DEER LODGE — Ranchers and landowners on Wednesday packed the Powell County Community Center, just a few miles from what has become ground zero in the debate over whether there is a place for wild bison on Montana's landscape.
If those who spoke in the first of three public hearings on a proposal to relocate Yellowstone National Park bison was any indication, the answer is an emphatic no. Dozens of people from this southwestern Montana community where cattle is king told state wildlife officials they were against the plan. None was in favor of it.
"This is not the 1800s. We have ranchers and farmers who need their hay lands, their grain fields, their stock yards protected. And you are putting them in danger," said Powell County resident Bill Mattice. "Stay out of the buffalo business!"
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has proposed temporarily relocating dozens of bison to the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area or three other possible sites across the state.
Wildlife officials say the bison are disease-free after spending years in quarantine as part of a U.S. government program. But that hasn't convinced those concerned that the wild animals could transmit disease to their cattle and damage their fields.
The debate, which has grown sharper this year as FWP developed its plans, is now centered on the public hearings on the draft environmental assessment of the relocation proposal that the agency released last month.
The meeting became contentious before it even really began.
"Are you going to limit us to 120 minutes to comment on something that will be life-altering to many people in this room?" one man asked as FWP regional supervisor Mack Long laid out the format.
Another man drew laughs as he called out, "If they put buffalo out there, do we get to shoot them?"
But a third man asked loudly the question that seemed to be on most people's minds: "Does this meeting have an influence on the decision, or has the decision already been made?"
FWP wildlife chief Ken MacDonald assured the crowd that nothing has been decided, then tried to allay fears by saying the bison would be contained with fencing and an aggressive policy of capturing or killing any bison that escapes.
MacDonald added that the bison have been tested and retested and have not been found to have brucellosis.
"They've been tested better than probably any other animal on the planet," MacDonald said.
The FWP proposes moving up to 40 bison to each of four possible sites -- two state-owned wildlife management areas and two sites on tribal lands -- until a statewide bison conservation strategy is completed by the end of 2015.
By then, a "decision on whether there is a place on the Montana landscape for wild bison will be made," according to the agency's environmental assessment.
The animals up for relocation were part of a government quarantine study started in 2005. They have been determined to be free of brucellosis, a disease that causes animals to abort their young. Now they are in the next phase of the program, in which they will be monitored and tested for another five years.
The FWP last year relocated 87 bison to media mogul Ted Turner's ranch in southwestern Montana in exchange for a percentage of the offspring. That deal prompted a lawsuit by conservation groups, and as a result, "FWP believes it is prudent to relocate those bison if possible to public or tribal lands for the remainder of the monitoring period," the environmental assessment said.
The Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area is about six miles from Deer Lodge, land that the FWP acquired in September 2010. The proposal calls for keeping the bison in a 2,560-acre pasture, building a boundary fence to keep the animals from wandering off and constructing facilities to test the animals and store maintenance equipment.
The original cost estimate to prepare and maintain the Spotted Dog site for the bison topped $1.3 million, but FWP revised those numbers after an intra-agency discussion, eliminating or cutting down on several items to get the cost down to $305,000.
Neighboring ranchers say the time when wild bison could freely roam the land is over and that attempting to reincorporate them into the landscape now would be damaging to one of Montana's main industries. They look skeptically on plans to fence in the animals, saying that if a bison wants to wander, no fence can stop it.
Hunters and recreational users also have said they are concerned the bison fences would restrict access to the area, which is populated by elk, deer and antelope.
Opponents of the proposal said they want to know where the money will come from to pay for the plan, how other agencies will be involved and how cattle markets will be affected. They want an environmental impact statement that will scrutinize those and other questions more closely than the more general environmental assessment does.
"It's nothing more than a flat-out lie crammed down our throat, Brian Quigley, a rancher from nearby Avon and head of the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association, said of the document.
A second state-owned site, the Marias River Wildlife Management Area, spans 8,866 acres about eight miles southwest of Shelby. The two other sites are on the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations in northern Montana.
Native American leaders say they are prepared to manage the animals and should be given preference because of their historical and cultural ties to them. The Yellowstone bison are prized by Native Americans and conservationists because of their pure genetics.
The hearing on Wednesday will be followed by others in Shelby on Thursday and Glasgow on Oct. 17. FWP is taking public comment on the environmental assessment until Oct. 19.