In commemoration of Earth Day, I’ve always made it habit to write a new essay/blog. Thankfully, living where I do, amidst a plethora of awe inspiring mountain ranges, wild rivers, numerous renowned wilderness areas and the most diverse and abundant population of wildlife in the lower 48 states, there is never a drought of material. Sharing a beautiful, bluebird Easter Sunday with my six year old daughter, parents and friends, celebrating the return of spring along the banks of the Yellowstone River with raptors soaring overhead, and meadowlarks singing their melodic song, my spirit pulsed with gratitude. I call one of the most stunning, rugged and wild places in the contiguous United States home—Yellowstone Country.
As a single father and guardian/advocate of Yellowstone (who proudly called Gardiner, Montana, home while raising my daughter amidst the wildness that makes the Gardiner Basin such sacred country), I often use stories and news reports to teach my six year old our core values—by sharing that which is right and that which is obviously very wrong. Gardiner resident Bill Hoppe has given me much fodder over the last calendar year. The news that Hoppe last week shot and killed a bull bison outside of his home is outrageous, yet all too predictable—as these heinous and abhorrent acts have become habitual for this man who lives on the doorstep of our nation’s most iconic landscape, Yellowstone National Park.
While I find Bill Hoppe’s actions to be disgraceful and disturbing, he is a testament to a much larger and more systemic problem: the lack of a land ethic that Aldo Leopold so eloquently spoke of 65 years ago. In the last year, this man brought domesticated sheep into close proximity with our wild sheep, in the process threatening the integrity and stability of an entire population. Under the auspice of providing sheep for his grandchildren (laughable), it was no surprise when this transparent baiting of wolves resulted in Hoppe shooting and legally killing wolf #831 as reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on May 8th—which was accompanied by a picture of him smiling smugly as he held the limp body of #831 in hands. The act of grazing sheep so close to Yellowstone’s boundary should outrage those who cherish the region’s wild heartbeat.
And now this, the shooting of a bison in the name of self-defense. I lived in Gardiner for much of the last decade. Working as a ranger, fly fishing and wildlife guide, and the head boys basketball coach at Gardiner High, I relished living in such close proximity to wild bison; but even more, I cherished the sense of awe and wonder that accompanied my little daughter’s learning about the world and the place she called home as she peered through our fence at the elephant of North America, the American bison, grazing in our driveway. Many residents of Gardiner, where interactions with wildlife constitute part of daily life, share this sentiment. On countless occasions my dogs interacted with wild Yellowstone bison without incident. Many early morning basketball practices, the path to the gym was blocked by big bull bison. Weaponless, players and coaches weaved our way through the shaggy beasts, awe-inspired by each encounter.
Outrage and indignation should fill the belly of those of us who cherish a wild Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The likes of Bill Hoppe represent an Old West that is played out and empowered by agencies such as Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. These rogue characters seem to believe that their rights as landowners and outfitters trump those of the rest of the citizens of Montana—and, in the case of Yellowstone wildlife, the rights of the rest of the nation.
While rationalizing with a man like Bill Hoppe is clearly not likely to get us anywhere, anyone with a love (or even fondness) for the wildness that makes Montana “Montana” may want to direct some of her or his outrage at another entity—one that certainly should be amenable to rational discussion. As someone who proudly served on the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Citizen Advisory Committee for Region 3, largely to participate in a more enlightened discussion regarding bison management and an emergence from the dark ages, I’m ashamed of this agency’s handling of Bill Hoppe’s transgressions, as well as his in-your-face lack of respect for our region’s greatest asset, its wildlife.
MFWP is the bellwether wildlife agency for other states across the western landscape, but how much longer this will be the case is debatable if they continue to sit idle on the sideline. Incidents such as the one recently reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle are barbaric and archaic. In what other arena can a man with no regard for the wildlife that makes Yellowstone Country one of the most important ecosystems on our planet get away with such cowardly yet impactful behavior? Where are the legal repercussions? Why was a gutpile left—again—on this man’s property? People like Bill Hoppe already have the lobbying interest of the Montana Department of Livestock and Montana Board of Outfitters behind them; when will MFWP stand up and represent the vast majority of their constituency? Must they be reminded time and time again that they are entrusted with protecting the wildlife of Montana? When it comes to standing up for our most iconic species this celebrated agency has no backbone. Enough is enough.
A teacher of mine is fond of twisting his wrist from front to back, alternately showing his palm and backside of his hand, reminding me that there are positives and negatives to every decision or challenge we confront. I’ve adopted this simple, yet effective teaching tool with my daughter. While it’s hard for my 6 year old to make sense of a man wantonly killing wildlife in the town she still proudly calls home (she is always eager to remind people “I’m from Gardiner”), the lessons and determination people like Bill Hoppe provide parents willing to confront difficult issues may just help inspire a new surge of a motivated and audacious generation of Yellowstone guardians.
For a wild planet and a wilder Yellowstone,
~Michael W. Leach
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” ~Aldo Leopold