A Small Sum to Save State Park

During winter break, an ominous cloud of uncertainty appeared over the future of the nearest state park to our campus community. On Dec. 28, the Montana State Park System announced in a press release that it is seeking public comment on foregoing management control of Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, located just 25 miles northwest of Bozeman. This proposed interagency move would turn control of the site back to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), which is required by the state constitution to generate yearly income from all public lands from grazing fees, timber sales, and/or oil and gas royalties.

Incredibly, state agency officials told me — along with a full room of other concerned local residents during a Jan. 15 public meeting in Bozeman — that we can save this state park, as is, for no more than a $4,272 lease payment in coming weeks.

How can this be? Currently, Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is comprised of 638.4 acres of land. DNRC owns 617.5 acres (designated School Trust Lands), while 20.9 acres are owned by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission (FWP) as part of the Montana State Parks. A 2012 legislative audit determined that FWP henceforth should pay DNRC an annual leasing fee of $4,272 for use of the property in order to compensate the School Trust which, in turn, benefits public schools, colleges and universities across the state. The problem is the cash-strapped Montana State Parks System does not receive any line-item appropriation to finance operation and maintenance costs in the state budget from one year to the next, thus having to rely instead upon a $6 vehicle registration fee as its biggest source of funding. Consequently, while FWP is willing to continue to pay $15,192/year in operating costs (personnel and operations) at this state park, it does not want to start paying an additional annual leasing fee to the DNRC.

By way of background, buffalo jumps are something of a misnomer. They are carefully selected terrain where Plains Indian tribes, up until the early 19th century, drove bison herds over cliffs or steep terraces to be killed or injured as the animals fell and rolled down. A common feature of jumps was the presence of long lines of stone piles and sometimes strategically situated stone walls. Those stone alignments served as cover and protection for the courageous young Indians who were prepositioned to funnel the stampeding bison toward a targeted spot over a cliff or into a man-made compound, where the animals were slaughtered and dressed.

The Madison Buffalo Jump is surrounded by high limestone bluffs and overlooks the Madison River Valley to the west. Hikers enjoy scenic beauty and panoramic views throughout the park, while also learning to appreciate its extraordinary archaeological and historical significance, having been used as far back as 2,500-3,000 years ago by cunning Indian hunters.

Souvenir seekers have plundered bone deposits and other relics in recent decades (especially before the state park was established in 1967), but other unique cultural features remain such as tipi rings and rock piles that may have been old eagle-catching pits. ` Once in a great while, an archaic projectile point, a hide scraper or a different kind of artifact is still unearthed.

This is a spiritual place, a rare and nearby natural wonder, and an irreplaceable part of Montana’s cultural heritage stretching back thousands of years. It should be preserved now and for posterity. As a problem-solving community, we need to come together quickly to identify all options for saving this historic outdoor treasure, keeping it fully accessible to the public, scholars and researchers, and protecting it from harmful grazing by default. Before the Jan. 31 deadline, you can express your appreciation for this park online by clicking on “Public Notices” and adding your comments at stateparks.mt.gov. Alternatively, you can send written comments by regular mail to Madison Buffalo Jump Comments; c/o Montana State Parks; P.O. Box 200701; Helena, Montana 59620-0701.

Also, please join me in organizing and mobilizing Friends of Madison Buffalo Jump State Park to help meet this challenge. Write to 2976 Oliver Street; Bozeman, MT 59718-6998 or email me: j.goold1@msu.montana.edu. Let it not be said of us that we know the price of nearly everything and the value of little or nothing.