The Fort Peck Tribe's field of dreams is no baseball diamond in a cornfield.
It's a 5,000-acre parcel off remote Highway 13 in northeastern Montana surrounded by a new $200,000 fence constructed specifically to enclose bison. The tribe believed that if it built the facility, 50 genetically pure and brucellosis-free bison from Yellowstone National Park would be transferred from a state-run quarantine facility. The bison are separate from the 25 hazed to Gallatin National Forest land on Wednesday.
“We thought we were going to get these Yellowstone buffalo, but now it doesn't look so good,” said Robbie Magnan, director of the Fort Peck Tribe's Fish and Game Department.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which oversees operation of the quarantine facility north of Gardiner in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has shied away from moving bison anywhere after being sued by conservation groups last year.
“We're not sure what we're going to do with the next cohort,” said Ron Aasheim, FWP spokesman. But he said FWP has talked to a representative of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative and assured her that the Fort Peck Tribes are still under consideration.
“We're taking a look at all of our options,” Aasheim said.
The conservation groups contend that FWP's transfer of 80 bison to Ted Turner's Norris-area ranch violated the public trust by giving public wildlife to a private entity. The lawsuit is pending.
One of the litigants, Buffalo Field Campaign, has said it has no problem with the state's bison being shipped to tribal lands and that the lawsuit shouldn't be used as an excuse.
“The tribes are a sovereign nation and were the custodians of bison for a long time,” said Darrell Geist, BFC's habitat coordinator. “We view them as a different entity.”
The Fort Peck Tribes were among the applicants in 2008 for the bison that eventually went to Turner, but tribal officials requested bison not be sent until 2010, giving them time to finish a new 26-mile-long fence and install solar-powered water tanks, according to a Dec. 16, 2010, letter from Gayle Skunk Cap Jr., chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Fish and Wildlife Commission, to FWP Director Joe Maurier.
Magnan said that to ensure the tribe would get bison, the fence was built to standards set forth by the Intertribal Bison Cooperative. The fence is made more wildlife-friendly by having a smooth wire on the bottom, 20 inches above ground, to allow pronghorn antelope room to crawl underneath. The top wire is also smooth, to keep deer leaping over the fence from getting caught. Between the smooth wires are four strands of barbed wire 8 inches apart. The barbed wire is closely spaced to keep bison from sticking their heads in between the wires. Every eighth of a mile an extra wood post is installed for strength.
The fence was paid for with grants from the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, as well as donations and assistance from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Defenders of Wildlife and others.
In addition to building the fence, the Fort Peck Tribes offered a prospectus to FWP on how the tribe planned to manage the herd for cultural purposes — to feed diabetic and elderly tribal members and local Head Start children. Magnan said the tribe wanted to build the herd up to 150 head and then cull it. The tribe already has a separate herd of 137 bison it uses for business purposes — mainly selling hunts for $600 to $10,000. The money is used to offset the costs of managing the herd. The tribe acquired those bison from the Fort Belknap Tribes in 1999.
No welcome mat
Bison aren't welcomed by at least one of the tribe's neighbors, state Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, who has introduced a bill this session, and unsuccessfully last session, to ban relocation of Yellowstone bison to tribal or state lands. A hearing on Brenden's Senate Bill 144 was held Thursday.
Last week in Helena, the FWP Commission took testimony on a proposal to conduct an environmental analysis to study moving the quarantined bison onto state lands. People packed the hearing.
Brenden testified before the commission and the Senate committee that moving bison to public or tribal lands would harm landowners and hurt fishing and hunting access by turning landowners, who may open their lands to public hunting, against the state. He also said the state would have to build a “Berlin wall” to keep the bison enclosed on public lands.
“Good lord, if those buffalo get out you're going to have a war,” Brenden said.
Learning from bison
Magnan challenges Brenden's assertions about the difficulty of managing bison.
“They're not aggressive animals; they'd rather go away from you,” he said.
He pointed to how few problems Yellowstone National Park has with bison, despite the millions of people who visit the park each year.
Although bison can easily take down a fence when they want to, Magnan said, they are easily herded back in and problems are rare. One bull bison did break out years ago, he added, and made it 15 miles from the reservation. Tribal officials shot the bull rather than try to haul it alive.
“Buffalo are educating us how to keep them in,” he said.
Concerns about the quarantined Yellowstone bison carrying brucellosis, a disease that can be transmitted to cattle and cause cows to abort, are unfounded, Magnan said.
“These bison have been tested more than any cow has been,” he said. “They have to realize it's not going to happen.”
Despite the extensive testing of the quarantined bison, and the fact that testing would continue for another five years after the bison are moved, cattlemen and the livestock industry are unconvinced. Past problems with brucellosis outbreaks in cattle herds have proved costly and made stockmen wary about any dealings with bison.
Many landowners testified against FWP's consideration of moving bison onto state lands and supported Brenden's bill, including Josh McGraw, who owns property next to the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area that has been proposed as a possible bison-release site.
“We have grave concerns for our livelihood as cattle producers,” he testified.
Cindy Swank, who testified before the Senate committee, said their family ranch abuts the Fort Peck Tribe and the bison on tribal lands have been nothing but trouble. She wanted to know if bison are relocated if the state would compensate landowners for any damage the bison do.
On the other side of the battle line, many hunting and conservation groups support returning bison to the landscape and allowing hunting of the animals.
Unaware of the political storm that swirls around them, the quarantined bison near Gardiner munch hay in a high-fence enclosure that costs the state about $250,000 a year to maintain. The facility has been used since 2005 with the intention of the bison being released “to suitable conservation sites on public or tribal land by winter 2009-2010,” according to the Interagency Bison Management Plan's 2009 report citing adaptive management recommendations.
In Skunk Cap's letter to FWP Director Maurier, he questions why the agency hasn't followed up on the tribal requests for bison and the improvements the tribes have made to facilities to house bison.
“We believe the good-faith efforts of the tribes and their requests for these animals at least deserve the courtesy of consideration and a reply,” he wrote.
The situation angers Magnan.
“They're holding us hostage because of that lawsuit,” he said. “What do we have to do with that lawsuit?”
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at email@example.com or at 657-1387.