Annual Bison Range Round Up
Written by VINCE DEVLIN Photographed by TOM BAUER of the Missoulian
MOIESE - On his lunch break, Bill West gets the call and makes the decision. After the crowds have left the roundup at the National Bison Range, after the schoolchildren have boarded their buses and headed home, he will "dispatch" one cow. The dispatching will be done with a 30.06, West will take it upon himself to pull the trigger, and the bison will never see it coming. She's blind, you see.
A tourist on the Red Sleep Mountain drive first noticed her wandering aimlessly at the upper end of Pauline Creek and called the refuge staff on a cell phone. "That's new," says West, about four months into his job as manager of the Bison Range. "With cell phones, we learn things from people we used to have to find out on our own."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel captured the cow, and she underwent what West calls "extensive veterinary work for a wild animal. They tried to save the one eye that had pinkeye, and she was already blind in the other one." The cow was returned to the refuge, but as she and almost 350 other bison were rounded up for their annual health checkup last week, it became obvious she couldn't see. "Yesterday she was the only one who didn't come in," West says. "But it was foggy yesterday, and all the animals looked like they were running blind."
However, the fog has lifted some on the roundup's second day, and the poor cow is still clueless. "She's running into stuff bad, and she's bloodied her nose pretty good," West says. "She's not mean, she just can't see, but that gets her in a panic. It's not safe to put her back on the tour route." The cow's meat will be given to the Northern Cheyenne tribe, which has representatives here to observe the roundup.
The annual affair attracts hundreds of onlookers, who get the rare opportunity to watch men on horses try to put enough fear into animals that know none to get the 2,000-pound beasts to go charging off to places they don't want to. Once inside the elaborate corral system, the bison are really angry. One bull takes it out on another for a bit, then on a Jeep the FWS has positioned inside the fence in an effort to discourage animals from going that direction. The bull charges, and gores the spare tire hanging on the back of the vehicle. It retreats back with the 20 or so bison that have been cut off from the herd by the riders and are about to be herded through the system, then charges the Jeep again. There's a loud POP and the right rear of the vehicle sinks. Another tire gone.
"He's probably never been in, except as a young animal," guesses Pat Jamison, who works with visitor services at the range. "Either that, or he didn't like it before, and he's saying, 'I'm not doing it again,' " West says. "They have long memories." Every year there are a handful of animals that refuse to join the thundering herd as the bison are rounded up and driven to large fenced areas next to the corral system. "Some of the bulls will try to hide in the thickets," Jamison says. "They'll back up into the brush and the guys will try to chase them, but can't get them to move, and can't get behind them."
"When it's you, a horse and 10,000 acres, they can win," West says. There were nine animals this year they know of that evaded the roundup, eight bulls and "one weak cow that didn't need to be bothered by us." West passes on the news on this cloudy day. The only bison that won't return to wander the refuge's 18,500 acres is the blind one. None of the other 345 or so animals will be segregated and carted off to infuse other public bison herds, or sold for slaughter.
The FWS had announced earlier this year that both the staff and the herd at the Bison Range would sustain significant cuts in their numbers - the staff because of budget shortfalls, the animals because of a plan - called meta-population management - to improve the genetic quality of other public bison herds in the United States. The National Bison Range herd is considered the most disease-free and genetically pure in the nation. The cuts appeared to be one of the latest volleys in a very public and often heated battle between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes over management of the refuge, located on the Flathead Reservation. Just a year ago, the tribes were heavily involved in the roundup. An annual funding agreement put tribal employees in about half what was then 18 jobs at the Bison Range, and CSKT helped provide many of the volunteers that help at the roundup.
While there are tribal members who work for the FWS and tribal members who volunteered on their own, tribal government declined an invitation to be part of the 2007 roundup. Their employees received a critical and controversial evaluation that led to the FWS locking them out of their jobs late last year after the agency abruptly canceled the annual funding agreement, and forced them to turn in their gear under the supervision of armed FWS personnel.
The Fish and Wildlife Service charged that tribal employees performed some of their work incompetently, and some not at all. The tribes said the FWS never suggested there were any problems until the damning report was released, and deliberately sabotaged their work in an effort to keep jobs in the hands of federal employees. Steve Kallin was in charge of the National Bison Range during that period, but left last summer to take over management of the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyo. West took over, but it's not his first rodeo in Moiese. This is his 20th roundup since coming to work at the Bison Range, and he was second in command behind Kallin before succeeding him.
"Right now the tribes don't trust us, and we don't trust the tribes," West says. "We're in a cooling-off period." But the decision not to reduce the herd - a cutback strongly opposed by the tribes - is an effort, according to West, to "show that we're listening." "Part of it was that we were really excited about meta-population management," West says. "We were not thinking about how the public would feel about us jerking the numbers up and down on the range." And, he says, Congress restored enough funding that West now has nine positions (not all of them full-time) to fill. He'll wait to see if the tribes and FWS brass can agree on another partnership before hiring for most of them. "There's no doubt they can do the job," West says.
The bison population may not be being reduced, but the elk on the refuge need to be. "I know people love to see them, but they're eating grass that rightfully belongs to the bison," West says. "The elk compete with the bison for food, and while people may like them, elk are not our congressional mission." The refuge can support 130 elk, he says, but there are more than 200 inside the range's borders. Like the blind cow, they'll also have to be shot. "Until four years ago, we could take them away live," West says, "but with the advent of chronic wasting disease in herds south of us in Wyoming, we're subject to the same regulations. Once they leave our front entrance, they can't be alive." The meat is given to the tribes and schools.
West would like to see the range surrounded by more porous fences capable of keeping the bison in while letting other species come and go more easily. "The whitetail deer can come in and out," he says. "The coyotes make holes underneath it. Mountain lions and bears can climb over it, but grizzlies aren't that good of climbers. "We've seen a wolf or two, but no pack has established itself on the refuge. Wolves would probably be our best answer to controlling the elk, but they haven't figured it out yet." Mountain lions keep the mule and whitetail deer populations in check, he says, coyotes control the pronghorn and bighorn sheep numbers, but like the bison, the elk numbers have to be controlled by humans.
"We're almost big enough to be an ecosystem, but not quite," West says. Meantime, inside the corral system, calves are weighed, branded, have hair and blood samples taken, and have computerized chips injected behind their ears so that in future roundups, folks can wave a wand and have each bison's health history pop up on a computer. The adults go through some of the same procedures, and one by one, the shaggy critters are released back onto the refuge's thousands of acres for another year, clearly angry about the few minutes spent at their annual doctor's appointment, but otherwise oblivious to the turmoil that surrounds the management of their home.