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No passing bison
This bison taking up half of the highway near Soda Butte in Yellowstone National Park on March 21 seemed unconcerned by vehicles swerving around him.

Talk about discouraging words: at a legislative hearing recently, state Sen. John Brenden described possible restoration of bison to Montana as a “creeping cancer.” This is this the same animal that artist Charlie Russell immortalized as the symbol of the West, the same animal that Native American cultures revered and relied upon above all others. What a difference a hundred years can make.

At this year’s Legislature, at least three major anti-bison bills have been introduced. But how in tune are our state legislators with the feelings of most Montanans? The National Wildlife Federation commissioned a poll in mid-February to gauge how Montanans feel about these stolid animals. In order to reduce any indication of bias, NWF chose Moore Information as its pollster, the same polling firm used by U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and many other conservative politicians. Four hundred registered voters were consulted.

One of the anti-bison bills would prohibit transport of bison to anywhere in Montana except the National Bison Range. This is in response to Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ 2010 effort to assess if there are places in Montana where it might be feasible to restore a wild-bison population. What do most Montanans think about FWP doing this assessment? Seventy percent favor such a process, 24 percent oppose and 6 percent didn’t know.

Another hot bison issue involves Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposal to take bison from Yellowstone Park that have tested disease-free and move them to a recently acquired 26,000-acre state wildlife management area near Deer Lodge known as Spotted Dog. What do most Montanans think? Seventy-two percent favored moving the bison to Spotted Dog, 22 percent opposed and 6 percent didn’t know.

While many believe the Spotted Dog wildlife management area could provide quarantined Yellowstone bison with a temporary home in a fenced pasture, wildlife advocates and sportsmen hope to see bison recovery on a larger landscape. People in the know realize that the key site for bison restoration lies much farther east, in and around the 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. It’s probably the one remaining place in the United States where it is still possible to restore a significant wild-bison population to their native prairie habitat. How do most Montanans feel about restoring a wild bison population to the CMR? The polls result show that 70 percent would support such an effort, 25 percent oppose and 5 percent didn’t know.

It seems that Teddy Roosevelt-style Republicans — the kind who support reasonable conservation measures — are in as short supply in our Legislature as buffalo are on the prairies of Montana.

Kit Fischer of Missoula is sportsmen’s outreach coordinator for National Wildlife Federation’s Northern Rockies and Prairies Region.

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