MISSOULA – Americans named bison our first-ever “national mammal” last spring. But this winter, 900 bison from the prized Yellowstone National Park herd will be shipped to slaughter. Why? Why are we killing almost 20 percent of the largest wild bison herd in the lower 48?
That’s one of the questions at the heart of a new podcast and public radio show that premieres at 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, on Montana Public Radio, a service of the University of Montana.
“Threshold” explores one story about the natural world over a series of episodes and asks what that story says about us. The first season is all about bison – the history of our tangled relationship with this iconic animal and the choices we currently face that will shape its future.
“When you start out talking about bison, you end up talking about America,” said “Threshold” producer Amy Martin. “Before Europeans arrived, over 50 million wild bison roamed North America. In 1901, there were just 23, protected inside Yellowstone National Park. Now, wild bison are once again at a threshold.”
Martin said people saved bison from extinction, and we celebrate them on everything from currency, to craft beers, to football jerseys. But she argues we haven’t provided enough habitat for them to truly make a comeback. And we haven’t decided if we’re actually ready to coexist with them, or at what scale.
“These animals evoke really strong feelings in people,” Martin said. “Their story is intertwined with some of the fundamental narratives that have shaped our country. Freedom, independence, wildness, strength, Manifest Destiny, ‘don’t fence me in’ – it’s all in there.”
One of the goals of “Threshhold” is to give people on all sides of a controversial issue a chance to be heard and to engage listeners in helping to craft solutions to stubborn problems.
“We’re very excited to bring this new program to our listeners,” said Michael Marsolek, MTPR program director. “It’s an issue of importance to Montanans that we hope will create a dialogue.”
In season one, titled “Oh Give Me a Home,” listeners will be introduced to people fighting to restore bison and those who feel deeply threatened by the possibility of their return. Listeners also will hear from ranchers, bison advocates, scholars, government officials and indigenous activists like Ervin Carlson from the Blackfeet Nation.
“I love going to battle for these animals – and for us, for our culture,” Carlson said.