Montana officials are discussing the possibility of reintroducing bison statewide, one month after releasing quarantined Yellowstone National Park bison to Fort Peck Reservation.
"What we're talking about is what are the options in Montana as far as bison?" said Ron Aasheim, Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman. "We're at the very start of the process. You know there are a lot of different opinions."
Viewed as a disease threat and killed for leaving Yellowstone National Park during the 1990s, bison are now making their way into the state despite ranchers' fears of brucellosis.
A herd of 63 bison from Yellowstone were relocated March 19 to the Fort Peck Reservation. The animals had spent years in captivity before the move to confirm they weren't infected with brucellosis, a disease known to cause spontaneous abortions in livestock.
Another 130 quarantined Yellowstone bison on media mogul Ted Turner's Flying D ranch in Gallatin Canyon will also soon be ready for transfer. It is inevitable there will be interest in moving those animals to other parts of Montana, now that the Fort Peck herd has been established.
"Because of the translocation taking place, ultimately there will be people interested in going further," Aasheim said, though exactly how far remains to be seen.
FWP will hold eight three-hour public meetings across Montana beginning on May 14 in Missoula. Glasgow will host a meeting on May 16, Billings on May 21, Miles City on May 22 and Bozeman on May 24.
These are the kind of meetings the Montana Stockgrowers Association said the state should have had before relocating bison to the Fort Peck Reservation. The move sparked an unresolved lawsuit by ranchers seeking to block the transfer. Half the Fort Peck animals were to go to the Fort Belknap Reservation, but that transfer has been blocked by the court at least until May 11.
"This is something that we think they should have done before they moved any bison," said Ariel Overstreet of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. "They should have considered the big picture."
Opposing bison relocation is a policy written into the Montana Stockgrowers' bylaws. The ranching group worries that brucellosis not only provides a physical threat to the cattle industry, but also a market threat as other states responding to potential brucellosis exposure turn away Montana cattle, which bring more than $1 billion to the state annually.
Brucellosis is a disease eradicated in livestock nationwide, except in the portions of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho surrounding Yellowstone National Park where bison and elk are known carriers. It wasn't easy getting rid of the disease, which was prevalent in the dairy industry in the 1950s. Inspectors went from ranch to ranch testing livestock. A positive test meant the rancher's entire herd had to be killed. A single year's loss to brucellosis in 1952 Montana totaled $400 million.
But the disease hasn't been a problem in the bison relocated to Fort Peck, and neither has the perception of infection been a threat to Eastern Montana cattle. Nebraska, one of the first states to slap import rules on Montana cattle after a positive brucellosis test a couple of years ago in cattle outside Yellowstone, indicated Monday that it had no plans to extend the rule to other Montana cattle. Nebraska livestock officials said they were aware that Montana had relocated Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck.
The Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck accepted the animals because Yellowstone Park bison are part of a rare genetically pure herd. There were impure bison already on the reservation, bison with cattle genes, but to have the real thing on the Eastern Montana prairie for the first time in more than a century was exceptional.
"This is our legacy herd," said Robbie Magnan, the tribe's fish and wildlife director. "The height of these animals, even the females, is huge. I've seen the buffalo around Fork Belknap, other areas, you look at these buffalo and the females are bigger than their bulls."
When the bison arrived from Yellowstone, people piled into cars and escorted them to their temporary holding pen north of Poplar. The reception was not unlike the welcoming tribal members received over the last decade when returning from Montana's national park border with truckloads of slaughtered bison packed in snow. The tribes were invited to cut up bison killed for leaving the park in the winter. It was on one of those trips that Magnan and others began thinking about someday returning to Fort Peck with living bison.
"In 2004, we brought up our concerns with the intertribal buffalo council about how we could get them back alive rather than dead," Magnan said. "Those animals were starving, so what do you think the meat looked like? You're eating something that was starving to death."
In a multi-agency effort, the government several years ago began quarantining bison that tested negative for brucellosis. The thinking was that if no cases of the disease arose, the bison could be used as a genetically pure source to repopulate portions of the West, where they once roamed freely before aggressive hunting nearly wiped them out. Some of the bison relocated to Fort Peck were born in quarantine. There are a half-dozen calves now being born in a pen on the reservation, as the herd waits for better fencing before being released.
The tribes agreed to fence the bison with an elaborate 8-feet high woven-wire fence, but that requirement has since been downgraded to a multi-strand barbed wire fence with two electric wires. Magnan said he has 5,100 acres for the bison with more to come. The tribes won millions of dollars from the federal government in a lawsuit over federally mismanaged mineral rights and other land revenue streams that should have benefited the people of Fort Peck.
For the bison, the tribes are aggressively buying deeded pastureland, Magnan said.
Not all the tribes' neighbors support the relocation. State Sen. John Brendan, R-Scobey, has fought with his Fort Peck Reservation neighbors over bison for years. The tribes already have a sizable herd of hybrid bison, which have gotten out and eaten a neighbor's wheat. Brendan said there are real property issues for people living beside the bison compound. He collaborated with other lawmakers in 2011 to require that a plan be crafted before any bison were relocated. No plan was drafted for the bison relocated to Fort Peck.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, counters that when it comes to dealing with sovereign nations, which the tribe is, the law Brendan and others supported doesn't apply.
Regardless, Brendan, like Overstreet with the Stockgrowers, thinks a plan was in order.
"The tribes have not been able to contain the buffalo they now have," he said.
Overstreet, who has worked the bison issue for the Stockgrowers, said there are just too many unanswered questions for Montana to be relocating Yellowstone Park bison. The state's latest proposal suggests the animals be "managed as a Montana wildlife species." Overstreet wonders what that means. Managed like deer? Managed like the bison on the refuge in Moise, where vaccinations are standard and poor genetic traits are selectively thinned out?
"Is that the kind of management scheme, or is it going to be the management scheme of Yellowstone National Park, where they essentially don't manage it?" Overstreet said.
Magnan believes that satisfactory answers to critics will come in time. He's counting on it.
"What I'm waiting for is one year from now, so that I can tell people who said we couldn't do it, that they're eating crow," he said.