Why is Montana giving its bison specialist the boot?

The state blames budget cuts as it demotes a longtime wildlife biologist.

 

As Montana’s first threatened and endangered species coordinator, Arnie Dood oversaw recovery plans for some of the state’s most sensitive species including grizzly bears and gray wolves. Five years ago he took a new job leading the state through one of its toughest wildlife conservation struggles—settling on a statewide strategy for restoring bison in Montana.

But earlier this month, Dood learned he wouldn’t see the bison plan through to the end because Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is eliminating his position. His supervisor has taken over the bison planning process, and Dood has been offered another job, and likely a pay cut, managing brucellosis, a disease affecting bison, cattle and elk.

Dood, who has been with FWP since 1975, is a victim of budget cuts, according to FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim. “This isn’t about a change in plans on bison, or a suggestion that we’re less committed to doing what’s right,” Aasheim said.

BisonFWS
Montana's only free-ranging bison are in Yellowstone National Park. The state is working on a controversial plan to reintroduce a herd elsewhere. Image by Douglas Bowen.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Similar to many fish and game departments in the West, FWP’s budget has been in turmoil because revenue from hunter and angler-funded license fees are not keeping up with expenses. (Though, earlier this year the Montana legislature did provide some relief by approving license fee increases for FWP.) In 2013 the Montana legislature mandated a four percent personnel cut for executive branch agencies. As a result, FWP must eliminate the equivalent of about 20 full time positions; the agency is now finalizing where to make those cuts.

Yet some critics of the demotion are wondering whether it’s not just budget cuts, but politics at play. The news of Dood’s departure comes just before the release of a draft environmental impact statement for a controversial statewide bison plan. Currently, the only unfenced bison in Montana roam Yellowstone National Park. While Yellowstone bison are going through their own planning process, the goal of the statewide plan is to determine if bison, managed as wildlife, not livestock, can be restored elsewhere in Montana. (Yellowstone bison deemed disease-free could be used to start the new herd.)

The environmental impact statement is an opportunity for the public to comment on four options for reintroducing a herd, possibly to an area large enough to accommodate 500-1,000 bison. A fifth option would be to take no action on reintroducing bison. So far, the alternatives don't say much about specific locations, but tribal lands or the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge have been discussed.

For decades, Montana’s bison have been a lightening rod for controversy. Ranchers and their political allies worry that if Montana establishes a new bison herd, the animals could spread disease to livestock, destroy fences and compete with cattle for grass on public land. “I think the higher-ups were uncomfortable pushing the bison issue,” said Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, a Bozeman-based hunter’s conservation group. “They just got rid of their best guy,” he added. “How can they say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re serious (about restoring bison) but we’re going to get rid of our slugger’ ?”

In a recent display of political opposition to bison restoration, northeastern Montana state senator John Brenden sponsored a failed 2015 bill that would have required the state to consult with county commissioners before relocating the wooly ungulates to their counties. During the bill’s hearing, Brenden, who also chairs the state Senate Fish and Game Committee, threatened that landowners would protest bison restoration by pulling their property out of a popular FWP program that allows hunters access to private land.

“You push me and some of these other folks too far and we’re going to push back,” Brenden said during the February hearing.

Dood’s job transfer is “absolutely not” a response to political pressure from Brenden and others who do not want to see bison restoration in eastern Montana, Aasheim told HCN.

With the draft impact statement for the statewide bison plan containing a wide range of options, the future of  Montana's bison remains uncertain. But Stillwater County rancher Noel Keogh, who has known Dood since 1979, is sure of this: Even if the ranching community didn’t always like what Dood had to say about bison restoration, he was a straight shooter.

“I feel very strongly if you wanted anything successful to come out of this, you’d want someone who can stand up and tell the truth and talk to people, and that's one thing that Arnold could do,” Keogh said. “I think if there was anyone in the state that could settle this bison management issue it was Arnold Dood.”

FWP plans to publish its environmental impact statement for public comment in June.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News contributor based in Bozeman, Montana.