Eight years, two gubernatorial elections and under the leadership of a new director, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released its environmental impact statement on bison conservation and management Tuesday.
The release of the document was a reason for celebration among conservation advocates who have long promoted returning bison to Montana public lands.
“People of goodwill can move this effort forward,” said Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation.
Yet many Montanans — namely those with agricultural interests — have attempted through the Legislature and at the county level to block bison from ever being restored to public lands in the state.
“For landowners in Montana I think bison are a nonstarter,” said Chuck Denowh, who has represented United Property Owners of Montana.
Emphasizing the ideological divide, the livestock industry and UPOM has even attempted to hamstring the private group American Prairie Reserve in eastern Montana as it pursues the goal of restoring bison to ranch lands it has purchased, as well as Bureau of Land Management acreage where APR holds grazing leases. Those bison are classified as livestock, as are other herds raised on ranches in the state.
Denowh and his associates have taken their stance out of the belief that bison, unlike other wildlife, have a greater potential to destroy property and are “known vectors for disease transmission.” The only way for FWP to establish a wild bison herd in the state will be to “cram it down people’s throats,” he added.
That won’t happen, according to FWP director Martha Williams.
“Wild bison have been successfully restored under a variety of management regimes and in a wide range of ecosystems,” she said in a press release. “But in order for a proposal to proceed in Montana, it must be devised collaboratively, taking into account the concerns of landowners and communities small and large, and it should follow the model of other successful wildlife restoration efforts.”
“Any concrete proposal for bison restoration will have to undergo a site-specific environmental analysis and include a public review process,” FWP’s press release stated. “Completion of all the steps necessary to implement a bison restoration effort will take considerable time, even for the smallest of test projects.”
Such statements are heartening to the Montana Stockgrowers Association, according to Jay Bodner, executive director of the group. Keeping the process transparent and open to local people is of utmost importance to the group, he said, along with no recommendation of sites.
“It will take a pretty significant planning effort to bring a proposal forward,” he said.
That doesn’t concern France, of the National Wildlife Federation. His group is taking the long view.
“The fact is an overwhelming majority of Montanans support restoration,” he said.
Likewise, the Montana Wildlife Federation sees the finalization of the EIS as an opportunity.
“This plan creates a transparent, open public process that takes into account landowners, county officials, hunters and all Montanans,” said Dave Chadwick, MWF executive director, in an emailed statement. “This is how we’ve solved numerous difficult wildlife issues in Montana, and it’s worked well and can for bison as well to ensure that everyone’s interests are met.”
One of the most likely places bison reintroduction could occur is the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, in central Montana, along the Missouri River, according to France. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the CMR has in the past indicated a willingness to discuss bison reintroduction but only with state support. Whether that initiative has vanished with new leadership at the national level under the Trump Administration is unknown.
“There’s a lot of grassland habitat there that doesn’t have grazing on it,” France said, calling the CMR “one of the pre-eminent places for restoring bison in Montana.”
Bodner, of the stockgrowers group, sees the CMR differently, noting that tough weather and the narrow landscape could possibly push bison onto adjoining private lands.
Another option being promoted by the Blackfeet Tribe and Defenders of Wildlife is allowing the tribe’s herd to wander from the reservation in northwest Montana onto adjoining national forest lands, according to Chamois Andersen, of the Defenders.
A migrating bison herd along the spine of the northern Rocky Mountains could also move into nearby Glacier National Park and Canada’s adjoining wildlands.
“We think that has the makings of a solid proposal to the (Fish and Wildlife) Commission,” she said. “The animals are on the ground, and what we’re talking about is a connected landscape.”
The EIS process began during Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s administration. He was gung-ho to move bison onto state lands in 2011 and even suggested the Spotted Dog and Marias River wildlife management areas near Deer Lodge as possible sites.
That idea was eventually shelved for a more conservative approach, a three-year study that included public meetings. Back then, it was envisioned there could be a huntable population of bison somewhere in the state by 2015. Instead, in 2015 during budget cuts FWP asked its bison expert, Arnie Dood, who had crafted the EIS to its draft form, to accept a demotion. He chose to retire.
FWP’s push for the EIS seemed to evaporate along with Dood. Internal dissonance riled the department over the next two years as department heads were dismissed or removed ending with FWP director Jeff Hagener’s retirement at the end of 2016.
In 2017 Martha Williams was appointed to replace Hagener. She has been dealing with a profusion of new issues, including grizzly bear delisting; fish die-offs that closed rivers during the peak summer tourist season; and the invasion of chronic wasting disease in deer, elk and moose.
Gov. Bullock is term limited from running again, so this fall a new executive will take over. Since the FWP director serves at the pleasure of the governor, it’s uncertain whether Williams will continue in her role, as well as whether there will be any political enthusiasm to pursue bison reintroduction on public lands by the new administration.
“At its core, the success of any bison restoration program will be dependent upon people who are affected, directly or indirectly, by bison on the landscape,” Williams said in the press release. “Only through building trust and working diligently to address various interests will any restoration effort be successful.”