week, Federal District Judge Charles C. Lovell held a hearing on a request for a temporary restraining order to halt the use of helicopters for hazing the bison, because they also harass grizzly bears in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
The story is not new—the state and feds have been using choppers to haze bison into the park every year since 2000. But this time around, there are some new twists and some new players, as constraining an indigenous plains animal to the confines of Yellowstone’s borders comes under increasing criticism.
During the hearing in Lovell’s courtroom, the plaintiffs, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, contended that science and legal precedent find that low-level overflights cause grizzly bears to panic and flee or even abandon an area entirely. To back up their argument, the Alliance submitted video and photos of bison and grizzlies mingling. The grizzlies, coming out of hibernation, are hungry and the bison are calving, which besides affording the grizzlies a chance at a bison calf, almost assures them of plenty of nutrient-rich afterbirth to eat. A park biologist who was there to keep an eye on nesting eagles to make sure the choppers didn’t disturb them reported a grizzly sighting the very morning of the helicopter hazing, near where the low-level flights took place.
The entire operation is supposed to be controlled by a document called the Interagency Bison Management Plan, to which the Park Service, the state Department of Livestock and the federal Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are all signatories. But that document specifically states that helicopter hazing will cease if grizzlies are in the area. What it doesn’t say is what “the area” means. Another weakness of the plan is that all hazing was assumed to be conducted prior to grizzlies coming out of hibernation and leaving their dens.
This year, the Park Service asked that helicopter hazing not be done in certain areas where grizzlies were known to be present, specifically in the Duck Creek area near West Yellowstone. In another twist, the funding for keeping the chopper in the air is no longer being supplied by APHIS, the federal agency which had paid for the flights. The Montana Department of Livestock is now picking up the tab for the flights.
On Thursday, May 10, Yellowstone managers, who are not happy with the hazing, asked Gov. Brian Schweitzer to suspend it for the rest of the week. But the Department of Livestock continued hazing the next day and is adamant that it will keep doing so until the bison are all back in the park.
Park spokesman Dan Hottle said the hazing had been “overly aggressive,” according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, since more than 320 bison were pushed two miles into the park, far exceeding the park’s limit of no more than 150 bison at one time. “Our goal was not to push all of them in in one day,” Hottle said. “Our goal was to do it incrementally, not force them … and let them graze along the way. We just wanted to get their heads pointing in the right direction, let them learn their surroundings and let them be bison.”
In another new twist, the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, an association of tribal nations, passed a resolution on May 1 asking Gov. Schweitzer to immediately cease harassing wild buffalo and to allow them to return to summer ranges by following their own instincts in their own time, as well as urging the U.S. government and the state of Montana to recognize their treaty obligations to provide viable populations of wild, migratory buffalo in their native habitat.
So far, there’s been no response from Schweitzer to either the park’s or the tribes’ request. At the hearing, the Department of Livestock’s Christian Mackay said the hazing would continue.
But there’s an old lesson in politics that may well be coming into play, one that the cattle industry would do well to heed: You can only make so many enemies and fight so many battles at one time, or you’re gonna lose—and lose big. Stockgrowers use enormous swaths of state and federal land for low-cost grazing. Those lands belong to the public, not to one specific industry. And the public is increasingly vocal in its opposition to the demands of the cattle industry.
No rancher would ever allow someone to stampede their cattle with a helicopter for miles, especially during calving season. Yet when it comes to indigenous wildlife such as the bison, they show no such concern. Nor do they worry much about grizzlies, another indigenous species that once ranged from Canada to Mexico, from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, but now are found in just a few national parks and wilderness areas.
Shortly after the hearing, Judge Lovell ordered the defendants to temporarily cease hazing the bison with helicopters in the Hebgen Basin area of the park periphery.
The sacred cow has long dominated Montana’s land and wildlife management policies. But times change. It would be prudent for Montana’s ranchers to take a look around—and then maybe find room for more than their cows under the Big Sky.