With summer tourist season still in full throttle, the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club wants visitors and permanent denizens of Montana to send a strong message to Gov. Steve Bullock regarding the state’s ongoing official policy of hostility and intolerance directed toward Yellowstone National Park bison.

From Aug. 12 through Sept. 9, motorists traveling southward along U.S. 191 near Gallatin Gateway and eastbound on I-90 near the turnoff to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport will be greeted with billboards impossible to ignore. Both feature an image of Yellowstone bison, locked down in a quarantine facility at Stevens Creek near Gardiner, and accompanied by these words “Free Me.”




Kiersten Iwai, the Sierra Club’s associate organizing representative based in Bozeman, says the clever marketing ploy, aimed at bringing public pressure and shame to bear on the Bullock Administration, is part of an ongoing campaign to ignite “a call to action.”

“This billboard gives the people of Montana the opportunity to make sure that Governor Bullock listens to science and expands bison habitat,” she said.  “We believe that due to the calls and messages that will flood his office because of these billboards, combined with the tens of thousands of comments previously made in support of this policy, Governor Bullock will make the correct decision.”

Since 1985, more than 8,500 Yellowstone bison have been gunned down in the show or shipped to slaughterhouses upon leaving the safe confines of the national park and wandering into Montana   While the state has claimed park bison represent an imminent threat of transmitting the bovine disease, brucellosis, to private domestic cattle herds, that claim has been roundly refuted by (lack of) scientific evidence.

There has not been a single documented case of wild park bison passing brucellosis to cattle in the region.  Every case involving wildlife-related brucellosis infection in beef herds has been traced to wandering infected wild elk.

The Sierra Club billboards greet viewers with this sub message: “Tell Governor Bullock to give Bison room to roam in Montana!” and asks motorists to text the word “Bison” to a number which then steers them to a site for more information.  Iwai notes how ironic it is that Travel Montana is paying for billboards in cities such as Chicago and Seattle featuring tranquil scenes of bison attached to the hashtag #montanamoment and encouraging visitors to escape to the state for a real taste of the wild West.

But the billboards, of course, fail to mention that the animals, save for one place—the National Bison Refuge—are not welcome in the state.  No other native wildlife species in the modern West has been treated with such lethal animas. Iwai says Travel Montana should indeed to able to feature bison in its promotion and could if only the state changed its attitude.

bison11Young bull bison wallowing in Yellowstone. YNP PhotoBullock and his advisors stand accused of beling deliberately evasive in responding to a growing groundswell of outrage over the state’s policy. Critics say the  Democratic governor has largely ignored calls demanding that bison be treated with respect as the emblematic wildlife they are.  At present, there is a movement in Congress to have bison—once the most populous large land animal on earth—declared America's official mammal.  Keith Aune of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bozeman is part of that effort.

The National Park Service, Montana and other government agencies are now involved in the early stages of rewriting a plan for managing bison.  Not long ago, Montana State Sen. Mike Phillips, who has been openly critical of Bullock for refusing to stand down unjustified hysteria related to roaming bison, says the governor needs to exhibit leadership on the issue instead of kowtowing to the livestock industry.

Earlier this year, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks terminated longtime mammal specialist Arnie Dood, who had overseen state recovery efforts for gray wolves and grizzlies. Dood’s primary responsibility at the time he saw his position eliminated was stewardship of bison.  State Sen. Phillips defended Dood and at a public meeting said, “What Montana and the Park Service needs isn’t a bison management plan, it’s a brucellosis management plan to address the fact that an unfair onus for confronting this disease has been placed on the backs of bison.”


There has not been a single documented case of wild park bison passing brucellosis to cattle in the region.  Every case involving wildlife-related brucellosis infection in beef herds has been traced to wandering infected wild elk.


The old bison management plan, put in place at the start of this new millennium 15 years ago, has been roundly condemned as a huge waste of public taxpayer money, for promulgating policies that have no scientific underpinning and for singling out bison out when livestock officials know the real vector of transmission is wapiti.

Groups like the Sierra Club, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Natural Resources Defense Council and Buffalo Field Campaign say that bison should be allowed to roam year-round on public lands beyond the western boundary of Yellowstone and be given more tolerance when they trudge outside the park into the Upper Yellowstone River Valley just above Yankee Jim Canyon along the Yellowstone River.

Wildlife advocates also are pushing to re-establish a public wild bison herd in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Range, which flanks the Upper Missouri River near Lewistown. More than 180 years ago, painter Karl Bodmer observed bison in what is today the CMR Refuge.  Famed painter Charles M. Russell, after whom the refuge is named, also made a number of bison paintings based upon sightings of the iconic animals along the Upper Missouri.

The non-profit and Bozeman-based American Prairie Reserve is building its own herd on holdings in central Montana near the CMR and hoping to one day use those animals as seed stock for a fully public herd.   The American Prairie Reserve is using bison as the centerpiece of an unprecedented effort to one day restore three million acres of prairie ecosystem.

To get a sense of what’s at stake view the following short five-minute clip featuring part-time Montanan and NBC news anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw as he talks about the noble goals of what the American Prairie Reserve is trying to accomplish.  Joining him are APR’s president Sean Gerrity and Ann Ziff at a special fundraiser for APR held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.


Editor's Note: Todd Wilkinson is author of a new book coming out later in August, "Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone."  It tells the harrowing life and death story surrounding grizzlies and people . "Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek"  features 150 images by renowned wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen who lives in Jackson Hole.