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Riders seek to saddle up again at Bison Range

MOIESE — It was an event that drew riders from around the world, intrigued by the idea of spending a day on horseback on a range where the buffalo still roam. But organizers of the 57-year-old National Bison Range Trail Ride say they’ve been kicked out of the Bison Range for “bogus” reasons and won’t be allowed to hold the annual event anymore.

The Mission Rangers Saddle Club, a local group formed just for conducting the Bison Range ride, was notified in March 2010 that their annual ride was being canceled due to issues of safety and concerns about the threat of weeds and disease being carried onto the range via horses, according to trail ride organizer Jerome Stenberg. In more than a decade leading the ride, Stenberg said he’s not seen any serious injuries, although minor accidents have occurred — the worst actually involved a Bison Range worker who fell off a horse. Some risk is to be expected when animals are involved, but the danger in no way outweighs the benefits of experiencing the Bison Range from horseback, Stenberg contends.

The last ride was held in 2009, and last year, the National Bison Range’s new project manager, Jeff King, called off the event, usually held on the third Sunday in May. King did not return phone calls by press time, but he reportedly told Stenberg that the trail ride didn’t not meet the Range’s “Appropriate Use and Compatibility Evaluation.”

The hundreds of riders who come from as far away as England and the Virgin Islands to be a part of the annual tradition would disagree, Stenberg said.

“(The trail ride) is one of the biggest things for the Fish and Wildlife Service,” he said. “It’s surprising how big a deal it was … (Riders) come from all over the world. We always had a lot of foreign people there.”

While the Mission Rangers are frustrated with not being allowed to continue a practice that Stenberg says has been held without a major problem since its start during the Korean War, the heart of the issue is access to public lands, he explained. National parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier allow the public opportunity to experience the park via horseback, he pointed out, and he believes the Bison Range shouldn’t be any different.

“The idea was it’s public-owned property; it’s public land,” Stenberg said. “I want the public to have access to that range.”

In a letter to U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., Stenberg asked, “Do we honestly think that sitting in a car’s backseat can compare with the experience of riding the backcountry of the National Bison Range and seeing herds of wild bison, elk, bighorn sheep and even mountain goat?

“As rural Montanans we are increasingly having to stand up to these ‘winds of change’ from urban or non-western mindsets. Why are horses and their riders being discriminated against? If we are all taxpayers and thus all owners of our National Refuges, why can’t our National Bison Range be opened for horseback viewing of the wildlife one day of the year, as it has been since the time of the Korean War?” Stenberg wrote.

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