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Bison graze

Bison graze near a river in Yellowstone National Park. Montana has wrestled with how best to manage bison that migrate from the park into the state.

It’s pretty hard to stop a bison, but at least in the state of Montana the thousand-pound mammals have struck a temporary barrier.

A year ago, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks was taking comments at meetings around the state as part of its work to develop an environmental impact statement for a bison management plan. About 23,000 people offered their opinions, which covered the full spectrum from prohibition on public lands to roaming freely.

Then the process stalled. Amid a lawsuit over the transfer of bison to two reservations, the election of a new governor in November and the subsequent naming of a new FWP director, the EIS process seemed to have died of neglect — or at least, it was on life support.

The new state officials had little time to catch their breath on the bison issue as the 2013 Legislature dealt with a half-dozen anti-bison bills — all of which failed — as well as widespread hostility among Eastern Montana landowners toward FWP and its policies not only on bison, but also on land purchases.

Easing back on track

After trying to smooth some of the hurt feelings by hosting meetings outside Helena, FWP director Jeff Hagener is taking baby steps to get the bison process back on track.

A facilitated meeting in Lewistown in mid-September brought together some of the bison opponents and proponents. From that two-day session, Hagener said two main themes became fairly evident: the term “free-roaming” in reference to bison is a hot-button issue for landowners, and that a bison confinement zone of some type would need to be part of any agreement.

“Those are some parameters that we were looking at,” he said.

With the facilitator’s notes from the September meeting now in hand, Hagener said it’s time for him to gather with some FWP commissioners, staff and representatives from the governor’s office to chart a new course in FWP’s quest for a bison management plan.

“We need to have more discussions internally to decide how to move forward,” he said.

As Hagener understands it, the EIS process can be picked up where things left off since it was still in the public comment gathering phase, known as scoping.

Alternate views

Moving forward is exactly what Kit Fischer of the National Wildlife Federation would like to see. His group has been advocating for returning bison to the landscape for the past couple of years.

“Now we’re just waiting to see what FWP is going to come up with so we can see a plan and start talking specifics again,” Fischer said.

Fischer attended the Lewistown meeting and agreed that those attending seemed to find some common ground from which to move forward. He said his group has suggested that FWP use a similar citizens group to flesh out a bison compromise that the agency could then build upon.

Chuck Denowh, of United Property Owners of Montana, said he came out of the first day of the Lewistown meeting with a different perspective: That there was little interest in compromise to address landowners’ concerns.

He said his members are OK with bison on private lands and reservations, and even on public lands if the animals are contained.

“Any discussion of fencing public property was met with resistance,” Denowh said. “It seemed like a nonstarter.”

He said that if bison were transferred onto public land, there should be someone responsible to pay for any property damage that bison might cause. A bill to hold FWP responsible for such damages was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock.

“The bottom line is landowners in Montana want to be part of the solution to restoring bison,” Denowh said. “It’s already happening. Private entities and tribes are restoring bison.”

Deadline nears

Under its original plan, FWP had proposed having an EIS finalized by next winter. The agency is under some pressure to find a resolution by then.

That’s because 86 bison from Yellowstone National Park that the state owns were moved to landowner Ted Turner’s ranch in 2010. The certified brucellosis-free animals were transferred with the understanding that Turner could keep some as payment while 150 are set to be returned to the state in November 2015. If that time rolls around and the state has no place to put them, where will the animals go?

Helena conservationist and hunter Jim Posewitz said returning bison to Montana’s public lands is the last missing piece of the state’s commitment to supporting wildlife.

“We’ve restored everything else,” he said. “To stop short of one iconic species that took the most damage is unthinkable.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.