A BullMooseGazette Special Report
By Ron Moody
September 29, 2013
Whether or not returning wild American bison to some meaningful presence in Montana outside the Yellowstone area is politically possible was debated during a two-day conference convened in Lewistown last week, Sept 26-27, by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
FWP Director Jeff Hagener emphasized at the beginning the meeting was not to be a decision-making event rather a “good discussion of opportunity. Can we explore some common values or are we at a dead end?”
By the end of the session on Friday, however, at least one agreement had evolved to a virtual decision. There will be no free-roaming bison in Montana for any foreseeable future.
A debate ensued on what it means for bison to be ‘wild’ but not free-roaming. This raised the question of fencing and other containment methods.
The most frequently mentioned location for an initial bison re-introduction in the prairie region is within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge Manager Rick Potts reported to the group that the Department of Interior wants no more ‘high fence’ management areas in its wildlife refuge system. “They create more wildlife problems than they solve,” Potts said.
This does not mean, however, that U.S. Fish & Wildlife would not consider other, more natural, methods of containment, Potts added. He also emphasized that the federal agency will do nothing about bison restoration without the leadership of the State of Montana.
Another extended discussion revolved around the question of whether bison should be managed as wildlife at all or as livestock regulated by the State Department of Livestock. The trend of debate, however, moved in the direction of talking about bison as public wildlife simply because private owners of livestock bison are not affected by FWP rules and are already free to manage their animals as they see fit.
Participating in the discussion were ranchers and farmers, MT Stockgrowers and Farm Bureau, two county commissioners both of whom also are ranchers, four state legislators - three with ag interests, representatives of three environmental organizations, two FWP commissioners (one of whom also spoke as a tribal member and the other as a rancher) and state and federal agency personnel.
No sportsmen were included in the panel and one place set for a tribal representative was vacant. The absence of a hunter representative is ironic since sportsmen license dollars evidently financed the event.
The three environmental groups were the Wildlife Conservation Society, The National Wildlife Federation and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
The discussion among interest-group participants was uniformly cordial. The temperature level, however, was considerably higher during the public comment period Thursday afternoon. Ranching groups had urged members to show up and speak out. Several dozen did so with passionate denunciations of the whole idea of bison restoration with particular venom toward the idea of free-roaming bison and out-of-state meddling. “Fix Yellowstone First” was a common theme.
Only three public commenters identified themselves as hunters, and two others spoke for the tourist industry value of viewing bison as wildlife.
Working under the direction of Facilitator Ginny Tribe the participants developed recommendations for topics of future value should FWP decide to continue with an effort to develop a bison conservation plan for Montana.
First was to offer ideas for a ‘pilot’ or ‘test’ project for bison restoration somewhere in Montana’s prairie counties. Second was to create a set of possible guiding principles that would set the limits of FWP’s decision space in moving on bison conservation. Third was to identify mutual agreements or constraints on what a bison restoration proposal should look like. Fourth was the question of what roles the often conflicting public interests in bison should play in any future process.
A pilot (test) project, according to the first work group, should evaluate restoration and management of bison as wildlife. Some debate over the choice of names ensued after St Senator Jim Peterson asked that it be called a ‘test’ rather than a ‘pilot’ project because the word ‘pilot’ implies the project would lead to subsequent projects.
The project, they said, also should have a defined territory, time limit and number of bison involved. An ‘adaptive management’ method should be used with qualified research and management. Landowners should be involved along with incentives for landowners. The group also listing other elements: a public hunting opportunity, compensation for property damage, annual reporting, cost accounting and a reliable funding source. Also cited were: Exit strategy defined and determination of what qualifies as success, and a contingency plan for catastrophic conditions.
Guiding principles proposed for any FWP bison conservation process were offered by a work group. First was that expectations of the project on the part of the public should be carefully managed. Other principles included: adherence to laws, respect for private property rights, show how any unanticipated problems will be solved and local working groups should be used to flesh out a specific plan in a given location.
Other principles proposed were that desired outcomes are clear with open, honest communication and commitment. The plan should manage bison as wildlife. A FWP plan should target a population of bison at least partly on public land that is available for public hunting.
Mutual agreements at this point among the conference participants included:
1. The idea of ‘free-roaming’ bison is impractical and overly divisive and should be dropped from the discussion.
2. Any bison planning process must include a clear method for adjusting the plan along the way to ensure objectives are met.
3. Any test project or bison placement must include a containment plan that meet current state law and thus contains some fencing.
4. Any publicly owned bison being managed must be certified disease free with continuing monitoring to ensure good health.
5. Comingling of public bison with nearby private bison herds is to be avoided.
6. Public hunting should be recognized as a public good and as a legitimate primary management tool.
A public process for bison restoration was described by another work group.
The planning process needs a timeline that has a reasonable end point, they said, it can’t go on forever. Also, more involvement of sportsmen and tribal interests should be included. And finally, that ‘free roaming’ should be removed from the process and ‘containment’ should be included.
FWP Director Hagener, when summing up the meeting, said “important progress has been made. We will now have to take what we’ve learned here and go back and try to figure out how we should proceed.”