Where Do the Buffalo Roam? Ask Bill Hoppe
BY PETER J. RYAN
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam; Where the deer and the antelope play; Where seldom is heard a discouraging word; And the sky is not cloudy all day. —My Western Home, Dr. Brewster Higley (1873)
When Brewster Higley penned the poem that would later become the Western anthem Home on the Range, the 19th-century physician hadn’t had the benefit of meeting Bill Hoppe.
Owner of 40 rugged acres nestled outside Gardiner in the shadow of Yellowstone Park, Hoppe, a rancher and hunting outfitter, has more than a lyrical interest in where exactly buffalo roam. And when he locks horns with government agencies and special interest groups over the controversial bison issue, there often is no shortage of discouraging words.
“Hell, I don’t mind a few bison—I like to see ’em run around as much as anybody,” said Hoppe, a fifth-generation Montanan. “But when you get a couple of hundred or more bison on your place in a tough winter, they tear the hell out of things. The stuff that these different agencies and groups put out about how easy they are to live with, well they’re not. Ask the four or five people who have been gored in the park this year about how easy they are to live with.”
According to the park’s Office of Public Affairs, there have in fact been five injuries this summer due to encounters with bison, one recent victim being a 68-year-old Georgia woman who needed to be hospitalized. As Hoppe notes, bison can be dangerous, and they do require their space.
“I had a few horses killed several years ago by bison,” Hoppe claimed. “They [the bison] came in when we were feeding [them]. They were hungry, so they came in and got with the horses and gored their guts out…they’re in with the horses all the time.”
Hoppe also spoke of bison ripping out and dragging 150 yards of wire fence, damaged irrigation wheel lines, and of trees being destroyed.
Earlier this summer, the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a cooperative effort between the National Park Service and the State of Montana to conserve a wild bison population while minimizing the risk of brucellosis, held a series of three open houses in West Yellowstone, Bozeman and Gardiner. The purpose was to update the plan, which was developed in 2001 and is now considered outdated.
Six different “preliminary concepts” were presented. The various plans dealt with such issues as total population goals, disease-manage-ment strategies, hazing, and hunting. There also was discussion of the highly volatile topic of slaughter.
Jennifer Carpenter, Acting Chief for the Yellowstone Center for Resources, said that more than 3,000 letters of comment were received, most of them on-line. “There are a lot of different perspectives involved,” Carpenter said. “They range from one end of the spectrum to the other. There are a lot of stake-holders in this.”
One of those stakeholders is the Montana Stockgrowers Association, which represents cattlemen across the state. “We want to make sure the park is managing the bison within the care and capacity of the forages they have available,” said MSGA Communications Manager Ryan Goodman. “We also want to limit exposure of domestic livestock herds to the threat of brucellosis. One of the things we would like to see is the park be more proactive on the vaccination program, and work to come up with ideas in management to eliminate the brucellosis disease.”
Brucellosis, of course, is a term that has become almost as familiar to Montanans as influenza. The disease, which can cause cows to abort their fetuses, and which can seri-ously sicken or kill humans, is said to originate locally in bison, a contention that is challenged by advocacy groups such as the Buffalo Field Campaign.
“As the public has begun to see through the falsities and deception of the livestock industry’s scare tactics that brucellosis is such a huge threat, the industry and their government backers have begun to shift the nexus of their argument to one of ‘overpopulation,’” BFC Executive Director Daniel Brister told the Pioneer by email. “Current population caps or targets are based on politics and not science and have nothing to do with carrying capacity or eco-logical sustainability. In fact, Yellowstone and surrounding lands could support far more bison than are currently allowed to exist.”
Standing in the middle of this stampede of rhetoric is Bill Hoppe.
“They make some kind of Walt Disney story out of it about how these buffalo are so gentle, and they don’t hurt anything, and they just wander around looking for something to eat,” Hoppe said. “Well, just go two miles from here and look at every sign going into Yellowstone Park. It says that buffalo are ‘wild, dangerous and unpredictable. Do not approach.’ But they expect me to live with them in my yard!”
Hoppe, though, expresses no animosity toward bison. “It’s not the buffalo’s fault,” he said, “it’s the management—there’s a lot of propaganda out there about [the bison having] 75,000 acres [to roam]. The only place they got to go south of Yankee Jim Canyon is private property.”
In recent years, instead of culling the herd, as in the past, wildlife officials have seasonally set park bison loose onto private property outside the park’s northern boundary (with the approval of Montana governors) and installed a cattle guard on Highway 89 at Yankee Jim Canyon to prevent them from migrating farther into Paradise Valley. Consequences of the roaming herd include bison-vehicle collisions on the highway and the destruction of private property Hoppe talks about.
Hoppe told the Pioneer that in the past he has cooperated with the park and its bison policy, letting officials haze bison back into Yellowstone across his land, but he said that his cooperation was never reciprocated and that he has never been compensated for damages. After sometimes hundreds of bison had trampled his property, ripped up trees, tore out fence, and killed horses, according to Hoppe, “never once did they come with posts or a bundle of wire to help,” he said.
At one time, Hoppe raised cattle. “I had about 20 to 25 of them,” he said. “We raised them to sell—to make a little money on them.” After he lost the summer pasture he had leased for several years, he decided to raise sheep instead. It turned out to be a bad idea.
In the spring of 2013, his animals were attacked by wolves, and newspaper reports said he lost 13 sheep. “I lost 18 sheep,” Hoppe corrected, “and (the wolves) never ate one bite. They kill just to kill.”
Hoppe applied for and received two shoot-on-sight permits from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Two weeks after he lost the sheep, in a pasture near his house he shot and killed a collared wolf identified as “831F.” A park biologist claimed that 831F was not responsible for the slaughter of Hoppe’s sheep. The organization Wolves of the Rockies accused him of baiting the wolves by intentionally leaving carcasses piled on his property, but FWP dismissed the allegation as unfounded.
“All summer long, we had death threats, filthy phone calls and emails,” Hoppe recalled. “They said they were coming to kill me, because I killed wolves.”
Hoppe did little to burnish his image with wildlife advocacy groups in 2014, when he shot a buffalo that he claimed was attacking his dog.
“That caused a big stink,” he said. “That son-of-a-gun was trying to hook me when I killed him. I got several witnesses to it. There were three bulls in the yard and the dog was chained up, and them bulls were trying to kill my dog.
“I will defend my property—I mean, I will,” he added. “That was the first buffalo I’ve taken. You know, all these (newspaper) stories make me out to be a badass—if I wanted to kill buffalo, I could have killed 10,000 over the years in my yard.”
While wildlife advocates seem less than enamored with Hoppe, the feeling appears to be mutual.
“It’s all about what animal they can get the most mileage out of,” he said. “I mean, these environmental groups make millions on an animal, whether it’s wolves, or a lynx, or a wolverine, whatever they can get. Like the wolf. If they get it on the endangered species list, they make millions. They ask for donations to save the wolf. They ask for donations to save the buffalo, and you can’t believe how many people (donate). You know, it only takes a million people to send one dollar to make a million bucks. That’s all these environmental groups are about. It’s easy for them to sell. You know, there’s nobody who doesn’t like animals, whether it’s wolves, or buffalo, or bears, or whatever.”
Hoppe pointed to a 2009 ad campaign run by Defenders of Wildlife in New York City. In an effort to halt the hunting of wolves, the organization bought time on a 520-square-foot CBS superscreen at 42nd Street in Times Square, the video having shown a wolf pup howling in tall grass and a message requesting $5 donations. A portion of the donations reportedly was going to be used to compensate ranchers who raise livestock near wolf populations, but MSGA’s Goodman said he was unaware of any such disburse-ments.
Said Hoppe: “People get attached. They like these animals, and they believe everything they read about how we’re going to kill every wolf, or kill every buffalo, there’s not going to be any more. They make millions.”
Defenders of Wildlife does indeed raise millions, the financial report on its website showing more than $32 million in total revenue in 2014. However, a spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based organization defended its motives, including its right to descend upon a relatively peaceful hamlet such as Gardiner.
“With respect to our national constituency that we represent, we have a lot of public lands,” said Steve Forrest, Senior Representative for the Defenders’ Rockies and Plains Program, who lives in Denver. “They are national public treasures, so people in New York and Georgia and Alaska all have an interest in what happens in and around Yellowstone with regard to not only how those lands are managed, but how the wildlife on those lands fare.”
Forrest said that the genetic purity of the Yellowstone bison “is far too valuable to simply ship animals to slaughter.” He said his organization favors captive-breeding, which involves a quarantine of bison until they are disease-free, at which time the animals could be relocated to establish herds in other areas.
Native American tribes in Montana tend to favor this approach. According to Robbie Magnan, Fish and Wildlife Director for the Fort Peck Tribes, the reservation has received 187 Yellowstone bison through the quarantine program, and they expect the number to grow to 250 by next spring. Once the herd exceeds the manageable level of 300, he said, the additional bison can be harvested and their lean meat used to battle diabetes, which has been a difficult challenge on the reservation.
“They’re the last of the original buffalo that our ancestors ran with, and we feel very closely connected,” Magnan said. “Buffalo have been part of the Native American culture since the beginning of time. Buffalo provided everything that we needed. They were like a one-stop shopping center, like what Walmart is to people now. Buffalo provided our food, our shelter, our tools, our weapons—they gave us everything.”
While the Defenders of Wildlife and Native Americans appear in accord regarding a quarantine program, Brister of the Buffalo Field Campaign disagrees.
“BFC does not support the quarantine process,” he stated. “Under this process, groups of bison are captured and all but the calves are sent to slaughter. These calves are then raised much like cattle, kept in enclosed pens and pastures and fed hay for up to five years. Deprived of their family structures and cut off from their instinctual migration, these domesticated bison are no longer wild…We support tribal hunts, but believe that there are far better sources than Yellowstone for tribes wishing to bring buffalo to their reservations.”
There also is disagreement whether brucellosis is transmitted to cattle by bison, or if in fact it is transmitted by elk. “But the elk are catching it from the buffalo,” Hoppe insisted. “Until they clean up the buffalo in Yellowstone Park, they’re never going to get it under control.”
It is against the backdrop of this debate that Rick Wallen, team leader for the National Park Service’s Bison and Ecology Management Program, expects the process of hammering out a new management plan to “go on for several more years.”
“It’s an emotional issue,” Wallen said. “It’s very value-driven. There are people who place high value on preserving wildlife. On the other end of the spectrum are people who place very little value on wildlife because they compete with them in agri-culture—they eat grass, they break things on the farm, things like that.”
Countered Goodman: (The Stockgrowers) are not advocating for the elimination of wildlife. We would just like to see them at manageable levels.”
While all voices will be heard, there appears to be a strong push to allow more bison to leave the park and enter Montana, perhaps thousands more. This, of course, is not good news for Hoppe, who questions the logic of letting more bison leave the park when current numbers causes so many problems.
“It’s not neighborly, and it might not even be lawful for them to turn those animals out here and destroy private property, and then walk off and not pay for damages,” he said. “If my animals got out on public property, or even on the neighbors’ and cause damage, I’m liable. I have to pay for it. And these people don’t want to be liable. All they want to say is that we have to be more tolerant.”