Of the more than 30 people who spoke to a state bison discussion group on Monday, about the only thing they could agree on is that the large mammals are a controversial issue.
Eighteen members of the Bison Management Group — made up of conservation, farm and ranch and wildlife representatives — heard a range of comments as they gathered at Big Horn Resort in Billings for a two-day meeting on examining ways to make state bison management more palatable to such a diverse constituency.
The group has no decision-making authority. Instead, the meeting is a way of examining the state’s controversial bison management plan in an attempt to soothe some frayed nerves and lessen the attacks against bison that were evident in the last session of the Legislature.
Most of the 50 people gathered, many of them from northeastern Montana, spoke against introducing bison on public land in their region. Their neighbor, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, has been an oft-mentioned site for releasing wild bison.
Opponents argued that such a move would be an economic, political and environmental disaster.
“I feel they will kill our economy, which is mostly agriculture,” said rancher Vicki Hofeldt, who gave the group copies of photos of neighboring Fort Belknap Tribe bison that had broken through fences to get to her family’s feed in winter.
Likewise, Linda Prescott, whose family has ranchland near Poplar that is bordered by tribal bison herds, said, “The romance doesn’t translate well for the people who are growing your food. It’s not a hobby to us. It’s a livelihood. It’s a business.”
She called free-roaming bison a “direct attack” both on personal property rights and on their way of life.
“We can’t go backward 300 years to free-roaming bison if we want to eat.”
Members of wildlife, hunting and conservation groups disagreed, pointing out that no one has said anything about locating bison on private land and asserting that public lands belong to all Americans.
Saying that the economy that would spring up if the state had hunting of free-roaming bison would far surpass agriculture, Joe Gutkowski added. “People would come from all over the world to hunt unfenced wild bison.”
He also said legislation would be introduced in the next Legislature that would return bison management in the state back to Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Currently, the Department of Livestock is the lead agency.
Laurel veterinarian Don Woerner said he loves bison. “They are not hard to manage if it is done on their terms,” he said to laughs from the crowd. “They’re not cattle.”
Although saying he felt a connection to the ranchers and their concerns, he still wants to see wild bison back in Montana “within reasonable limits.”
While some of the speakers argued that humans had a moral responsibility to restore the animals to the landscape from which they were nearly exterminated, others said such a move would devalue the humans who have lived in the area for generations.
“This is a pipe dream,” said Malta-area rancher Greg Oxarart. “Somebody is going to be booted out to get this roaming herd.”
Oxarart said that people who don’t live in the region where the bison might be released should not have a say in the issue. Becky Weed, a former Belgrade-area sheep rancher and former Montana Board of Livestock member, said she resented Oxarart’s assertion, adding that the “best response to the future is by valuing what happened in the past.”
Several people in the crowd had signs that read “No free roaming bison,” with the ‘no’ underlined. Others wore white buttons with a red bison posed in profile with a red slash across the bison.
Although free-roaming bison were mentioned repeatedly, the Bison Management Group agreed during its last meeting that there should not be free-roaming bison. It also agreed that the plan should be “broadly accepted by affected stakeholders;” there needs to be a “clear, lawful containment plan,” and any plan needs to explain who would pay for the fencing to hold the bison.
After the public comment period, the group began working on developing reasonable alternatives for FWP’s environmental impact statement.
“We need to go through the process,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Jeff Hagener at the beginning of the meeting.
He said the process was important despite what some see as overwhelming opposition to the idea of releasing wild bison on state or federal lands. The process began in 2012 when FWP held scoping meetings and then wrote a draft environmental impact statement. The next steps would be the creation of a final EIS and a decision notice.
“One of the things we need to remain clear on is what we are doing and what we are not doing,” said the discussion group’s facilitator, Ginny Tribe.
The group is not dealing with bison the state owns on the Green Ranch that have to be moved since the contract to keep them there is expiring; it is not about the Interior Department’s designation of possible places to relocate bison, one of which was the CMR refuge; and the group is not dealing with management of Yellowstone National Park bison that cross into Montana.
Tribe encouraged the public to help the group “think about realistic solutions” for FWP to consider if bison are on the landscape, such as alternative management approaches.
West Yellowstone resident Karrie Taggart said she was tired of pitting tourism, agricultural and hunting groups against each other in debates over bison. She said each group’s concerns have merit and she urged the panel to find some common ground. The meeting resumes at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
“This is an incredible opportunity for Montana,” said Matt Skoglund of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The potential benefits outweigh the costs.”
But retired Jordan school teacher Carla Christiansen disagreed. “Bison are dangerous animals and don’t belong on a civilized landscape,” she said. “This romantic, unrealistic dream is courting unintended consequences.”