Bison proponents and opponents Tuesday created four example alternatives under which a test herd would be released somewhere in Montana.
A group outlined the ideas, which included examples such as community management committees, public-private partnerships and public hunting.
The alternative — taking no action — could take control over guiding bison management out of local citizens’ hands, said Ginny Tribe, the facilitator for the Bison Discussion Group, which held its second of back-to-back meetings in Billings at Big Horn Resort.
“The idea of being able to solve it together means you keep your power,” she told the group. “If it goes to court, it’s a jump ball.”
Group member Ron Moody, a public hunter and former Fish and Wildlife commissioner from Lewistown, agreed. “When you are declaring ‘my stand is going to be no bison, no way,’ we’ll be in the same position as when they reintroduced wolves. We could have done it our way. Think about that.”
The meeting was more sparsely attended than on Monday when more than 30 people commented for and against locating bison somewhere in Montana.
On to an EIS
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff will take the ideas generated by the group to help develop alternatives in a draft environmental impact statement outlining a state bison management plan.
“By the fall or winter we’ll come up with a comprehensive draft,” said Mike Volesky, FWP’s deputy director. “This situation, given the passion at play, will require at least a 90-day comment period.”
By the spring, the department could come out with a final EIS and take further public comment.
Although bison in some situations on the Montana landscape is not a foregone conclusion, Volesky pointed out that “no one really knows what’s going to happen until we try something.”
Yet the re-establishment of a wild bison herd somewhere on public or private land has presented FWP and the discussion group with some unique challenges. Arnie Dood, who has guided the state’s bison management planning so far, noted that with no other wildlife species has the department had to determine whether the animals are wild or livestock, nor has the department discussed where to put fences in those cases.
To develop alternatives, the discussion group broke up into four committees to work on separate issues: a public-private partnership using private land but retaining the animals as a public resource; a tribal-state partnership placing bison on tribal land but maintaining public access; placing an appropriately sized herd on public land like the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge; and an alternative that would have the smallest effect on rural citizens. A no-action alternative was also outlined and described as a way to heal wounds incurred during discussion of the divisive issue. But as noted previously, the no-action alternative also leaves the door open to someone else taking action without the state and public’s involvement — either the federal government or a conservation group.
Key to any alternative, according to Pat Flowers, Region 3 FWP supervisor in Bozeman, would be for his agency to take sole responsibility for response to public complaints about bison. But he said FWP would need legislative authority to do that, and the question then arises: Who pays for that extra policing? “It goes beyond the sportsmen’s interest,” he said.
In discussing the proposed alternative that would create a private-public partnership, Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, said his group agreed that the “biggest piece of the puzzle” was creating a citizen management committee with authority to ensure the field biologists were “keeping the promises made.”
Some alternatives suggested specific populations, ranging from 500 to 1,000 bison, to ensure that the animals are genetically viable and to make the test valid. All suggested appropriate fencing to contain the animals, range and disease monitoring and certain triggers in place that would initiate a management review — such as a drought or outbreak of disease. It was also recommended that a management plan be in place prior to the formation of any guiding committee to ensure buy-in.
Tom France, of the National Wildlife Federation, said his group decided to build a herd based on the amount of grass on the CMR — one bison for every 100 acres to ensure the landscape could feed the animals.
“Our notion is not to set up where we would have conflicts with agricultural interests,” he said.
Even on such public land, France said his group decided it would be important for Indian tribes to have hunting rights, as well.
Whether any private landowner with a large enough tract could be found who would be willing to cooperatively manage a bison herd with a committee was questioned.
“This is unusual,” Phillips said. “It won’t work in most places. This is not something that you can find easily embraced anywhere in Montana.”
As Moody noted, “We don’t want to drop bison into a hostile environment.” So his group also suggested that before bison be placed, that all of the involved parties agree not to file a lawsuit while the study is taking place — maybe five years.
Placing public bison under tribal ownership would create different challenges, some of them cultural. But Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said revenue sharing from the sale of hunting tags could encourage tribes to take part.
“Part of the negotiation would have to be public access and permits,” Peterson said. “I don’t think this will fly unless there is something in it for the public hunter.”
France’s group also mentioned monitoring of the surrounding communities to assess whether or not bison relocation negatively affected the local economies and, if so, what the response to an economic decline would be.
But chief among the challenges may be how to pay for any such labor-intensive monitoring and containment. Partnerships with conservation groups to fund a test herd were suggested, but there also was concern that reliance on outside partners may not be sustainable.
“Clear, specific and primarily public” funding is needed so it is not subject to the whims of nongovernmental organizations, France said.