Untrustworthy: the history of Montana cattle ranchers and Yellowstone bison

George Ochenski tells how ranchers move the goal posts on Yellowstone bison issue-

Perhaps a hundred stories since we first wrote about the issues of the Yellowstone’s bison’s genetic purity, the seemingly pointless slaughter of Park bison that leave the Park, and many other issues, very slow progress has been made.

Bison perhaps can now wander the Gardiner Basin north of the Park (subject to the outcome of rancher lawsuits) and 38 Yellowstone bison were moved to tribal lands near Fort Peck in NE Montana due to fast action by Governor Schweitzer before the Stockgrowers association shut this wise move down. Bison can also use Horse Butte west of the Park as long as they are back in their “prison” by May.  Many groups such Buffalo Field Campaign, National Wildlife Federation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Western Watersheds Project have opened these cracks.  Opposing every inch have been the cattle associations and powerful individual ranchers.

Journalist George Ochenski has followed this for many years and participated as a lobbyist for  the Intertribal Bison Cooperative. Now with the Governor’s effort to move disease free, pure bison to tribal lands, Schweitzer’s effort and that of so many others is stalled at 38 bison because of a gratuitous lawsuit by the Stockgrowers Association.

I learned long ago after years of frustration that it is almost impossible to make a deal with livestock organizations. If you do, it is doubtful they will keep their word. Ochenski comes to a similar conclusion, at least for bison, in his Missoula Independent piece Ranchers without honor. When it comes to bison, they go back on their deals, he tells the sorry story in detail.


  1. Jeff Avatar

    Why do you say 38 bison were moved to the reservation—earlier I thought the number was 62, with one dying in transit?

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Quoting Ralph : ” I learned long ago after years of frustration that it is almost impossible to make a deal with livestock organizations. If you do, it is doubtful they will keep their word. ”

    – and therein lies the dark heart of the issue. A historical imperative given the northern Rockies territories and then states by having the cattle barons push in here after the Civil War and usurp the land as their own. They will not go lightly into the den of history so long as one Stetson still remains on Earth.

    It’s so medieval. “Game of Horns”.

  3. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Oh by the way …the Bison-Cattle thing plays out a bit differently in Wyoming than it does in Montana.

    Grand Teton National Park also has Bison, both migratory and local…a total of several hundred. GTNP also allows cattle grazing INSIDE the Park boundaries,. GTNP also has regular hunting seasons for both Bison and Elk. GTNP also has dud ranches inside the Park boundaries. Brucellosis is also present in both elk and bison in or near GTNP. GTNP also has Wyoming state elk feedgrounds adjacent to it.

    On the eastern boundary of Yellowstone, a small number of Bison migrate out of Yellowstone over Sylvan Pass and winter on the North Fork of the Shoshone River inside the Shoshone National Forest , usually. When these bison decide to go walkabout and leave the NF for private lands and cattle pastures in the Wapiti Valley west of Cody , they are sumamrily hazed back a few miles into the Forest by Wyo G&F. As brucellosis mitigation, no female bison are allowed, only males. Should the number rise above 15 bulls, they are hunted ( hasn’t happened ). The 11-12 bull bison who winter in Wapiti almost all return inside Yellwostone during summer for the rut.

    Conversely , about three watersheds away from Yellowstone in the Greybull River valley west of Meeteetse, migratory elk from the upper Yellowstone and the Thorofare drainages wintering on the Greybull are suspected ( but not yet proven ) to transmit brucellosis to local cattle. There have been several cases of actual brucellosis int he past few years in Meeteetse cattle herds. Migratory elk have been tested and shown to have the disease in about 5-7 percent of the animals.

    Response: The state of Wyoming has a ‘no-cost -to ranchers vaccination program’ in the ” hot zones” , and last year a special cow elk hunting season ran into February ( not too successful…who wants to kill a diseased winter elk and pack it out in the dead of winter ). Having said all that , there is no real affirmative bison-elk-brucellosis plan in Wyoming, just a test-vaccinate- slaughter-quarantine only when necessary de facto response. The number of brucellosis infections in Park County Wyoming cattle remains small and isolated.

    If this same situation were transplanted to Montana, it sounds like the cattlemen would declare war on the bison and elk and defend their precious cows at all costs, those costs being paid as much by nonranchers and even nonresidents as anyone…

    Just a snapshot from Wyoming.

    1. CodyCoyote Avatar

      Addendum. I got distracted during the writing of the above and never included a salient point about the Wyoming-Yellowstone scenario.

      It’s not out of the question that a year may come when 2-300 Bison suddenly decide to migrate out of Yellowstone going east , over and down Sylvan Pass towards Cody . Today , there are only 11-13 animals doing that , but I have seen 60 head of Bison outside the Park in the headwaters of the Shoshone River in the summer. A large migration could happen.

      I have no doubt that if 300 bison suddenly showed up in the North Fork Shoshone drainage on the National Forest, or made it the 25 miles to the private land of the Wapiti Valley, Wyoming would respond in like and kind as Montana does: attempt to haze, then proceed to bison bloodbath ( also rancher driven when you scrape the hide off it ).

      The better solution would be to find new range for those bison elsewhere in Wyoming, and we do have the large tracts of public lands that would support them in an effort to restore a native wild bison population not hideboubnd to Yellowstone. We even have a very large Indian Reservation to accomodate them.

      After all, the emblem on the Wyoming state flag is that of a white Bison. Not a Charolais cow, a Bison.

      Too bad Wyoming doesn’t offer to take those migrant vagrant Montana bison that wander into Paradise Valley .

      Paradise my fatty hump…

  4. louise kane Avatar

    Ralph thanks for the post, It is truly appalling that such small numbers of bison are hazed, not allowed to migrate freely or killed because the livestock industry has such a stranglehold on the land.


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Ralph Maughan