A final answer to where wild bison can roam won't surface until Montana develops a statewide conservation strategy for the mighty rangeland beasts. In the meantime, bison need a temporary home, and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks is discussing where to put them. They say that may be Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian Reservations in Montana.
Although the herd up for placement has tested negative multiple times for brucellosis, deciding on a place it will settle for the next few years is still contentious. Montana legislators still worry about possible transmission of brucellosis to cattle and ranchers worry about damage to agricultural fields should the bison escape their interim homes.
Last week, Fish, Wildlife and Parks released an environmental assessment evaluating a plan to move about 150 disease-free bison (originally from Yellowstone National Park, now being held in quarantine and on Ted Turner's ranch) to Fort Belknap and Fort Peck and to the Spotted Dog and Marias River state wildlife management areas. The measure comes pending a statewide conservation strategy to be developed by 2015 that would identify permanent locations for the brucellosis-free mammals.
“Wild bison should be an integral part of America’s future, not just a relic of our past,” said Jonathan Proctor, Defenders of Wildlife’s Rocky Mountain representative. High Country News editor Sarah Gilman first reported on recent efforts to expand where Yellowstone bison could roam in May. But even without threat of brucellosis, approving a management plan remains difficult. The assessment's proposal of where to put the animals drew the ire of Montana legislators, including Sen. Gene Vuckovich. Vuckovich said the management plan developed for the Spotted Dog wildlife management area did not include bison, arguing their introduction “would conflict with deer, elk and antelope goals identified in that (management) plan” and that bison should have also been included in the purchase agreement for the property.
Though no startup costs are associated with holding bison on tribal lands, wildlife management areas would require additional boundary fencing and gates. Cost estimates for the relocation and containment structures were revised this week from more than $2.3 million to less than $1 million.
The public comment period for the assessment will close on Oct. 19. Wildlife commissioners could vote on the issue Nov. 13.
The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would waive 36 environmental laws on patrolled borderlands, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act. and the Clean Air Act. It would allow the department to construct fences and roads, conduct vehicle patrols and set up monitoring equipment on those lands. Federal agents are currently restricted to where they can patrol by car on federally designated wilderness, such as dirt roads. They also have to request permission from public land managers to establish operations bases or set up surveillance.
But those in opposition say the measure gives a single agency overreaching authority. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester described the measure as a "federal land grab at its worst." Opponents fear additional access will damage both natural and cultural resources, though supporters say public safety and national security should supersede other principles.
Bishop expects a markup session of the bill sometime before the end of this year.
Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.