In the Rocky Mountains, politics, like the weather, is subject to sudden change.
Shortly after he took office last month, Montana's Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced a sweeping proposal to manage bison in Yellowstone National Park, including a buffalo hunt come November.
His plan envisions emptying the park of 4,200 buffalo, screening them for disease, offering sick ones to slaughter or to hunters and shipping healthy ones to Indian tribes or private landowners, then repopulating Yellowstone with disease-free buffalo. He also proposes establishing a nearby winter range where hunters could shoot bison.
"I'm the first cattleman to be governor of Montana in generations," Schweitzer says. "I understand disease [and] cattle. I'll put the pieces together."
Yet his announcement whipsawed conservationists and animal rights groups. Schweitzer had originally halted a controversial bison hunt planned for this winter season at Yellowstone immediately after he took office Jan. 3.
Past hunts gave the state a black eye because bison had no chance to escape. Game wardens escorted riflemen who blasted buffalo at close range as they lumbered across the park boundary in heavy snow. Schweitzer feared live TV would capture a violent confrontation between hunters and animal rights activists.
Hunt opponents, including some hunters, cheered the decision as a new era of progressive policies in a Western "red state."
"It really is a new day in Montana," David Stalling, president of Montana Wildlife Federation, a group that favors more sporting bison hunts, said at the time.
But now, many stakeholders and anti-hunting groups cry foul.
"He just went from one extreme to the other," says Mike Mease, founder of Buffalo Field Campaign, which advocates restrictions on bison hunts. Schweitzer angered a lot of hunting constituencies and then the governor "swung the pendulum the other way," Mease added.
Schweitzer says he's long supported bison hunts, but not like Montana used to do them. Instead, he says he's searching for a way to accommodate hunting Yellowstone bison, protect cattle from disease and build a healthier buffalo herd.
Pat Williams, senior fellow at the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, called Schweitzer a "big thinker" trying to promote a positive image of the West.
"It's symbolic about new thinking in the West," says Williams, who represented Montana for 18 years in Congress as a Democrat. "Montana and the West have thought too small about this issue for too long. Small didn't work."
Managing Yellowstone's bison is an age-old conflict. Many carry brucellosis, a disease originally acquired from European livestock that causes abortions in cattle and elk and can infect humans through unpasteurized dairy products. Last year, a brucellosis outbreak in Wyoming cost the state $1.6 million and in Montana, federal officials destroyed 281 Yellowstone bison for disease control.
Montana cattlemen fear bison could infect their cattle, and they do not want diseased buffalo treated like free-roaming wildlife.
But the logistics of Schweitzer's plan are daunting. Rounding up all the bison in Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres would be difficult. The Wyoming governor opposes parts of the proposal, and most of the park is in that state. It would also be expensive and tourists would likely not see bison in Yellowstone for years.
Ken Mills, a University of Wyoming microbiologist and disease expert, says that in the end, bison might contract the disease again from elk. Brucellosis rates on nearby elk winter feeding grounds in Wyoming average 30%.
Feeling heat over conflicting directives, Schweitzer's spokeswoman, Sarah Elliott, cautions against reading too much into the governor's most recent plan. She says he floated the idea to stimulate discussion.
"We all need to come to the table and figure out how to deal with this effectively," Elliott says. "We also have an obligation to protect our livestock in the state."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times