The winter of 1995-96 was exceptionally severe, with record snow depths in Yellowstone National Park. In pursuit of alternate winter ranges, more than a thousand bison headed into Montana, their egress facilitated by winter recreationists, especially snowmobilers, who had demanded that the roads be kept plowed.

Since the health of the park bison could not be known, the State of Montana took steps to protect its livestock industry from the possibility of re-infection with brucellosis, but despite efforts to haze them back into the park, the bison kept coming. Before that winter was over, some 1,100 park bison had been shot, and the meat given to various Indian tribes.

Nationwide, the reaction was immediate, and passionate. It reached through the office of the governor of Montana, straight to the halls of Congress. Strident claims of cruelty, and worse, made headlines almost daily. Roused to action by what they perceived to be the second mass slaughter of the West's wildlife icon, the American bison, protesters seemed readier to confront hungry bison than angry snowmobilers, while being obliged to do neither.

The winter of 1997 began under the ominous possibility of worse to come, but what ensued was mild, compared with the previous year. The crisis was to subside into a monotonous calendar of committee meetings, hearings, letters to the editor, and web sites still plaintively howling for concerned citizens to "save the buffalo."

Actually, history was repeating itself. More than 25 years before, hunters had been permitted to help thin a herd owned by the State of Arizona, to keep it in balance with available habitat. In 1970, Columbia Pictures released an ill-conceived movie, entitled Bless the Beasts and the Children, which portrayed clumsy and cruel killing of bison in a modern setting. Actually, it was filmed on a private ranch on Catalina Island, but it generated intense anti-hunter sentiment, and public resentment, especially towards the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. Cartesian cynicism yielded to Benthamite idealism.

Bison management has often been a crisis-driven exercise, especially on public lands. The problem now is how to limit this prolific species without eliciting negative reactions from a vocal and sometimes powerful public sector. One of the bolder and, at least at the outset, more controversial recommendations is the "Buffalo Commons" proposed by Frank and Deborah Popper in 1987. This would return a substantial portion of the marginally profitable farmland in the Great Plains to herds of free-roaming bison. "If we made enough room for them," says Buffalo Commons advocate Ernest Callenbach, "we could theoretically have 33 million bison by the year 2011."1 Adherents have not clearly indicated where, much less how, the line marking the human/bison interface would be drawn, but the responsibility would obviously fall on the human side of the equation. In other words, it would, perforce, be a major political issue.

For Further Reading

Center for Bison Studies—Book List:

The History and Development of the American West, from the Frontier and Pioneer days of the Wild West, to today's Modern West:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 6 (Mountain–Prairie):

1. Ernest Callenbach, Bring Back the Buffalo! (n.p.: Island Press,1996).