HELENA – Montana’s wildlife commission endorsed a plan Thursday to study whether bison should be relocated to parts of the state where they once roamed free, a move advocates called a first step to rectifying “a national disgrace.”
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission gave agency officials permission to find areas on state lands that could support at least 50 bison from Yellowstone National Park, and to conduct an environmental assessment on relocating the animals.
The bison are now in U.S. Department of Agriculture’s quarantine facility north of Yellowstone, where they have tested negative for brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant bison, cattle and elk to abort their fetuses.
The bison are genetically pure making them highly valued targets for conservation.
The FWP plans to identify sites where the bison could stay for a five-year quarantine period, while planning for the animals’ permanent relocation.
During the monitoring period, the bison would be held in an area surrounded by a wildlife fence that would contain the bison but allow other animals to pass through. The agency said Spotted Dog, Marias River and Beartooth wildlife management areas were among the possible sites it would explore.
The commission’s endorsement came as National Park Service officials prepare to release a test group of 25 bison from Yellowstone into the adjacent Gallatin National Forest for the rest of the winter. The release was tentatively scheduled for next week, after park officials tested the animals for brucellosis and fitted them with monitors.
Bison once roamed throughout the eastern two-thirds of Montana but were wiped out from the state in all areas except for Yellowstone National Park and the federally-run National Bison Range near Moiese, which is home to about 350 to 500 bison.
In Helena, dozens of people lined up to speak on the FWP proposal, many of them advocates who believe a relocate to manage bison on Montana public lands is long past due.
“The management of bison coming out of Yellowstone is a national disgrace. There’s absolutely no reason that those bison should not be allowed to migrate to the 12 million acres of Forest Service land surrounding Yellowstone National park,” said Stan Frasier, vice president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
Ranchers turned out in opposition, saying they feared the spread of disease to livestock and damage to their land and livelihoods, one of the top drivers of Montana’s economy.
“I’m up here defending a way of livelihood,” said Reece Price, a rancher near the Spotted Dog Widlife Management Area, “and I think that’s more important than some special interest group’s dream.”
Commissioners, in their unanimous vote Thursday, said there would more opportunity for public involvement in the coming months.
With at least six proposed bills dealing with bison in the Legislature, it’s also important the debate coincide with the ongoing session, said agency director Joe Maurier.
One measure, Senate Bill 144 sponsored by Republican Sen. John Brendan of Scobey, would prohibit the FWP from relocating bison anywhere except the National Bison Range. Brendan spoke to the commission, saying relocation would hurt not only ranchers and farmers, but hunters and fishermen who would be limited by the wildlife management area.
Brendan also questioned whether any wildlife fence could keep bison from escaping.
“You’d have to build up a Berlin wall to keep the buffalo in,” he said.
Several Native American tribal representatives spoke in support of relocation, but questioned FWP’s focus on state lands for relocation sites and not reservations. Fort Peck and Fort Belknap representatives said they are prepared to take the animals in, and they have a historical and cultural connection to the bison that would benefit their management.
Maurier said FWP had identified reservations as possible sites, but had to change its thinking because of a lawsuit challenging last year’s relocation of 86 Yellowstone bison to Ted Turner’s ranch.
Turner agreed to temporarily take the bison, the first group of animals from the same quarantine program, in exchange for 75 percent of the animals’ offspring. Opponents sued, saying the animals should be on public lands and not benefiting a private enterprise.
Maurier said he was concerned a similar complaint could be made if bison were relocated to tribal lands. If the lawsuit is dropped, tribal lands could be considered for relocation sites, he said.
Commissioner Ron Moody said he did not understand the connection between the lawsuit and the relocation to tribal lands. He said he was not likely to vote for any kind of bison relocation until the tribes tell him that they have been dealt with justly on the matter.
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