Over the past century, Montanans have done an extraordinary job of restoring the state’s magnificent wildlife — bringing back populations of elk, antelope, bighorns and other wildlife.
Many Montanans are now working to finish this great effort by bringing back bison. As with other wildlife, putting bison back on their native habitat involves identifying and addressing many challenges through a good wildlife plan.
Not everybody wants to work through the challenges. In this year’s legislative session, several legislators attempted to run roughshod over tribes, hunters and the vast majority of Montanans, who all believe our vast grasslands retain space for wild bison. But Montanans spoke loudly, rising to defeat anti-bison bills and rallying in support of a bison-management plan that the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is working on.
By pushing a passel of anti-bison bills this session, some legislators tried to undermine Montanans’ thoughtful discussion of a species inseparable from Montana’s heritage; of an animal intertwined with Native American culture; and of a species that, if restored, could play an important role in a more prosperous future.
All of the anti-bison bills fell by the wayside amid vigorous opposition from Montana tribes and a public that, according to polls, supports bison restoration by a 2-to-1 margin.
Nine bills were rejected by the Legislature. Gov. Steve Bullock, defending a sound, balanced approach to wildlife management, vetoed three bills that came to his desk.
The debate and public reaction highlight the importance of work commissioned by lawmakers two years ago.
Study under way
The 2011 Legislature passed — with bipartisan support — SB212, directing the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to develop a comprehensive plan for managing wild bison. Work on that plan has been underway for two years. FWP has taken the job seriously.
In 2012 it held hearings in towns across the state, and thousands of people participated.
FWP has promised to produce a thorough, fact-based analysis in the form of an environmental impact statement that clearly answers key questions, including: Where might bison roam? Where not? How many? How would we control populations? What can we do to ensure a strong and healthy cattle industry along with wild bison?
The FWP analysis will examine the benefits of new hunting opportunities and how the establishment of a bison herd that could help diversify Montana’s economy by bringing more visitors to central Montana — a part of the state tourists mostly ignore as they drive to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
To answer all the questions and size up the opportunities, we need facts and sober analysis.
FWP’s work will set the stage for rational, fact-based decisions about bison. What we’re sure to learn in the process is that opportunities to restore wild bison are significant but limited. Wild bison certainly never will or could be as numerous or widespread as detractors fear.
The million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge — ideal native prairie bison habitat managed with a mandate to conserve wildlife — likely will emerge as the best possible site — and perhaps the only viable location — for restoring an ecologically significant bison herd.
Limited bison sites
Once FWP winnows down the possible sites for bison restoration — which, again, are extremely limited — it can evaluate site-specific concerns, such as the potential for disease transmission or how significant problems might be with bison and fences.
This should be familiar terrain for FWP because they are the same issues that arise with management of elk, bighorn sheep, antelope and other wildlife.
Montana’s rich wildlife heritage is the product of good information and a century of positive wildlife policy. The anti-bison bills were based on bad information and bad policy and ran smack into the public’s support for Montana’s wildlife heritage. FWP’s bison planning efforts offer Montanans the best opportunity to understand the opportunities and challenges of bison restoration.