Hunting Bison and Dodging the Media in Montana For the first time in 15 years, the state of Montana is allowing bison to wander outside of Yellowstone National Park, and allowing a some hunters to shoot them. But some hunters find that the biggest challenge isn't killing a bison -- it's avoiding the thundering herd of media and pro-bison activists.
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Hunting Bison and Dodging the Media in Montana

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Hunting Bison and Dodging the Media in Montana

Hunting Bison and Dodging the Media in Montana

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, an intrepid explorer celebrates his 100th birthday.

But first, for the first time in 15 years, the state of Montana is allowing hunters to shoot bison that migrate out of Yellowstone National Park. Bison are hunted without much fanfare in five other states, but the Yellowstone herd is so famous and its history is so fraught that Montana's hunt has attracted attention from around the world and the hunters have become the hunted. Kathy Witkowsky prepared this report from Gardiner, Montana.

Mr. RICK JAKEWITH (Bison Hunter): I have to put my camouflage on to stalk the wily bison.


One of the things Rick Jakewith likes most about hunting is getting away from people. But this is the way Jakewith's first day of bison hunting began, with a network television news crew miking him up and videotaping him scouting the sage-covered foothills just north of Yellowstone National Park.

Unidentified Woman: Hey, Rick, can you switch sides? Larry!

Unidentified Man: Rick?

WITKOWSKY: Locating the bison isn't difficult. A couple dozen graze in small groups near the roads and meander through the public campground. But Jakewith is reluctant to take aim.

Mr. JAKEWITH: You know, it's a little too like shooting a cow in a pasture and then having media and the whole parade. I didn't want to become the grand marshal of the media parade to the buffalo killing fields, you know.

WITKOWSKY: And it's not just the press that's trying to catch Jakewith's kill on videotape.

Mr. MIKE MEASE (Coordinator, The Buffalo Field Campaign): Yeah, I think they're around that road that we were on.

WITKOWSKY: Volunteers with The Buffalo Field Campaign, which opposes the hunt, are also on hand to document and publicize it.

Mr. MEASE: We are watching over all the buffalo that are outside of the safety of the Yellowstone National Park.

WITKOWSKY: That's coordinator Mike Mease, who says the bison deserve a safe haven on public lands in Montana. For years, the state has been chasing them back into the park or capturing and sometimes sending them to slaughter. That's because the bison carry brucellosis, and the state is afraid they might infect livestock. Letting them out of the park for a three-month hunt, says Mease, isn't the answer.

Mr. MEASE: None of this land is now bison-friendly. It's just another way of killing them that's not going to solve the brucellosis problem.

WITKOWSKY: It was fears about brucellosis that led to the state's last organized hunt, which turned into a public-relations nightmare. Back in the 1980s, state wardens escorted hunters to any animals that crossed park boundaries then watched as they were shot. Footage of that spectacle was aired around the world and, says Melissa Frost of Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, it didn't play well.

Ms. MELISSA FROST (Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks): We suffered from the media attention and, in particular, we were roundly criticized for it not being a true hunt. And in the sense that we guided hunters in the field, we called them up and we took them out to a bison--no, that wasn't a true hunt.

WITKOWSKY: This year's hunt has been redesigned to give the bison a fairer shake. A maximum of 48 hunters will pursue the bison, which can roam widely outside the park during the three-month season. Given that the bison are usually shot with Nikons and not Winchesters, officials acknowledge that the hunt might not be much of a challenge this year. But like other wildlife, Frost says, these bison should eventually become more wary of humans.

Ms. FROST: This is the first step in managing bison in Montana like any other species for making a place for wild bison in Montana.

WITKOWSKY: But in the meantime, the attention focused on these beloved icons of the West is making Rick Jakewith's life miserable. The hunter spends two days driving past bison, trying to elude the dogged activists who keep tailing him.

Mr. JAKEWITH: Yeah, that's the sport of it, is to shoot one without being filmed by The Buffalo Field Campaign. But I don't know that that's going to be feasible because we're running out of time.

WITKOWSKY: So on day three, Jakewith finally surrenders. Accompanied by five Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers, three friends and two journalists, Jakewith hikes several hundred yards from the road where three bull bison are grazing peacefully.

Mr. JAKEWITH: I just want to make a clean shot.

WITKOWSKY: As the video cameras roll, he pulls the trigger.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

WITKOWSKY: The shot is good, but the bison is tough. It staggers for a few minutes, and it's not until Jakewith takes a second shot that the animal lies down to die. Afterwards, Jakewith turns to address bison activist Mease and his crew.

Mr. JAKEWITH: You just had to film that, didn't you, gentlemen?

WITKOWSKY: But Mease congratulates Jakewith on his good shooting. Together, everyone admires the bull and Jakewith sums up his hunting experience.

Mr. JAKEWITH: Bizarre. Word of the day, bizarre.

WITKOWSKY: Then the real work begins: cutting up and packing out the enormous buffalo, all 2,000 pounds of him. That takes 10 hours. And the job might have lasted longer if a couple of The Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers hadn't helped. They were delighted when Jakewith gave them a cut of bison meat and two hooves. For NPR News, I'm Kathy Witkowsky.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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