Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Buffalo Saga Continues

by Alexander Cockburn

The Montana authorities have been deluged with angry letters
As we left the story back in early March, the state of Montana had killed some 900 buffalo wandering out of Yellowstone National Park, looking for forage at lower elevations. The rationale for the killing was that the buffalo might transfer brucellosis to cattle herds. Brucellosis can cause cattle to abort their fetuses. However, there are no records of wild bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle, and the brucellosis bacteria are also transmitted by elk, which are much more populous in the region and mingle freely with cattle on National Forest grazing allotments in Montana.

This widely published story helped provoke a national uproar, and the call for people planning a trip to Montana to visit a more bison-friendly state has yielded satisfactory results. The Montana authorities have been deluged with angry letters from vacationers canceling their trips.

In fact, Montana might have backed off its buffalo killing, but scenting economic advantage and maybe a tourist edge as well, the states of Oregon, Colorado and Washington announced a ban on the import of Montana cattle on the grounds that they might be infected with brucellosis. Thus, these states strove to boost local cattle prices and give some bad publicity to their tourist rival. In this situation, the Montana authorities reckoned they had better project a brucellosis-hostile image.

The billboards featured a herd of breeding buffalo riddled with state ranger bullets and the caption, "Grown in Yellowstone ... Slaughtered in Montana"
As the story made the rounds, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt hastened to denounce the killing as "an over-reaction and unjustified," and then dashed for bureaucratic cover in a thicket of pledges to place the whole problem in the hands of the National Academy of Sciences for further study. In practice, the Clinton administration has continued to abet the slaughter by declining to withdraw from its Memorandum of Agreement with Montana, which permits the buffalo to be dispatched in this way. Although his backside has rarely been chafed by saddle leather, Babbitt is of course an Arizona rancher, and so he is perhaps in sympathy with the Montana buffalo killers.

About 1,200 buffalo have now been killed and another 600 have died from the harsh winter, so some 1,300 buffalo are left from a total last December of 3,000. Among those very unhappy with this course of events is the National Park Service. Park Service officials have also been showered with complaints. Park Rangers in Yellowstone have taken to strapping a black band over their official badge, which features a buffalo. Inside Montana, the most energetic defender of the buffalo has been artist, enviro organizer and sometime political candidate for the U.S. Congress Steve Kelly. Kelly began by erecting two billboards, one in Billings and one in Helena. The billboards featured a herd of breeding buffalo riddled with state ranger bullets and the caption, "Grown in Yellowstone ... Slaughtered in Montana."

The Billings billboard became state-wide news the day it went up on March 15. Two months later, Kelly got enough contributions from the publicity to finance another billboard in the state capital of Helena. This also became front-page news after an enraged head of the Chamber of Commerce (and former Forest Service supervisor) left a message on Kelly's answering machine, saying, "You need to call us right away, up here in Helena. We really don't appreciate your doing that billboard, and we want it out of our community. We will not tolerate that kind of advertisement in Helena, Montana. It's in bad taste for tourists coming through town. We get complaints on it, and I'm going to forward all the telephone calls to you and let you'all justify it."

Kelly promptly passed this on to the press, along with outraged cries about artistic freedom and hymns to the glories of the First Amendment. This in turn provoked another freshet of money, allowing Kelly to continue his billboard campaign.

Still not quite getting the picture, the Montana Cattlemen s Association made the curious threat to put Kelly's billboard in "his (Kelly's) backyard free of charge." This dire threat was warmly greeted by Kelly, and the cattlemen have withdrawn their foolish letter, though in Agri-News they did encourage their members to drive past the monstrosity in Billings and see it for themselves. The Agri-News item described the poster in poetic terms: "The billboard is in color -- the sky is blue, the letters are white, the hills are light brown, the buffalo are black, and the buffalo are lying in pools of red blood. It's obvious that the members of this group raise hell rather than cattle."

Kelly is now planning further billboards in Jackson and Missoula. The Montana Division of Tourism is in despair. For $500 per billboard to date, Kelly has accomplished more than the Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife, with a collective annual budget of more than $30 million. Latest into Kelly's mailbox is a letter of reproof from Meg Maguire, president of Scenic America, a Washington, D.C.-based outfit that tries hard to rid the highways of unsightly billboards, thus permitting travelers to savor the buffalo-free expanses of landscape beyond.

To help the campaign, send what you can to Friends of the Wild Swan, P.O. Box 5103, Swan Lake, Mont. 59911. Phone: 406-586-0180.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor June 5, 1997 (

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